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.