It might not cost you extra to venture off into the backcountry of Great Smoky Mountains National Park for an overnighter next year. That's because the park's intentions to levy a $4 per person per night charge is going to face a legal challenge.
The fee is intended by park officials to help streamline and improve the backcountry permitting process and heighten the presence of rangers in the backcountry. Pinched by an inadequate budget and unable to charge an entrance fee for any of his roughly 9 million yearly visitors, Great Smoky Superintendent Dale Ditmanson sees no way of improving visitor services and protecting backcountry resources without charging users who spend the night in the woods.
“I’ve certainly been quoted as saying that I don’t have the same tools in my toolbox that the superintendents of Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon have. Especially when the (fee) legislation authorizes 80 percent of that money to stay within the park," the superintendent told the Traveler back in February, referring to other parks that are able to charge entrance fees and keep most of the money. "We could do some really great things at the Smokies, but I just don’t have that tool at this time.”
But a contingent of Great Smoky's backcountry users, organized as Southern Forest Watch, maintains park officials overlooked the vast opposition to the fee proposal that was voiced during the public comment period. Now they are turning to attorneys to continue their battle. In a letter sent last week to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, and Superintendent Ditmanson, attorney J. Myers Morton maintains the fee is "a tax on us without our consent...a tax on us in violation of the law...a tax on us based on deceit."
In the letter, which notified the federal officials that a lawsuit will be forthcoming, Mr. Myers maintains that the Park Service lacks the authority to impose the backcountry fee. He also highlights a section of Great Smokys' enabling legislation that states, “The Secretary shall not charge an entrance fee or standard amenity recreation fee for the following:
“...(E) Entrance on other routes into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or any part thereof unless fees are charged for entrance into that park on main highways and thoroughfares...”
The letter goes beyond the issue of backcountry fees, charging that the park's administration illegally conveyed a 20-acre parcel of parkland to a former Tennessee governor, has been allowing ATVs from a nearby resort to illegally use a park hiking trail, and gives preference to backcountry trips run by corporations, such as REI.
The letter also notes that under discovery the plaintiffs expect to "uncover agreements and conveyances" pertaining to the property swap, and says that a new survey would show whether the ATVs were on trails inside the national park.
"Interestingly enough, our Declaration of Independence has a section describing various forms of tyranny of the English crown over the colonies. There are over 26 different examples of tyranny listed. One is '...For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent...,'" Mr. Morton wrote. "Your tyrannical action is being conducted in derogation of the values and purposes for which the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been established."