Editorial: Fee simple

Lawsuit over backcountry fees seems a stretch
Mar. 08, 2013 @ 12:20 AM

Members of Southern Forest Watch, a group based in Knox County, obviously have too much time on their hands, some extra cash and a lot of pent-up hostility about having to pay nominal fees to camp in the Smokies. Getting such services for free has been a nice bonus, but suing to overturn newly imposed backcountry camping fees? Maybe this is why court dockets are overwhelmed.

Their federal lawsuit seeks to block the new fees, accusing the park and the National Park Service of “outrageous and tyrannical” behavior. Even if they’re right about that, it hardly seems to rise to the level of illegal behavior.

A spokesperson for the group declined an interview with The Mountain Press, so we couldn’t ask questions that seek a logical explanation for suing, 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.”

Look, nobody likes having to pay for something they have gotten for free over many years. But all the time members of Southern Forest Watch and everybody else got to camp for free, the park provided rangers for security, kept the campgrounds clean and maintained, worked on the trails leading to and from some campgrounds, and operated a visitor center with free information for anyone who asks. Visit almost any other national park in America and you’ll pay for some of the services and amenities you get for free in the Smokies. You might even pay to enter those parks, but not here.

The lawsuit 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.

In our legal system you can sue over just about anything, and Southern Forest Watch has every right to go to court to try and block the fees. The park service will defend itself using our tax dollars, and in the end it seems unlikely anything will change or be overturned. But let’s see how it plays out. Who knows what a lawsuit might uncover. Naah.