Lawsuit over Smokies backcountry camping fees draws support

Lawsuit over Smokies backcountry camping fees draws support from local officials

Posted:
The new fee took effect took effect less than a week ago. The new fee took effect took effect less than a week ago.
"What this resolution hopes to do is let the park service know that we as a county, one of the seven counties that border the park, disagree with the fee," explained Blount County Commissioner Tab Burkhalter. "What this resolution hopes to do is let the park service know that we as a county, one of the seven counties that border the park, disagree with the fee," explained Blount County Commissioner Tab Burkhalter.
"The public voted. They don't want a reservation system," John Quillen said. "The public voted. They don't want a reservation system," John Quillen said.

By ALEXIS ZOTOS
6 News Reporter

MARYVILLE (WATE) - A group is threatening to sue the Great Smoky Mountains National Park over its new backcountry fee.

The new fee took effect took effect less than a week ago.

The Southern Forest Watch is fighting the fee and is turning to the Blount County Commission for support.

The group has threatened to sue the park over this fee from the beginning. Members of the Blount County Commission plan to join the fight, hoping to pass an official resolution Thursday.

"What this resolution hopes to do is let the park service know that we as a county, one of the seven counties that border the park, disagree with the fee," explained Commissioner Tab Burkhalter, a sponsor of the resolution.

Burkhalter knows his resolution is a bit late to the game. Public comments on the fee were accepted in the summer of 2011. Still, Burkhalter says he hopes to make the county's position known as the fight moves forward.

John Quillen, a backpacker and member of Southern Forest Watch, is ready to take the fight to court as early as next week.

"We did our first fee-based backpacking trip last weekend," Quillen said. "We paid our fee and we are preparing a lawsuit that we plan to file [Monday] in federal court challenging the validity. It's not a fee, it is a tax."

Quillen has been vocal since the beginning against the $4 fee that pays for a new online reservation system.

The Park Service says the fee system has been well received, but it's the feedback from the initial public comments that Quillen and Burkhalter are fighting for. 

"The public voted. They don't want a reservation system," he said.

6 News obtained copies of the more than 200 public comments and they were overwhelmingly against the fee.

The hope of the resolution is to raise awareness and bring about a sense of transparency from park officials.

"Would it be nice for them to change the fee, to reduce it, to cancel it? Yes. Will that happen? No," Burkhalter said. "But we can at least put in place a forum where there can be more transparency and process."

The resolution also calls upon the Tennessee General Assembly to investigate the legality of the fees and for state lawmakers to demand a repeal.

A spokesperson from the park said officials are aware of the resolution, but they are confident they have implemented a backcountry program that has greatly improved services.

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