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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.
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.”
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.”
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.”