Great Smoky Mountains National Park fee’s critics say legal challenge likely

The first of a two-part series. Read the second part, Smokies enacts $4 fee amid tangle of politics, history, criticism.

Elk, such as this one pictured in 2008 in Cataloochee, are the iconic residents of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Angie Newsome/Carolina Public Press
Elk, such as this one pictured in 2008 in Cataloochee Valley near Palmer Chapel, are the current iconic residents of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A new fee, which goes into effect today, has resurfaced questions about access to the national park. Angie Newsome/Carolina Public Press

While working on her dissertation at UNC-Chapel Hill, environmental historian Kathryn Newfont conducted a series of interviews in the late 1990s with female environmentalists from Western North Carolina for the Southern oral history program. One of the interviewees, in particular, stood out. She was Esther Cunningham, a Sunday school teacher and retired beautician from Carson, a small community in rural Macon County.

In 1980, Cunningham pioneered a successful defense of public land from gas and oil exploration interests in the Nantahala National Forest. Her grassroots effort ultimately led to the creation of the Asheville-based Western North Carolina Alliance, now considered to be one of the most effective conservation organizations in the Southern Appalachians. While the late Cunningham was an unwavering defender of forests, Newfont, who is now an associate professor of history and faculty chair of the Ramsey Center for Regional Studies at Mars Hill College, sensed something different about her approach to land protection.

After all, Cunningham didn’t fit the lifestyle or image of an environmentalist; she was more grandmother than tree hugger.

“It took me a long time to understand her view of protecting forests,” Newfont said. “Once I understood her perspective, it had a lot of explanatory power of public land politics in the Blue Ridge.”

Her approach, Newfont said, was less rooted in the mainstream aim of protecting wilderness for recreation, solitude or philosophy. Rather, Cunningham’s was a more matter-of-fact outlook steeped in decades – even centuries – of rural Appalachian tradition, economics, and culture that’s as basic to the rural way of life in the Blue Ridge as canning tomatoes.

It’s what Newfont calls “commons environmentalism” – a conservation platform based on a multiuse commons ethic. And according to Newfont, grasping Cunningham’s approach to land and resource protection may shed light on how long-time residents of the southern mountains view the management of public land, forests and undeveloped spaces.

That viewpoint is one that’s surfacing again in a current disagreement among some backcountry users of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and its management. Beginning today, the park will begin charging a $4 per-person, per-day fee for backpackers. It will also expand its reservation system. According to a press release on the changes, “The fee will be used to provide increased customer service for backcountry trip planning, reservations, permits and the backcountry experience.”

A postcard issued around 1940 captured President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaking at the dedication of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The postcard is now housed in the North Carolina Postcard Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill. Click to view full-size image.
A postcard issued around 1940 captured President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaking at the dedication of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The postcard is now housed in the North Carolina Postcard Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill. Click to view full-size image.

Encompassing more than 520,000 acres located in portions of eastern Tennessee and in Haywood and Swain counties in North Carolina, the park is one of the only major national parks that does not charge an entrance fee. However, in 2011, the park proposed a measure to begin collecting a backcountry permit fee and implementing a reservation system for shelters and backcountry campsites. By revamping the current backcountry reservation system and adding a fee, park managers have said they hope to protect backcountry natural resources and improve visitor services, public education and safety.

But the proposal, which was opened to public comment, met with a concentrated and fierce backlash. And now, some say, the fee’s future may be argued to court.

“When people of the Southern Appalachians see a threat to (access the forest),” Newfont said, “be prepared for a fight.”

Fee strikes a nerve

Yet the fee is only $4, and many of the sites in the backcountry already require reservations. So why the backlash?

“This is not about a $4 fee,” said John Quillen, of Knoxville, Tenn., and frequent backcountry user in the park. Quillen established Southern Forest Watch – an organization created in direct response to the fee proposal. “The park is a church to me. It’s my sanctuary. The thought of being charged a fee is like someone beating my children.”

According to Quillen, the organization intends to file a lawsuit after the fee system is in effect. Quillen said they see the implementation of the backcountry fee exceeding the park’s constitutional right, and they believe the fee is unlawful.

“We will have to first pay the fee before we can file the suit, according to our attorney,” Quillen said this week. “We are full steam ahead and ready to challenge the National Park Service in the court of law, as we have already beaten them solidly in the court of public opinion.”

Park representatives said they had no comment on the pending lawsuit since it had not been filed as of Monday. But the courts are not the only spot the fee could and is being debated.

On Aug. 14, 2010, the Swain County Board of Commissioners sent a letter to the park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson opposing the fee. And Southern Forest Watch has also taken their case to Tennessee county and state lawmakers. Tuesday, the Blount County Commission was slated to consider a resolution for a vote condemning and asking for a repeal of the fee. Quillen also said they have the support of some members of the Tennessee legislature.

Indeed, the fee proposal has smacked a nerve by conjuring up the fury tied to decades-old history of how the park and other public land units in the Southern Appalachians were created in the first place. On Sept. 4, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the country at the dedication of the park, which is said to be one of — if not the — most visiting national park in the country. In all, Western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee combined have more than 800,000 acres of national park and more than 1 million acres of national forest.

“Many people lost their livelihoods when the park was created in the teeth of the (Great) Depression,” said Newfont, who published a book on the topic earlier this year, “Blue Ridge Commons: Environmental Activism and Forest History in North Carolina.” “Against that backdrop, the sense of resentment and skittishness of new initiatives is understandable.”

Visitors may go into the Caldwell House, which remains standing in Cataloochee Valley. Image courtesy of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Visitors may go into the Caldwell House, which remains standing in Cataloochee Valley. Image courtesy of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

At the turn of the 20th century, forests in the Southern Appalachians were being liquidated at a galloping pace. The nation’s roaring industrial production that demanded a colossal stockpile of lumber fueled the boom. The need for southern wood was driven by the fact that forests in the midwest and northeast had been logged bare. The backwash of the timber boom in the Southern Appalachians deforested the landscape and altered its ecology; the removal of virgin forest created a cycle of erosion, fire and flood.

It also transformed the traditional economy. According to Newfont, Native Americans and generations of European settlers in the Southern Appalachians had a commons relationship with the forest. Newfont said that throughout human history in the Blue Ridge, there has always existed a set of rules and informal institutions that have managed the forests as shared grounds for fishing, hunting, gathering and grazing.

“The key thing to me is the idea of the southern forests as a ‘commons,’” said Newfont, who explained that a commons is a resource that is essentially open to all – unlike a private resource that may prevent access.

In some cases, large-scale logging put an end to shared use of the land by preventing traditional practices, such as gathering nuts from mature trees. And, in other cases, conventional private property rules and enforcement overruled tradition and restricted access. The brutal deforestation of the region at the turn of the 20th century, however, drew a response from the government and conservationists alike.

The Weeks Act, federal legislation signed into law by President Howard Taft in 1911, gave the United States government the ability to purchase private land from willing sellers in order to protect the headwaters of rivers and watersheds in the eastern U.S. Between 1911 and 1918 in the Southern Appalachians, the federal government acquired 1.25 million acres of land. Newfont argued that the creation of the national forests in the region “is one of the nation’s great conservation stories.”

Yet, the narrative is different in the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Shenandoah National Park and many Tennessee Valley Authority projects in which more aggressive land acquisition tactics were used. In the nation’s west, the federal government typically already owned the land it was protecting. The problem with conserving land and providing it to the public east of the Mississippi was that it was in private hands.

“In the east, the question was how do you reacquire it,” Newfont said. “You can draw a line around the land you want and purchase it from willing sellers. Or you can draw a circle on a map and condemn it and say this is the park.”

According to the National Park Service, more than 1,200 landowners were removed once the Smokies national park was established.

“One of my (Mars Hill College) students did his senior thesis on his family’s roots in the park. One family member he interviewed still remembers the family place,” Newfont said. “The removal is a living memory.”

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Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at

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  1. I wonder how many folks would jump on the band wagon if or when hearing of a politician’s or a candidate’s plan to improve the neighborhood and society…and would do so without questioning their means or objective. Back just a bit prior to WWII there was just such an individual who used such tactics and seemed to draw and immediate following of ignorant and yet dedicate followers.

    I have noticed that those who tend to find these fees acceptable or even desirable, seem to lack even the most basic understanding of the fees or of the process undertaken to implement them. I read or hear time and again about how many different improvements will be made to the trails, shelters, and park overall…YET…the simple truth is that these fees will fund nothing more than the reservation system for which no real need can be established. The old system worked fine for the most part and could have worked far better except that volunteers who offered to assist with reservations appear to have been denied or rejected. In other words once the NPS, “powers that be” decided they wanted this fee, they determined to stack the deck a bit by seemingly allowing the system that was, to falter so as to reveal or aka produce information to support the “need” for change and fees.

    Why are so many people so confused and why do they believe thje fees will do anything other than support the cost of the reservations system and contractor’s fees for running it? Perhaps it’s because of the various claims made along the path to the development and implementation of these fees by the “Park Service”? They claimed it would improve the “Backcountry”, fund added staff (later revealed to already be, being funded by “Friends of the Smokies”), etc…in fact they seemed to either say or imply that these fees would be the best thing for the park since “sliced bread”. However, due to the diligence of the folks at “Southern Forest Watch”, the truth surrounding these fees, their use, and the process of their adoption along with all of the various deception and in some cases the lies used to support the fee’s creation.

    In closing I would challenge those who tend to think in favor or to lean toward the fees, to please read the facts obtained by FOIA requests. The documents are various memos by and among the folks at NPS and reveal some undeniable lies and deceptions such as the claim for overwhelming support of the fees during the “public comment” phase of the process. By the way, comments were 18 to 1 against the fees…yet Mr. Ditmanson claimed just the opposite either his perception is flawed or his integrity must be questioned…neither one a trait to be desired for one in such a influential position.

  2. Gee, another fee by the government and it going to help us too! That sounds just too good to be true. A lot of local people go into the park almost every day. Are our friends, the government going to charge them for what they have been doing since they were old enough to walk? What their family have been doing for generations? What their ancestors did before it was taken away and made into a National Park? That does sound like something they would do, doesn’t it. There is no great love for the government in the hills and who could blame us, we’ve been screwed nine ways from Sunday. Lets name a few. Well there was the trail of tears where the Cherokee were taken to a better place to live, took all of their land and the ones who had to hide to stay behind eventually had to have a white man buy back some land so they could have a home. Then lets look at the park itself, moved all of the poor locals out of their homes but strangely managed to leave the wealthy with their summer homes over near Gatlinburg, I guess they needed their second homes more than the locals needed a place to lay their heads. Lets not forget Fontana and how all those people were relocated when the Feds decided they needed more power for the A bomb. And the Parkway, surely you didn’t think it was unused land they put it on. I suppose that looking at it from the outside makes it seem OK to charge a new fee but to me it is just the government screwing us one more time.

  3. Excellent article. They used a bait and switch on the fees. At first they said it was for rangers but the internal memos suggest otherwise. The public comments regarding the fee were 18 to 1 in opposition. Not that it matters to the NPS. It isn’t about what the public wants. This proposal was based on lies from the Superintendent from the get go and has unraveled on them at every turn. We backcountry volunteers are the best citizens of the park. 1200 people were displaced. How do you think Kephart and John Muir would feel about having to pay to sleep on the ground because some bureaucrat wants to institute a reservation system for the empty backcountry? It violates the spirit of the smokies and the upcoming lawsuit will shed much light on the situation including all the backdoor dealings driving it including the concessionaires who stand to gain financially as a result. Shame, shame shame on the superintendent.

  4. Perhaps Mr. Quillen should think of the new fee as tithing and move on. The Park needs support to fulfill its mission, not distracting lawsuits.

    1. Ralph.
      That is the point. This backpacker tax violates the National Park Service’s charter to provide for the unimpaired enjoyment of the national park.

      1. I respectfully disagree with your interpretation. The use of the term “unimpaired” in the NPS mission statement refers to the perservation of the natural and cultural resources.

        “On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill that mandated the agency “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

  5. For over a decade my wife and I owned a home in Gatlinburg TN. During that time we walked every trail on the north side of the park and most trails on the south side. We walked the AT a number of times. In fact, we still have over a dozen shirts bought at the top of Mount LeConte. We also spent countless hours as volunteers at the Sugarlands Headquarters and on the trails doing maintenance. We participated in the annual “Trails Days” where we would work with other volunteers to maintain the back trails. We donated to the Friends of the Smokies. If we had to pay $4 every time we ventured into the back country, we would have less incentive to participate in the volunteer events. I agree that some people abuse the trails but I am sure there are many who, like my wife and I, picked up other people’s trash and packed it out for proper disposal. This is a typical bureaucratic solution. Punish those who treat the park with respect along with those who don’t. Without volunteers the situation will only get worse.

  6. This article is definitely a controversal one. Our family visited the park in August 2012 and what we observed was quite disturbing. The Caldwell House’s front porch was littered with over a dozen human spectators sharing their picnic with the elk; actually throwing their food from the porch into the grass for a doe to consume. How damaging to an animal’s instinct can this be? Other visitors were observed walking as close to this situation (from road direction) to get their picture taken as a small reward for invading the animal’s space. People were also observed removing river rock from the banks of the stream to take home as a souvenier. If we are to keep this park for many generations to observe and enjoy, should we not keep our distance from these great animals and leave as little impression on their habitat as possible? Remember, these animals were relocated and brought her to prosper. The fee, in my humble opinion, if used to help the animals maintain, mature and prosper in this enviroment, would be a small price to keep these great animals and their habitat secure for my grandchildren and their children to see. As an added note, the wildlife officers we observed were having a great deal of difficulty keeping the humans from endangering the said animals and habitat, the park’s intention, I believe. Thank you to all who have made this adventure possible and all who wish to keep it in its natural state. (frequent park attendee and native North Carolianian)

    1. Beth.

      This fee will only cover the cost of the reservation system. Period. These ruling elite have admitted that now.

      (To make matters worse, the old reservation system worked perfectly.)