The National Park Service appears to be wading into a real briar patch with the proposal being floated for parking fees in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Now, I get the reasoning for the proposal. The park system has been chronically underfunded for years, has a maintenance backlog running in the billions of dollars, and the Smokies in particular has been neglected with funding levels flat, or in reverse when you factor in inflation.

That’s on top of visitation levels soaring to 14.1 million visits last year.

To turn the funding trend around, a daily parking fee of $5 ($15 for a week, $40 for a yearly tag) is being proposed. Park Superintendent Cassius Cash said the fee could generate $10 million to $14 million to be used for park maintenance, safety and programs, even with a lower compliance rate early on.

Sounds simple enough.

At least until you start pulling on the threads sprouting from this idea.

First and foremost, the Smokies is the people’s park. Cherokee homelands, and later the homes of early mountain settlers, make up the heart of the park.

Memories of lost communities run deep, and the graves of loved ones are tenderly cared for to this day by their offspring, a task that often involves extensive and frequently arduous travel to far-flung sites.

Of course, those folks have to park somewhere before setting out to perform their tasks. The parking proposal promises some exemptions for family reunions and decoration days, and Eastern Band Principal Chief Richard Sneed said free parking passes for tribal citizens will be available.

However, the governing boards of the Friends of the Bryson City Cemetery and the Lauada Cemetery Association have released a 20-point position paper enumerating reasons for their opposition to the plan to charge visitors for parking. (It’s worth looking at; to do so go to https://friendsofthebccemetery.org/files/articles/FBCC_LCA_Position_paper.pdf).

N.C. State Rep. Mike Clampitt, R-Swain, says “Many residents of the county have ancestors buried within the Park’s boundaries and many families gave land to create the Park. It would be a violation of public trust to implement parking fees, entrance fees or any other additional fees for these families as well as other visitors to the Park.”

Families were uprooted in Cataloochee, families saw their towns covered by the waters of Fontana. Those families consider the park paid for, and no ifs and or buts, or parking exemption, is going to change that position. Rightfully so.

Sylva and Jackson County helped pay for the park as well, with local governments across two states working with federal leaders, civic groups and media outlets to make the park a reality. It’s paid for, down to the pennies gathered by children downtown here to help make it a reality.

All that aside, if the park’s strapped for resources, the resources that would have to be devoted to becoming the parking police for 14 million visitors seems ... considerable.

There are all sorts of complications beyond that. What’s considered parking? If someone who lives in Cherokee and works in Gatlinburg stops to stretch their legs, is that parking? If you put it in park and stick a camera out a window at an overlook, is that parking? What if you weren’t planning to park but saw a herd of elk and pulled over? Can you make a parking pass retroactive? Won’t the parking plan impact local folk more than daytrippers from Knoxville?

And on and on. Mainly, what I object to regarding the parking plan is that, once you kick that door open, there’s no telling what snake might come crawling through – corporate sponsorships of scenic overlooks, billboards promoting business donors, Amazon deliveries to campgrounds, food trucks brought to you by XYZ Widgets, “Proud Sponsor of Your Outdoor Experience” are not flights of fancy. Not if the government is off the hook for its funding responsibility.

And that’s where the solution lies.

Our national parks, and in particular the Smokies, were championed by leaders with foresight from the jump, and by leaders who nurtured the idea of America’s public places over the years. Unfortunately that kind of leadership has fallen off, and in some cases replaced by leadership like former 11th District Rep. Mark Meadows exhibited in 2013 when he helped orchestrate a 16-day government shutdown over ACA health funding that cost North Carolina about $1 million a day in local park spending.

We need the return of park champions. The Great Smokies contribute something to the tune of $1.5 billion in nearby communities, including ours, and our elected representatives need to take the mission of care and maintenance of this natural and economic wonder seriously.

Certainly more serious than passing off their responsibility to a parking plan that does little more than insult those whose homes, and hearts, are closest to the Smokies.

That’s my two cents on this affair. If you want to add your two cents, you have until May 7. Go to https://parkplanning.nps.gov/GRSMfeeproposal2023 and select “Open for Comment” on the left menu bar, open the Proposed Smokies Fee Program Changes for 2023 folder, and click on the green “Comment Now” button to access the online commenting form, or write Superintendent Cassius Cash, Attn: 2023 Smokies Fee Program Changes Proposal, 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, TN 37738.

Jim Buchanan is Special Projects Editor for the Sylva Herald.