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Swain commissioners move to hire attorney to address GSMNP parking fees

By Kristin Fox

Today, March 1, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s new Park it Forward Program goes into effect, which will require paid parking permits along the parkway. Although the new program begins today, the Swain County Board of County Commissioners is continuing to express their opposition to the program, taking a step last week to look at legal options to address the issue. 

In a closed session meeting following their final February regular session meeting, the board decided to take the next step, directing County Manager Kevin King to look into hiring an attorney to address the GSMNP Park It Forward Program on behalf of Swain County.

During the regular session meeting, the board also voted unanimously to submit the resolution they adopted on April 7, 2022 again under the new board leadership with Kevin Seagle as Chairman.  Although several board members voiced that the language in the resolution should be stronger, they decided to resubmit the same resolution and possibly submit a revised, stronger resolution later.

“I think this is really weak, it is like asking a kid to stay out of the cookie jar,” said Commissioner David Loftis. “I believe stronger language is needed.”

“I wish it had a little more bite to it, to show them our feelings,” agreed Commissioner Kenneth Parton. 

Recently National Park Service Superintendent Cassius Cash attended a board meeting to give commissioners an update on the GSMNP parking fee program. Prior to the presentation, commissioners openly expressed their opposition to the program to Cash.

“I think Cash felt like he had been thrown to the wolves, but that was the only opportunity we have had to speak to him about the parking fees,” said Parton. “We have not had the opportunity to speak.”

Chairman Seagle agreed stating that was the first time he had ever meet the park superintendent.

Prior to Cash’s presentation on the GSMNP parking fees program at the prior board meeting, each commissioner was given the opportunity to voice their concerns The entire board is against the program and specifically wants an exemption to the required parking pass for all Swain County residents.

The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians (EBCI) are exempt from paying the parking fees if their visit to the park is for traditional reasons. While the commissioners agree that the EBCI should be given this exemption, they feel the same privilege should be extended to all Swain County residents. 

According to Cash 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.

“If you can exclude one group because of practices in the past why can’t you exclude everyone that considers it their sanctuary,” Commissioners Phillip Carson told Cash. “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 no 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.

As stated in the resolution, Swain County is home to upwards of 42 percent of the total park acreage. The history and culture of the GSMNP is an integral and important part of the history and culture of Swain County, and its residents have a deep connection with the history and culture of the GSMNP. 

Many Swain County residents are descendants of the original inhabitants of the land, and many people of Swain County have ancestors buried within the boundaries of the park. In the Swain County area of the park there are 1,100 grave sites, including 27 graves of veterans, in 21 cemeteries.

“The Swain County Commission has a genuine concern that the imposition of the parking fees may hinder the use of the park access by Swain County families joining together in the GSMNP to strengthen familial bonds, reflect on the history and culture of their ancestors, fish, and enjoy nature,” states the resolution.

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. Commissioners believe that the proposed parking fee represents “a clear attempt to circumvent the historical understanding and agreements for a fee-free park and would be a significant blow to the public’s trust.”

Parking tags will be 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.

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. 

The GSMNP is annually one of the most visited national parks ranking 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.

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