Park sued over camping fees

Group claims park 'outrageous and tyrannical'
Mar. 05, 2013 @ 11:43 PM

A group formed to oppose implementation of backcountry camping fees in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has filed a federal lawsuit looking to block the move, accusing the park and the park service of “outrageous and tyrannical” behavior.

Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson announced last March that the National Park Service had approved implementation of an online reservation service and new fees starting this year. The park started implementing the fees Feb. 13, charging $4 per person to make the reservations.

Southern Forest Watch, a group based in Knox County, filed a compliant in federal court late last week asking a judge to block the park from enforcing the fee.

A spokesperson for the group declined an interview but sent this written statement: “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.

“All details may be found within the complaint itself.”

A spokesperons for the park said they were not commenting on the complaint.

The lawsuit, filed by attorney J. Myers Morton, isn’t seeking damages, but is seeking declaratory judgments that the park made intentional public misrepresentations and false assertions in the process of seeking public approval for the fees, that it is granting some private groups exclusive use of some areas, that they are not allowed to charge a backpacker fee, that they can’t limit backpacking to those areas that they aren’t allowed to implement a backpacker reservation system

It asks the judge to consider declaring the fees void, ordering a temporary or permanent injunction against the reservation and the fee, which it calls a tax, or to remand the back to the park service “because the agency did not adequately consider all view points which it was required to consider and follow statutory requirements.”

The suit accuses the defendants — Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar, NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis, and Ditmanson— of lying about their intentions and about the process.

“The defendants orchestrated a corrupt and dishonest administrative process that tarnished the high public value of the integrity of the National Park System in derogation of the values and purposes for which the Smoky Mountains were organized and existed for most of a century.

“The defendants deliberately presented false pictures and public pronouncements and obfuscated the truth.

It later says “the defendants actions were beyond what was allowed by the law, outrageous and tyrannical.”

Southern Forest Watch was created in 2011 to oppose the initial proposal to implement the fees, according to the group’s Web site. They say they wish to keep 800 miles of trails with 100 undeveloped, back country campsites, available and free to use to all.

They also say that an unnamed “former politician” and private resort have been granted private access to some of the backcountry trails, and one trail was altered to accommodate the private users.

The group maintains the fees aren’t needed to pay for the back country sites, which only provide a fire ring and “bear cables” used to suspend packs where bears can’t reach them. The cables are provided by friends of the Smokies, they said.

The park service has said the fee will be used “to pay for more customer service for backcountry trip planning, reservations, permits and the backcountry experience.”

jfarrell@themountainpress.com