Group threatens to sue over Smokies backcountry camping fee

Group threatens to sue over Smokies backcountry camping fee

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"A trail that volunteers maintain, water that God gave us and the ground that God gave us is not an amenity provided by the federal government," said Southern Forest member John Quillen. "A trail that volunteers maintain, water that God gave us and the ground that God gave us is not an amenity provided by the federal government," said Southern Forest member John Quillen.

By ALEXIS ZOTOS
6 News Reporter

GATLINBURG (WATE) -  A group is threatening to sue the National Park Service over a new backcountry camping fee.

The $4 fee for anyone camping in the backcountry of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was proposed last summer and approved this spring. It's set to take effect in January.

But the group Southern Forest Watch hopes to stop that. Comprised of more than 80 citizens from Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky, the group says the fee itself isn't the main concern. Instead, it's the principle of charging for something they believe should be free.

"A trail that volunteers maintain, water that God gave us and the ground that God gave us is not an amenity provided by the federal government," said Southern Forest member John Quillen.

He's been hiking for free in the Smoky Mountains since he was a child, but the backcountry fee will change that.

"We've had a variety of issues over the years of how do we manage the people that use these facilities and how to we ensure the park is being taken care of," explained Great Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson.

The superintendent says the fee will go toward paying for a new reservation system that will make it easier for hikers and campers. The new system will allow for people to book their reservation online and print their permit at home.

"(The fee) is to pay for the reservation system, to pay for staff in our backcountry office and two rangers to patrol the back country," Ditmanson added.

But opponents to the fee say it's not fair to the backpackers.

"It's about access. Boy Scout troops are going to be priced out of the park, 20-something kids, when I started going backpacking I wouldn't have been able to afford the Smokies," Quillen explained.

The expected revenue from the fees is around $280,000 and opponents say it violates the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act.

"The fee pays for no services or amenities. Backpackers sleep on the ground. We drink from the creek. We don't have bathrooms. We don't even have level tent spots," Quillen said.

But if you look at the code, it says the park service can charge a fee for "use of reservation services." However, the group is looking at half a dozen other statutes they say make the fees illegal.

"We're going to exhaust every avenue because this is illegal, wrong and just unjust," Quillen said.

There was a public comments section last summer and according to Quillen, there were 827 comments and signatures against the fee and only 45 for it.

6 News requested those records, but we were told they were not readily available. When asked about the threat of a lawsuit, park officials had no comment.

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