GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — Descendants of people forced off land that became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are against the park’s plan to require paid parking passes, saying doing so is a threat to tourism, a violation of public trust and a form of double taxation.
“…the Park was established as a fee-free Park and it was understood by those that gave up their lands to create the Park that there would never be a charge to enter the Park,” states a House Joint Resolution 1170 penned by N.C. State Rep. Mike Clampitt, who represents three counties that border the park. The resolution was introduced on June 13, in the General Assembly of North Carolina.
The resolution urges Congress to take action to prevent the administration of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from imposing parking fees, as “it is the role of Congress to fund our National Parks through the federal appropriations process, not individual citizens through parking fees.”
The park covers just more than half a million acres that is divided almost evenly between Tennessee and North Carolina. Legislators and residents have been mostly quiet about the parking fee proposal on the Tennessee side of the park, but it’s a different story across the mountains, where counties and legislators are filing protests.
In Swain County, commissioners unanimously passed a resolution in April opposing the parking fees and any other fee “not directly associated with the use of amenities or a commercial purpose.” Commissioners in Haywood County sent an opposition letter to park administrators and federal officials. Graham County commissioners have also opposed the plan.
What’s in the fee proposal?
The plan was introduced in April by Superintendent Cassius Clay to help address the financial needs of a park with no entrance fee but 14 million visitors annually. Public feedback was collected on the proposal for nearly five weeks this spring.
During a public meeting held virtually this spring, Clay said the program could help raise up to $15 million a year from an estimated 4,500 parking spaces.
Under the plan, entering the park would remain free but paid daily, weekly and yearly parking passes would be required in connection with reservations for parking spaces. Unofficial roadside parking would be eliminated. Backcountry camping fees would double to $8 a night with additional fees for group camps, horse camps and picnic pavilion rentals increasing up to 40 percent. Camping would also cost more, increasing by more than $10 per night, depending on location.
Cash said revenue generated from the fees would remain with the park and be used to improve infrastructure, facilities and wastewater systems and increase law enforcement presence within the park.
Why not charge an entrance fee instead?
Back in 1951, the state of Tennessee transferred Newfound Gap and Little River roads to the park. The deed contained a clause that said tolls were not allowed on either road, most likely to ensure that people could travel freely between the states. Back then, those roads were the main route between Tennessee and North Carolina. Then in 1994, a federal law was passed that says, in essence, where tolls are prohibited, entrance fees are also forbidden.
The park can’t institute an entry fee, only the Tennessee Legislature can. But user fees — including parking permits — are within National Park Service jurisdiction.
‘not just IN the mountains, we are OF them’
The fee proposal has touched a nerve in people with deep roots in the Appalachian mountains who are opposed to the idea of forced competition with tourists in a paid reservation parking system in order to visit graves of loved ones or old family homesteads.
Friends of Bryson City Cemetery and Lauada Cemetery Association released a position paper in April opposing the parking fees plan that challenges visitor data supplied by the National Park Service. Fee changes are based in part on that visit data, which park officials say shows Smokies visitation increased 57% between 2011 to 2021.
Visits tracked by NPS are defined on the website as recreation – those who visit with a purpose based in why the park was established. Non-recreation visits are commuters and through traffic, and persons ‘going to and from inholdings across significant parts” of park land. Visits classified by the park as “recreation” topped 14 million in 2021.
That might be true, the cemetery association said, but that increase in visitation is not spread evenly across the mountains.
“…a more detailed analysis reveals that a whopping 83% of the total increased visitation in recent years occurred in Tennessee. Almost half the total increase (48%) came just from vehicle traffic on the Foothills Parkway segments.”
The position paper was authored by Don Casada, president of Friends of the Bryson City Cemetery, where several strong advocates for the park are buried — including Horace Kephart.
Casada explains parkway use is of a different nature than visitation to the “Park core,” and that means the parking fees would be of the least consequence to those most responsible for the visitation increase — Parkway drivers.
“Most local residents completely avoid or severely restrict their use of the Park during periods of high demand. Many of us voluntarily pick up trash left behind by outside visitors during those high use periods,” the association said in the release.
“Unlike hordes who pass through, we are not just IN the mountains – we are OF them,” the paper concludes, with a reminder that the right to peaceably assemble is guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution, which forbids “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Clampitt’s joint resolution says descendants have concerns in addition to parking fees.
“In addition to the parking fees, area residents have been told that they can no longer hold religious services in the Park and that the Park’s administration may no longer accommodate the transportation of decorations for the graves of veterans buried in the Park.”
What happens next?
Information on the National Park Service website notes that civic engagement ended May 11. The next step, which is happening now, is a period of analysis of public comment. Once that is complete, the park service will refine the plan and release a final decision to the public.
North Carolina legislators have passed the joint resolution through the mandatory three readings, and, as of June 15, the proposed resolution now sits with the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate.
Clampitt sponsored the resolution and is joined by Rep. George Cleveland (Onslow County), Rep. Karl Gillespie (Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Macon counties), Rep. Donnie Loftis (Gaston County), Rep. Mark Pless (Haywood, Madison and Yancey counties), Rep. Diane Wheatley (Cumberland County), Rep. Donna McDowell White (Johnston County) and Rep. Lee Zachary (Forsyth and Yadkin counties)
Meanwhile, a new segment of the Foothills Parkway that will cross the heart of Wears Valley and connect the existing parkway with the Gatlinburg Spur is in the works.