Great Smoky Mountains National Park's Backcountry Fee Draws Lawsuit

What authority does the National Park Service have to charge access fees in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and, presumably, other national parks? That question is the focus of a lawsuit filed in a bid to overturn the Smokies' move to charge backcountry users.

The 31-page lawsuit, filed Saturday in federal court in Tennessee, not only contends the fee isn't merited, but draws on both Park Service history and mandates to contend the agency is precluded from charging the $4 per person per night fee.

Park officials, who are prohibited from charging a general entrance fee to the park by the state of Tennessee, implemented the backcountry fee last month. They have said it was necessary both to improve the backcountry reservations system in the park and to provide for backcountry patrols by two rangers.

In challenging that fee, which the plaintiffs contend was designed "with the end goal to control and limit use of the backcountry areas of the Smoky Mountains," the lawsuit points to a section of the National Park Service Organic Act that states "no natural curiosities, wonders, or objects of interest shall be leased, rented, or granted to anyone on such terms as to interfere with free access to them by the public.." (emphasis added.)

Furthermore, the lawsuit notes that the backcountry of the park is undeveloped and that the backcountry campsites now requiring paid reservations "have no amenities or conveniences whatsoever other than fire rings and a system of pulleys and cables to hang backpacks out of the reach of bears."

While park officials said a permit system was needed to ease overcrowding, deal with trash, and improve the reservations system, those who brought the lawsuit maintain crowding is not an issue. "Defendant's own statistics proved that with the noteworthy exception of shelters along the Appalachian Trail and a mere handful of other undeveloped, backcountry sites, that assertion is false."

"After eight decades, a backpacker is no longer free and able to merely show up at a trailhead, fill out a form, put the completed form in a box and start backpacking in the Smoky Mountains," the lawsuit said. "The new reservation system and backpacker tax is the epitome of impairment of the use and enjoyment of the Smoky Mountains."

Brought by Southern Forest Watch, a non-profit created to challenge the fee system, the lawsuit seeks a court order to overturn the system and prohibit the park from implementing another one.

Comments

I imagine this lawsuit will definitely have implications for the entire National Park system. It is sad that the park Supt ignored the wishes of local stakeholders and proceeded full steam ahead. If the NPS would revoke his authorization to charge the fee it would go a long way towards rebuilding credibility in the area. This money goes to fund a reservation system and nothing else, according to internal memos.

Unfortunate. What is truly needed is a nominal entrance fee to GSMNP similar to Acadia and other parks.

I would say that what is needed is a Superintendent that is honest and respected. This scandal has tarnished the NPS in the most visited park in the system. This fee would only raise about $200,000 per year. They've already lost that in credibility.

NPT does a very good job characterizing the alleged misdoings by the park service that led to this lawsuit. One additional factor which I believe may be key in deciding the issue is that related to how the NPS handled the required solicitation and consideration of public comments during the "Notice of Proposed Rule Change" process. Facts clearly show the NPS failed to fairly record and consider public comments during the decision-making process.

I agree with SmokiesBackpacker that these actions should require recall/reassignment of the park superintendent for these misdeeds.

What the Smokies have, besides a largely uncrowded backcountry and a public relations nightmare, is a surrounding population with tremendous passion for the Park.

I can find no publishing partner which donated more in 2011 (the most recent records available) to support its Park than the Great Smoky Mountains Association ($4.7 million). Similarly, Friends of the Smokies is one of the most successful "friends" groups nationwide, providing more than $2 million annually to the Park.

It was through Friends of the Smokies and volunteer labor that bear cables were installed at all of the Park's backcountry campsites. The Richard Haiman Foundation provided the funding, and Smoky Mountain Hiking Club volunteers the labor, to remodel all 15 of the shelters in the Park (and convert another into a tent campsite). The 70 miles of Appalachian Trail through the Park are maintained by the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). Additionally, Friends and the ATC have supported the Ridgerunner Program.

Then there are the Smokies’ “official” volunteers – 3,019 of them according to the Park who last year donated 161,913 hours. That, too, is among the largest groups donating the most time anywhere in the nation. Many of those folks are dedicated stewards of the backcountry: Adopt-A-Trail and Adopt-A-Campsite volunteers, staff for the backcountry reservation office, and horseback riders clearing blowdowns in early spring.

There are still others who volunteer in unofficial capacities, cleaning campsites, cemeteries and more. It is an incredible wealth of what is commonly referred to today as human capital.

Consider, too, that for 2010 Great Smoky Mountains National Park received $64 million in federal stimulus funds, compared to $4.5 million for Yosemite, $6.3 million for Denali, and $10.8 million for Grand Canyon. Where was the trumped up backcountry crisis with $64 million in hand? There was no mention then of any of the problems – since refuted by the Park’s own figures – that were cited a year later as justification for taxing one of the Park’s smallest and most devoted user groups.

The resentment runs high, because the Park’s Administration has invested next to nothing in the backcountry – the least costly aspect of the Park. The only hint at the backcountry when stimulus dollars dropped from the sky was a stated intention to repair 32 miles of horse-damaged trails.

To single out backpackers is, of course, nonsense. Far more day hikers use the trails, and a single, day-use horseback rider can inflict more damage than 30 backpackers.

Despite the tremendous support groups and volunteers standing ready – even offering – to do still more to maintain the Great Smokies as the perfectly democratic park it had always been, the Superintendent pushed dismissively ahead, determined, apparently, to implement the fee system – even if only to fund its own administration. His justifying half-truths, distortions, and flat out lies were generally regurgitated by most local media – and continue to be.

Despite that, 95% of public comments (which were buried and lied about until a Freedom of Information Act request revealed the truth) were in opposition to the Superintendent’s new system. And, it should be noted, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy weighed in against the fee system as well.

Now local government in the Smoky Mountain region has taken a stand, too, with the Blount County (TN) Commission’s vote condemning the fees and demanding their immediate repeal. The lawsuit is the unfortunate next step, but it’s not unprecedented.

People of this region have banded together before to thwart the misguided policies of the National Park Service. In the 70’s the Park Administration and its equally deskbound superiors in Washington D.C. contrived a plan, despite public outcry, to ruin an isolated and narrow valley known as Cataloochee with a 600-site campground, 400-site picnic area, 2,000-seat amphitheater and 13.5 mile loop road. The good citizens of Haywood County (NC) formed the Committee to Save Cataloochee Valley and sued the National Park Service. Thankfully, they eventually prevailed.

The disregard and condescension we see today has deep roots. Ernie Dickerman, a Smoky Mountain Hiking Club member and true legend in the American wilderness movement, wrote the following in a reminiscing letter to Michael Frome (longtime writer of conservation pieces and author of Strangers In High Places) regarding his drawn out battles with the Park Service, in particular in the Smokies:

Frankly, the Park Service, except perhaps during its earliest years, has commonly been out of touch with the owners of the national parks in its basic policies and practices. The Park Service, instead of working closely with the citizens knowledgeable about national parks and devoted to protecting their extraordinary natural values, has considered them as antagonists.”

That is still the attitude today, but has been compounded by Park Administration lies. (For a detailed look at these fabrications visit http://www.southernforestwatch.org/ and click on “Follow the deception”) That dishonesty reveals the true level of appreciation this Park Superintendent has for those who voiced their assessments and opinions, for those who offered alternatives, for those who have essentially maintained the backcountry through donations of money and sweat equity while his office has treated it, at best, as an afterthought. Such dishonesty and disregard would get most any private sector administrator kicked out on his or her can.

What vision or appreciation does a person have if rather than celebrating and fully incorporating the abundant and unique assets made available to him, he instead bemoans what he perceives as a disadvantaged position? To that point, the following excerpt is from an earlier National Parks Traveler piece quoting Park Superintendent, Dale Ditmanson:

“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," says the superintendent in reference to those 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.”

That last line – for everyone who lives near, or loves from afar, the Great Smokies and their unique heritage – should be a clue as to what this Park Superintendent’s aspirations are and the underlying reason for this initial charge on backpackers. As for me, I’ll take the tool of so-called human capital – especially of the passionate and resourceful variety – any day.

I find it odd that the superintendent is pushing this fee increase when the new Secreatary of Interior is talking about making public lands more accessible and relevant to the public at large. In addition, he seems to be out of touch with the spirit (if not the letter) of the smokies enabling legislation and the local populace (that donated the land) that access to the park was to remain free. I can certainly understand how the local populace feels like it has been betrayed by the NPS. No matter how the NPS tortures interpretation of the law to authorize an entrance fee to smokies backcountry, the locals will never forget this betrayal. While the superintendent may not have the entrance fee tool in his toolbox, he has had a much more important tool and that is overwhelming local support through volunteerism and donations. Why he would want to jeopardize this support is a mystery.