Southern Forest Watch considers backcountry fee lawsuit
By Joel Davis | (email@example.com)
In a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and other officials on Aug. 28, attorney J. Myers Morton, of Knoxville-based Morton and Morton, wrote, “This firm has been retained to represent a disgruntled and growing group of American citizens from Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky and other states all under an umbrella organization called Southern Forest Watch. You are imposing a tax on us without our consent.”
The letter alleges that the plan to collect $4 per person, per night, for the use of the Park’s backcountry shelters by overnight hikers and equestrians violates federal law and ignored public input. “We will ask the court to declare the DOI/National Park Service’s process in implementing this backpacker tax as in excess of constitutional right, power, privilege or immunity and hold the agency’s actions, findings and conclusions in implementing this back packer tax as unlawful and set it aside.”
In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Morton said that the lawsuit will be filed in U.S. District Court — if the organization moves forward with it. “I hope we don’t have to file one. We hope they don’t do this or redo it. The last thing we want is a lawsuit.”
Park spokeswoman Molly Schroer said that Park officials had received the document but did not comment on the particulars. “The Park is confident we’re putting together a backcountry reservation plan that will both protect resources and improve services for visitors.”
Under the NPS plan, there will be no fees for day hiking. The Park will develop an online system to collect the fees.
There are apparently still some details to resolve before the group will be able to file a legal challenge. Morton also wrote, “Before the lawsuit is filed against the United States of America, the plaintiff, Southern Forest Watch, will be properly constituted and existing as a corporate entity. There may be other plaintiffs. Your backcountry camping tax is illegal.”
John Quillen, who maintains the http://southernforestwatch.org website, has led public opposition to the fee. Quillen said the incorporation of the organization is nearly complete. “I think it’s essentially done. Our nonprofit status is nearly complete. It’s the Southern Forest Watch entity that is filing this suit. I think we’re pretty much finished. It’s the getting the go-ahead from Nashville kind of thing.”
If the lawsuit moves forward, Quillen said the organization would need to raise funds for it. “We tried to meet with them. We’ve exhausted every diplomatic effort and been thwarted at every turn. We’ve very sad it’s come to this last resort. Had they incorporated any public input, there would be no need for any of this whatsoever.”
The Park currently requires that all those planning to stay overnight in the backcountry obtain a permit and make a reservation either by phone or in person at the Park’s Backcountry Information Center at the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg.
The proposal was open for public comment last summer and some 230 written comments and two petitions were received during the comment period. The public comments provided a great deal of constructive input on the concerns Park backcountry users had about the fee plan, said GSMNP Superintendent Dale A. Ditmanson.
The Park developed the plan in order to improve trip-planning and reservation services to users and to expand its backcountry ranger presence, according a press release.
Morton’s letter also includes allegations that officials have allowed four-wheelers to be driven into the Park from an adjacent resort and that a former state official was given property that belonged to the Park.