Smoke but no Fire in Campground Fee Spat

     CINCINNATI (CN) – A spirited argument against a $4 fee for campers in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park seemed unlikely to sway a Sixth Circuit on Thursday.
     Representing Southern Forest Watch and three individuals, attorney Myers Morton told a three-judge panel the U.S. Department of the Interior “lied, cheated and stole” to enact an “improved-amenity fee” on undeveloped campsites in the park.
     The fee, which took effect in 2013, charges $4 per person, per day to camp in the park, which straddles the borders of Tennessee and North Carolina.
     Noting that the National Park Service failed to contact county commissioners before imposing the fee, Morton said the agency “knew good and well there were objections.”
     Judge Helene White voiced skepticism, saying that “only one group made a contemporaneous objection.”
     When White said the other objections had occurred after the fee was imposed, Morton began questioning the government’s attempts at contacting local officials.
     “We don’t know what the Park Service would have done if they had contacted the County Commissioners,” Morton said.
     Robert Stockman, attorney for the Department of the Interior, rejected his opponent’s argument and cited evidence from the record that local officials – for the most part – had been contacted about the fee.
     While he admitted that the Forest Service “got one negative response,” he cited the agency’s “aggressive public outreach” regarding the fee as proof that it “undoubtedly met its statutory obligation” to include the public in its decision.
     Judge Deborah Cook questioned Stockman about the government’s decision to impose the fee, and whether it was necessary to improve the park.
     Stockman replied: “The dissatisfaction [with the campgrounds] was palpable.”
     “Campsites were overcrowded and it was difficult to make a reservation,” added.
     Since the fee’s implementation, however, the park has created a new, 24-7 reservation system and also updated its website to include maps and safety information.
     Morton called the fee “prohibitive” in his rebuttal, calculating that, it would cost a troop of eight Girl Scouts and their chaperones more than $100 for two nights of “sleeping on the ground.”
     Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey remarked that $4 per day “looks modest compared to other parks.”
     While Daughtrey conceded that the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) requires public input, she said the Park Service does not “have to do what the people want.”
     “You don’t decide this [type of] thing by taking a poll,” the judge added, in a rather ominous remark for the plaintiffs’ chances.
     The Southern Forest Watch describes itself online as a nonprofit founded solely to combat the fee.
     It was joined in the suit by the group’s president John Quillen and by Earl Cameron and Gregory Bostick. Attorney Morton pointed Quillen out in the court audience before beginning his argument.
     No timetable has been set for a decision by the panel.

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