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The U.S. government has filed a motion asking the courts to dismiss a lawsuit to overturn a $4 backcountry overnight-user fee implemented in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in February.
Sponsored by Southern Forest Watch and filed in U.S. District Court on March 2, 2013, the lawsuit also seeks to stop an online backcountry reservation system.
The suit names outgoing park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the director of the National Park Service and the park’s deputy superintendent as defendants in the case.
The motion to dismiss, which was filed by the U.S. Attorney General’s office in Knoxville, Tenn., cites the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act of 2004 that authorizes the U.S. Department of the Interior to implement fees and use the revenue to improve the delivery of recreational amenities.
Officials have said that the park will use the funds to provide increased customer service for backcountry trip planning, reservations, permits and to enhance the backcountry experience.
In 2011, the fee’s proposal ignited a backlash from 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.
Southern Forest Watch has argued that there is no legal basis for charging a fee in the park and that the park implemented the fee without adequate public input.
John Quillen, of Knoxville,Tenn., established Southern Forest Watch in direct response to the fee proposal. He said that public comments have been “18 to 1” in opposition to the fee. Quillen’s organization has also garnered support from county governments in Tennessee and North Carolina, and the Tennessee House of Representatives issued a proclamation condemning the fee in April 2013.
The federal government’s request for dismissal argues that the lawsuit fails to name an actual harm caused by the backcountry fee and the backcountry permit system and that the plaintiffs have only identified inconveniences and policies in which they disagree.
The motion also argues that the superintendent of the park has the authority and discretion to require a reservation for all backcountry camping and to regulate the backcountry with certain rules.
Quillen and his supporters have been critical of park chief Dale Ditmanson’s handling of the decision to implement the fees. Ditmanson, who has served as the park’s superintendent since 2004, recently announced he would retire from the National Park Service effective at the end of the year.
“He has not worked with us in any way shape or form,” said Quillen, whose group met with Ditmanson and other park officials in May 2012.
“When we met, they refused to talk about the fee and were only willing to discuss its implementation,” he said. “Perhaps the park will bring someone in who is reasonable and incorporates stakeholder feedback, but I’m not expecting a white knight on a white horse.”
Dana Soehn, a park spokesperson, said officials are not permitted to comment on the lawsuit throughout the duration of the legal proceedings
Quillen’s group has 14 days to file a counter motion. He also said that his organization plans to file an appeal if their suit is dismissed.
Either way, he said, they are digging in.
“It’s been an education, but this could drag on for years,” he said.