A federal court recently upheld a new backcountry camping fee imposed by the National Park Service in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The plaintiffs challenged the National Park Service’s recent implementation of the $4 per person, per night fee, which was proposed to cover the service charges and related costs of putting the camping sites on the National Recreation Reservation Service’s online reservation system as well as generating revenue to support NPS staff in the backcountry office. The National Park Service also claimed that the fee was an expanded amenity fee authorized by the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA).
In upholding the fee, the court held that, while FLREA prohibits fees for camping at undeveloped sites, that prohibition does not apply to the NPS. The court also noted that the fee was the lowest of the comparable fees at other National Parks, such as Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain and Grand Teton. In addition, the court held that the fees met the criteria in FLREA to be commensurate with the services provided, and it did not accept the plaintiffs’ argument that no services should be provided.
The court also noted that, while the National Park Service was required to publish notice in the Federal Register of any new recreation fee area, that legal provision did not apply because the backcountry fee was a “new recreation fee,” but not a “new recreation fee area.” The court also concluded that, while the majority of public input was negative, the issue for the court was simply whether the agency had a rational basis for its decision. The court also held that while the agency was required to show there was public support for the fee, it did not have to show that it was favored by a majority of the public, simply that some members of the public supported it.