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Swain leaders voice continued opposition to parking passes in GSMNP

By Kristin Fox

Next month, the Park It Forward Program will begin in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). Beginning March 1, 2023, entrance into the park will now require a GSMNP parking tag.

At the recent meeting of the Swain County Board of Commissioners, National Park Service Superintendent Cassius Cash was present to give an update for Swain County on the GSNP as well as answer questions about the parking passes.

Prior to the presentation by Cash, each commissioner was given the opportunity to voice their discontent with the parking pass program. All commissioners are against the program and want an exemption to the required parking pass for Swain County residents into parks located in the county.

Parking tags are required for back-country campers, hikers, picnic pavilion reservation holders and concession customers. Three duration parking tags will be available for purchase for all vehicle sizes and types – daily $5.00, weekly $15.00 or annual $40.00.

Other parking tag basics are:

​Parking tags will not be replaceable, refundable, transferable, or upgradable.

Each tag will be valid for a single vehicle and must include a license plate number matching the vehicle in which it is displayed.

​Display of physical parking tags in each vehicle will be required.

Parking tags will not be location-specific. A parking tag will be required to park anywhere within the boundaries of the Smokies.

Since January, the annual parking tags have been available for purchase online through the Great Smoky Mountains Association or at any of the park’s visitor centers. Annual parking passes purchased prior to March 1 will be valid through the end of March 2024.

On February 21 at 10:00 a.m., daily and weekly parking tags will be available for purchase.

Parking tags will not be required for motorists passing through the area or who park for less than 15 minutes or while parked at their designated campsite in a park campground. Vehicles with a handicap license plate or placard do not need a parking tag.

If someone wants to park briefly to take a selfie, visit the visitors center or stop to use the bathroom, a parking permit will not be required. However, if a visitor to the park is going to be in a parking spot for longer than 15 minutes to go on a hike or another activity a parking pass will be required.

Swain County commissioners have been very vocal about their opposition of the parking fee. Last spring, the board 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.

One major point of contention with commissioners as stated in the resolution is that Swain County holds 42 percent of the park’s acreage, and many of the Swain County residents are descendants of the people who lived on the land before the park service took it over. As stated in the resolution, imposing the parking fees would hinder residents’ ability to access the park and visit their ancestors’ graves.

“To some people including myself I believe in a higher power and a great spirit,” said Commissioner Phillip Carson. “When I go to Deep Creek, it is like a sanctuary. It is about visiting the graves sites and honoring our ancestors. You can make it your own cathedral for worship.”

“If you can exclude one group because of practices in the pastwhy can’t you exclude everyone that considers it their sanctuary,” he added. “If you are going to exempt them, you should give that same exemption to all the residents of Swain County.”

The park will issue special use permits at not cost for Decoration Days, family reunions for descendants across the park and cemetery visits. Decoration Day permit holders will be exempt from the parking tag requirement for the duration of the permit. Each cemetery visit is unique and park staff will work directly with descendants to coordinate special access.

“I am not an anti-park person whatsoever, the park has been a big part of all of our lives,” said Vice-Chair Roger Parsons. “Deep Creek is kind of our greenway, it’s where we go in Swain County to walk, picnic, hike and enjoy other assets. Deep Creek is our backyard, and it really is a sore spot and hurts when we think about losing that privilege of being able to just come and go freely.”

“We have learned there had been some carveouts,” said Parsons. “The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians (EBCI) are not going to have to pay for parking and while we rightly think they shouldn’t, we also feel Swain County residents shouldn’t have to pay for parking as well.”

“There were exceptions made to the rule, and we would love to have an exception made to the rule for us,” he added. “We would like all primary residents, taxpayers, homeowners and families that in live in Swain County be one of those exceptions.”

Clay explained that is a wide known policy and traditional custom that in all parks, all native indigenous tribes get entrance free passes to go into national parks for traditional purposes. He pointed out that if these same citizens are visiting the park for recreations purposes, they would be required to purchase a parking pass.

“We are not to govern what’s a traditional purpose and what’s not, we’re leaving it up to the government of the EBCI to determine as they are going to issue out those passes,” said Clay. “This decision was made based on previous court cases, treaties, and laws.”

“Our country is governed with different federally recognized tribes so that’s the carve out that you mentioned,” added Clay.  “We researched policy, we spoke to Washington about this, and we are in alignment with the program.”

The GSMNP is annually one of the most visited national parksranking as the second most visited park in the country with 14.1 million visitors. Over the last decade, GSMNP visitation has skyrocketed by over 57 percent. In 2021 the GSMNP set a new visitation record for the park.

However, the Smokies’ operational budget hasn’t seen similar growth and the increase in park visitors has begun to take its toll with wear and tear on aging facilities and undue strain on the park’s limited staff. The parking fees are expected to generate around $14 million in revenue to help with the many needs of the GSMNP.

One hundred percent of the money generated from the new Park It Forward Program will stay in the Smokies. The money will directly support operational costs for managing and improving services for visitors including trail maintenance, custodial services, and trash removal. The program will also support more education programs, emergency responders and law enforcement staff across the park.

“My promise when I got here 8 years ago was to make the park better than I found it,” said Clay. “When I look at a budget that was 19 million dollars 11 years ago, and we’re only 20 million in 2022-23 with 14 million people coming here, something’s got to give.”

“When I first got here it was 10 million people coming here to visit the park; as of this month it’s 14.1 million people coming to the park,” he added. “While it is cool to be one of the most visited parks, it comes with a huge responsibility to make sure it is still going to be around for our children.”

One example of how the money generated from the parking pass program will be used in Swain County is the Lake View project. The six-mile roadway which hasn’t been paved since 1979 andis long overdue for repairs, will be completely resurfaced and repaved. Road shoulders will be reconditioned and stabilized. In addition, roadside ditches and drainages will be reestablished and improved. The location for the parking lot and picnic table will be made accessible.

For more information on the Park It Forward Program, visit the National Park Service website at Parking Tag Basics has all the information you need to know about the GSMNP parking tag program.

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