Swain commissioners oppose Smokies parking fee
A parking fee proposed for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has earned support from organizations ranging from the National Parks Conservation Association to the North Shore Cemetery Association — but also opposition from a growing list of governments and elected officials.
“I understand they’re trying to raise some money, but to raise money off of Swain County just seems heartless,” said Swain County Commissioner Roger Parsons during an April 7 meeting. “It seems like it just stings to make Swain County residents pay to park in Deep Creek, or wherever we may be.”
During that meeting , which came just one day after the park publicly announced its proposal , Swain County commissioners unanimously approved a resolution opposing the proposed fee — or any fee for park use “not directly associated with the use of amenities or a commercial purpose.” The resolution also directed the board clerk to send a letter to the county’s state and federal representatives asking that they write to the National Park Service in opposition to the fee.
The resolution points out that Swain County holds 42% of the park’s acreage, with many Swain County residents descended from the people who inhabited that land before the Park Service took it over. Imposing parking fees would hinder residents’ ability to access the park and visit ancestors’ graves, the resolution says.
A joint position paper from Friends of the Bryson City Cemetery and Lauada Cemetery Association released April 25 also appeals to Swain County’s unique place in park history.
“Many who take their rest on these hallowed grounds did not surrender their homes and sanctuaries now in the GSMNP willingly but saw their lands condemned by both state and federal agencies employing powers of eminent domain,” the paper reads. “The taking was so morally and ethically repugnant in the eyes of some that they refused to accept payment and never signed a deed to the properties. It is our sacred duty and honor to remember and stand by these forebears and their justly righteous indignation.”
About 87% of Swain County land is owned by the federal government, meaning that opportunities for local recreation projects are limited and the decisions of federal agencies like the Park Service significantly impact residents’ daily lives.
“What we want is for Swain County to be able to issue these passes, because we want to issue them to vehicles — not people — vehicles registered in Swain County,” said Commission Chairman Ben Bushyhead.
The park reported 14.1 million visits last year, while Swain County has a population of only about 15,000. Granting those residents free access would have little impact on the park’s bottom line, Bushyhead said.
Since commissioners passed the resolution, Smokies Superintendent Cassius Cash has announced that members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will receive free passes, because existing Park Service regulations allow free park access for tribal members visiting park lands for traditional purposes. Bushyhead, himself a tribal citizen, said that he doesn’t see much difference between the EBCI’s case for free access and Swain County’s.
“I told the park superintendent that the dislodging of people in Swain County is such that if they wanted to do that with reservation people, I could match them without blowing smoke, point by point, for Swain County,” Bushyhead said.
Rep. Mike Clampitt “responded immediately” to Swain County’s resolution, Bushyhead said. Clampitt said he sent the Park Service a letter opposing the fee and plans to contact federal representatives in the U.S. House and Senate “to let them know our displeasure.” The federal government hobbled Swain County’s local economy when it took the land and reneged on its promise to build the North Shore Road, he said.
“I did not feel it would be in the best interest of Swain County to have and be charged a parking fee in the park,” he said. “That would be insult to injury based on the past history with what the park and the federal government has done to Swain County.”
Sen. Kevin Corbin has also responded to Swain County’s request for support and sent Cash an April 20 email to “adamantly oppose” the proposal. The fee would be a “detriment” to small businesses that depend on park visitation, and it would be a “violation of public trust” to charge fees to county residents whose ancestors gave their land for the park’s creation, he wrote.
“Thank you for your service to the Park,” Corbin wrote. “Please ensure the continued access to the Park to be free to all.”
Swain is not the only parkside county to oppose the fee. On Thursday, April 21, the Blount County Commission voted 17-1 to pass its own resolution. The document expresses concern that the fee could open the door to other use fees within the park, asking the Park Service to exempt Blount County residents from any adopted parking fee and to seek additional funding from the federal government instead. The county is also discussing a joint letter to park leadership with other counties. Though a list of which counties might participate in this letter was not available as of press time, Cocke County Manager Crystal Ottinger said that Cocke County plans to join in.
In interviews and public meetings, park staff have said that Park Service regulations do not allow them to exempt local residents from the fee and that the proposal was crafted with locals in mind.
“What we have already secured is that ability to have an annual pass, and that’s not a standard in the expanded amenity authority that gives parks the authority to charge user fees for parking, but that’s one of the things we felt was vitally important, especially for our local residents,” said Management Assistant Dana Soehn.
Passes would cost $5 per day, $15 per week or $40 per year.
“When we came up with these pricing points, we had the public in mind,” Cash said. “We had this region in mind.”
The park is accepting written comments on the proposal through Tuesday, May 11. The deadline was extended from May 7 due to a planned comment portal outage April 29 to May 1. For more information, including a link to the comment portal, visit nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/2023-fee-proposal.htm .