Court Documents Allege Private Trails Cut Into Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Sometime in recent years two trails running more than a mile-and-a-half were cut into the backcountry of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, allegedly for the use of a private resort that borders the park, according to court documents.
When contacted by the Traveler, park officials declined to discuss the trails, or even acknowledge their existence, as their presence has been raised in litigation. However, the "Boundary Trail" and "Blair Gap Trail" depicted on a trail map purportedly handed out by the Blackberry Farm Resort do not match any trails on the park's official trail map. Together they run along the park's western boundary roughly from the Beard Cane Trail to the Cane Creek Trail. Officials at the resort, where rooms start at $745 a night, had no immediate comment when asked about the trails this week.
The existence of the trails surfaced in connection with a lawsuit brought against the Park Service by Southern Forest Watch, a nonprofit group organized to overturn the park's $4 per night fee charged on backcountry travelers. Though not central to the fight over the backcountry reservation system, the group pointed to the "illegal trail system" as part of a pattern of "political patronage" that former park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson oversaw. Mr. Ditmanson, who instituted the backcountry fee system in 2013, retired from the Park Service earlier this year.
By allowing the Blackberry Farm Resort to maintain these trails for the use of their customers and residents, Great Smoky Mountains officials were limiting the general public's access to the park's backcountry and allowing it to be impaired, charges Southern Forest Watch's lawsuit.
The Park Service, in court documents responding to Southern Forest Watch's complaint, denied allowing a "private resort to maintain and utilize their own separate, exclusive network of trails into, on and within the boundaries" of the park. However the agency did admit that there was a signpost with a map box located outside the park boundary and that "any signs that were erected within Park boundaries by Blackberry Farm Resort were erected without permission from NPS and have since been removed."
The trail map showing the Boundary and Blair Gap trails came from the map box on the signpost, according to Southern Forest Watch's lawyer.
The trail signs and maps were found by John Quillen, a member of Southern Forest Watch. A park volunteer who regularly hikes the Cane Creek Trail to help maintain it, Mr. Quillen discovered the Boundary Trail in 2009 when he came upon a trail of trees that had been chainsawed down. He and some friends also heard a chainsaw at work, and encountered riders on two all-terrain vehicles who allegedly claimed they had come from Blackberry Farm. Photos of a trail sign, the ATV, and downed trees are part of Southern Forest Watch's court filing.
No court date for the matter has been set.