The American Recreation Coalition is the group proudly behind the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program that went into effect over the last two years. That program that penalizes hikers and others who want to visit genuinely wild areas of parks by collecting a “recreation fee” and subsidizes businesses that bring in for-profit, generally motorized, “recreation.” The SORE plan is absolutely nothing new for them. Since 1998, ARC has been pushing a neat solution to handling America’s public campgrounds—give them away. Or rather, hand them over to ARC’s members so they can run them at a profit.
Anyone who has ever visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Author’s note: As I have done dozens of times, including this summer) is bound to have encountered the towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. These are towns that seem to be entirely composed of the kind of “recreational opportunities” that ARC approves from theme park rides, to go-kart tracks, to T-shirt shops bearing logos for theme park rides and go-kart tracks. Meanwhile, right next door, the park itself plays host to the most diverse hardwood forest in the world, including a host of plants, fish, and amphibians found absolutely nowhere else. The Smokies are in no sense “wilderness,” but they are a green, cool oasis rising up above the surrounding towns—the last worn-down remains of mountains that towered over the brand new continent long before the first dinosaur appeared. And those ancient hills are still covered with trees that were driven to their distant heights when the glaciers poured down across the north a hundred thousand years ago. They are unmatched. Unmatchable.
That remains true even though the Park Service has made it clear that plants and animals inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park are deeply threatened by both air pollution and climate change.
ARC is dedicated to the idea that the inside of that park … should be like the outside. That what the cool waters of Abram’s Falls need is a goofy golf, Cade’s Cove would be a great spot for four-wheel rentals, and Clingman’s Dome could really use a ski lift. That all of it would be better if visitors were never more than five minutes from a funnel cake.
Officially the people inside the Interior Department are saying that the ARC / SORE plan for selling off campgrounds and expanding “recreational activities” is still in its early stages and that there will be time for public comments ahead. But that’s not what the author of the memo is saying. ARC’s Crandall is claiming that the plan to sell off campgrounds is a done deal, that it has been “unanimously approved,” and that it will go to the new head of the National Park System, former corporate lobbyist David Bernhardt, next week.
Crandall says the SORE plan will not be altered, or open for comment, or in for any adjustments by long time Park Service experts. It will go to Bernhardt “in its current form.” And when it does, it will open the door for long-term contracts that will be difficult to roll back, no matter what happens in the House impeachment inquiry.
Because, somehow, the only person who seems to get away with breaking legal contracts is Donald Trump.