(CN) - A small fee for backcountry camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park doesn't violate federal law, a federal judge ruled.
In 2012, the National Park Service approved a $4 per-person, per-night for backcountry campsites and shelters in the Tennessee-North Carolina national park.
Southern Forest Watch Inc. and a number of individuals sued the following year, claiming the fee violated the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act and the NPS Organic Act. The plaintiffs also argued that the decision to implement the fee was arbitrary and capricious.
NPS first began exploring the idea of a Smoky Mountains camping fee in 2011 after years of complaints about the camping reservation system, according to the ruling.
The park issued a press release about the fee proposal and new reservation system in July 2011, which solicited public input. About 70 people attending two open houses and Great Smoky Mountains National Park staff received more than 200 written responses, most of which were negative, the ruling states.
A park proposal said that the $4 fee would help pay for the online and phone reservation system, trip planning help and permit compliance monitoring. NPS approval the proposal and announced that it would take effect in 2013.
Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Phillips ruled in the national park's favor Monday, holding that federal law prohibiting an entry fee to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park does not apply to the camping fee.
"Based on the clear language of the statute, the court concludes that the FLREA specifically grants the NPS permission to charge an expanded amenity recreation, or the [backcountry camping fee], when it is determined that the visitor uses a specific service," Phillips wrote.
The judge also ruled that a Land and Water Conservation Fun Act regulation does not apply to the camping fee and the $4 fee does not impair the public's enjoyment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
"Based on the record, it appears to the court that the NPS did adequately consider comparable fees charged at other national parks...as well as the preference expressed in the public comments," Phillips wrote. "The decision to adopt the $4 per-person, per night [backcountry camping fee] was neither arbitrary, capricious, nor an unlawful 'impairment' of the public's enjoyment of the park." The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is made up of about 500,000 acres of land in North Carolina and Tennessee and has about 100 backcountry campsites and shelters, according to the ruling.
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