FLAG POND, Tenn. (WJHL) – It may be a bit of an apocryphal tale, but Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander likes to tell it anyway to exemplify his longtime love of the outdoors.
“Every weekend seemed like we were going up in the mountains,” the retiring lawmaker said during an interview at Rocky Fork State Park Monday. “I remember one December my dad dropped me off in Clingmans Dome or Newfound Gap, there was three feet of snow on the ground, and he said ‘I’ll see ya in Gatlinburg at 5 o’clock if you get there. I made it with a couple other boys.”
It’s an 18-mile trek, albeit downhill, from Newfound Gap to Gatlinburg, but then again, Alexander did walk across the entire state in his first of two successful runs for governor in 1978. He wore a similar red and black flannel jacket Monday to the one made famous in his statewide campaign.
And in an interview that touched on everything from the country’s highly partisan atmosphere to race relations and his legislative accomplishments to America’s future as a global leader, Alexander gave special consideration to his love of the outdoors.
He’s leaving on a high note when it comes to that after August’s signing of the Great American Outdoors Act. The bill makes permanent the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which provided three quarters of the $40 million it cost to purchase Rocky Fork’s 10,000 acres.
It also devotes significant funding to address a major backlog of projects at America’s national parks and other sites within the federal park system. Alexander cited it as one of the more impactful pieces of bipartisan legislation he’s helped shepherd through Congress (he was one of 15 Republicans joining 42 Democrats as co-sponsors).
“I just grew up loving the outdoors and wanted to make it something future generations could enjoy as much as I have,” Alexander said.
“I think all of us have parts of this country that we want to make enjoyable for people to go to, and when you go to a park and you find the sewer system doesn’t work or the visitors center’s all messed up or the trail is a mess or the road’s got a pothole in it, that just ruins the experience for you.”
Alexander said it would have been easy for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to let the effort slide during a year that included an impeachment, battling a pandemic and a presidential election. “You couldn’t imagine a more contentious year,” he said.
“I went to McConnell and said, ‘Will you give us two weeks on the senate floor to try to pass this?’ I actually said ‘will you do it as a going away present for me?’ And he did and so right in the middle – and it wasn’t just me it was sort of a parade of Democrat and Republican senators, the president was very important to this, he agreed to do it. No president beforehand had allowed us to spend money in this way.”
In addition to helping parks like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near his Blount County home, Alexander — who turned 80 this summer — hopes the new law can spur economic development in places like Unicoi County. The county reported one of Tennessee’s 10 highest unemployment rates in October.
He acknowledged places like Unicoi County and many others have experienced economic stagnation even as growth has accelerated in cities and on the coasts.
“There is difficulty and in a country as wealthy as ours – I mean this is a country that produces 20 percent of the money in the world for about 4 percent of the people in the world – we need to keep looking for ways to allow that to be distributed more widely.”
“The Rocky Fork Park eventually will bring in more tourists to spend their dollars and leave their money here just like they do in Sevier County and Blount County where I live.
“So I think we have to keep looking for ways to give people more opportunity to make a living and make money. I don’t think you do it through socialism though, I think you do it through giving people ways to move up the ladder.”
After eight years as a governor, four as a federal education secretary (under the first George Bush) and 18 as a senator, Alexander said he’s ready to head back to Blount County with a new agenda — or perhaps a lack of one.
“I heard an announcer saying about a basketball player that if he quit trying so hard and let the game come to him he’d be a lot better player. Maybe that’s what I’ll do. Instead of trying so hard I’ll just let life come to me and enjoy it. It’s a big life, really politics ought to be a very small part of it, and I’m going to try to enjoy it.”
A final story summarizing Alexander’s interview will be posted at wjhl.com early next week.