Smoky Mountain Campground Fee Upheld

      (CN) – Backcountry enthusiasts lost their Sixth Circuit challenge to the new $4 daily fee campers face at Tennessee and North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
     Encompassing more than 500,000 acres of public lands, including parts of the Appalachian Trail, the Great Smoky Mountains have historically required visitors to register and obtain a permit.
     The park also had a reservation system in place for certain campsites, but it geared up for a switch after learning that its technical-support contract for its reservation software was set to expire.
     To cover the cost of the new system, the park wanted to begin charging a fee for backcountry permits and reservations. The Park Service’s brass lent its stamp of approval in 2011, and the park began promoting the improvements it expected the new system would bring in trip planning and customer service.
     As documented in 230 written comments the proposal generated, and reactions at the park’s open houses, however, the public generally opposed the fees.
     Park Service officials in Washington at first expressed concern about the negative public feedback, but it ultimately approved the charge of $4 per person, per night, fee at 101 backcountry campsites and shelters, beginning on Jan. 1, 2013.
     Southern Forest Watch Inc., which describes itself online as a nonprofit founded solely to combat the fee, brought a federal complaint over the scheme in Knoxville, but U.S. District Judge Thomas Phillips granted the Park Service summary judgment.
     The Sixth Circuit affirmed Wednesday, an outcome the court’s three-judge panel forecast at oral arguments in December where the attorney for Southern Forest Watch that the government “lied, cheated and stole” to enact the fee.
     J. Myers Morton with Morton & Morton in Knoxville, Tenn., told the court that “prohibitive” fees would cost a troop of eight Girl Scouts and their chaperones more than $100 for two nights of “sleeping on the ground.”
     The Sixth Circuit nevertheless said Wednesday that the enactment of the new fee complied with the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act.
     “Great Smoky Mountains contacted a number of public officials at the federal, state, and local levels,” Judge Helene White wrote for Cincinnati-based court.
     Plus, the park “widely disseminated its proposal and the Great Smoky Mountains fee plan was widely reported in the local media,” White added.
     The court rejected claims that the park tried to make the new system seem worthwhile by lying about complaints the old system supposedly inspired, as well as crowding at backcountry campsites, and the lack of funding for backcountry rangers.
     With Southern Forest Watch (SFW) pointing to the overwhelmingly negative comments the public gave Great Smoky Mountains, White said “the quantity of feedback from the public suggests, contrary to SFW’s position, that the Park Service fulfilled its duty to solicit public input.”
     “Further, the Park Service consistently noted the considerable public opposition and factored that feedback into its considerations,” White added. “The FLREA does not require a fee to have a majority of public support, only ‘public participation,’ and Great Smoky Mountains gave the public ample opportunity to participate in the process and provide feedback on the planned fee.”
     Justice Department attorney Robert Stockman and spokesman Mark Abueg declined to comment on the matter.
     Morton did not return an email seeking comment.

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