The Knoxville, Tenn.-based Southern Forest Watch has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to overturn the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s overnight backcountry user fee, which went into effect on Feb. 13.
Filed on March 2 in Knoxville, the suit alleges that the park’s backcountry fee is unlawful. The $4 per-night, per-person fee will impact roughly 30,000 backcountry users who collectively spend an estimated 75,000 nights in backcountry sites every year, according to Dale Ditmanson, the park’s superintendent.
Ditmanson, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the director of the National Park Service and the park’s acting deputy superintendent are all named as defendants in the case. See the entire complaint below.
Park officials said in an email that they have no comment on the suit, and will not offer a comment throughout the legal process. No hearing date has been set.
Suit plaintiff and Southern Forest Watch founder John Quillen issued a statement on the case. “As a result of over one-and-a-half years of failed attempts to negotiate with the superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and directors of the National Park Service over the backcountry fee, which was rejected by public sentiment, improperly vetted and imposed upon citizens without their consent, we hereby make good on our promise to file suit in federal court challenging the legality of this user tax,” he said.
The fee’s proposal in 2011 ignited a backlash from Quillen and other residents of eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina whose opposition may be influenced by decades of past politics, economics and history that altered land-use practices and access to Southern Appalachian forests. Read a two-part series on the issue from Carolina Public Press here: “New Smokies fee prompts modern echo of historic culture clash” and “Smokies enacts $4 fee amid tangle of politics, history, criticism.”
The opposition has also garnered the attention of some local governments. More than a week before the lawsuit was filed, the county commissioners in Blount County, Tenn., voted 11 to 9, with one abstaining, to support a resolution denouncing the fee. A portion of the park’s northwest boundary runs through Blount County and includes Cades Cove, which is one of the park’s most popular destinations.
Blount County Commissioner Tab Burkhalter Jr., who introduced the resolution, said that the county wants to be more involved in park decisions.
“We have constituents that helped donate land to that park. We have constituents whose families are still buried in the park,” Burkhalter said at the Feb. 21 meeting, which was recorded and broadcast online. “That’s where I say … that the fee was not proper. Because I don’t feel that public/local government was properly represented.”
But Ditmanson, who also spoke at the meeting, defended the fee, saying that the reservation system it funded would improve customer service to backcountry users. He also expressed his surprise that the commission was considering a resolution in light of the strong relationship the park has with the county.
“I had no idea this was a topic of discussion for this board,” Ditmanson said. “I was taken aback by the timing of the document and some of the information being presented. We began the civic engagement process almost two years ago. We conducted public meetings, solicited comments on-line and provided updates on the park’s website.”
For some, that wasn’t enough.
“For 78 years, the Smokies backcountry has been free for citizens to use,” Blount County resident Adam Beale said at the meeting. “To me, it’s a terrible shame the park officials couldn’t keep that legacy intact.”
And some signals indicate that opposition in Western North Carolina could be growing.
In 2010, the Swain County Board of Commissioners sent a letter to the park urging it to abandon its pursuit of the fee. According to Quillen, the body is now considering resolution similar to the one passed in Blount County.