Do you support the proposed backcountry fee for Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

01 Jun 12
Smokey Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has proposed charging $4 per person per night to camp in the backcountry. Two seasoned Smokies hikers weigh in on the controversy.

YES

With more than nine million annual visitors, Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park in the country. Yet it is one of the only major national parks that does not charge an entrance fee.

Public lands, trails, and campsites cost money as do the people who spend careers facilitating their availability to the public and managing their user-generated impact. But much like admission, these privileges—not rights—have been free of charge in the Smokies for decades. New backcountry fees of only four dollars per night are a small price to pay to better regulate and manage impact on the park’s wilderness.

In comparison, popular national parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon charge $25 per car just to enter. Grand Canyon charges $5 per person, per night, on top of a $10 reservation fee. We’ve got it pretty good in the Smokies, folks. Let’s stop acting so spoiled and quit taking it for granted.

New backcountry camping fees will provide funding to dramatically improve the Park’s backcountry reservation system.Current backcountry users know all too well the frustration of voice recordings and busy signals when attempting to obtain a permit. The current reservation system is also heavily abused—selfish backcountry users cheat the system by monopolizing extra free-of-charge reservations.

With more than 500,000 acres and 77,000 annual backcountry campers, these problems exist because resources in the Smokies are stretched thin. The country’s national parks are chronically underfunded and understaffed, and the Smokies are no exception. Forking over four dollars a night is how to do your part to make the park better.

The new backcountry fees will also fund additional staff for backcountry patrol. Unlike many of our national forests, a pristine backcountry experience exists in the Smokies because the Park’s management concentrates and regulates user impact. But managing that impact isn’t free. Smokies campsites even boast metal fire rings, bear cables, and piped springs. Often you can avoid popping a squat thanks to the convenience of a privy. Most users would pay $4 per visit for that luxury alone.

The proposed fee-based system isn’t perfect: a modified reservation system for A.T. thru-hikers, waiving fees for young children, and availability of an annual pass for frequent visitors are needed changes. But the new fees are a big step in the right direction toward preserving the serene Smokies backcountry experience as we know it.

Peter Barr has hiked all 900 miles of trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

No

Growing up on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I became accustomed to expressions of bitterness directed at the Park.  They were understandable, because folks lost their lands, access to graves of their loved ones, and were shabbily treated in forced removal from their highland homelands. Yet for decades, while sympathetic, I dismissed this angst as lingering paranoia and deep-seated distrust of big government in general.

I have changed my mind and to a considerable degree come around to the way of thinking of many old-timers. This resulted from heavy-handed actions, cloaked in a sordid mantle of deceit, connected with Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson’s proposal to charge fees for backcountry camping.  From the outset it has been an onerous bureaucratic boondoggle, a money-grubbing solution in search of a problem.

From the outset, fees were predicated on a demonstrably false premise. The Park claimed backcountry overcrowding, but their own statistics proved (with the noteworthy exception of Appalachian Trail shelters) backcountry usage peaked decades ago and has subsequently dropped 20 percent. Most sites are underutilized.

Park officials regularly alluded to incessant complaints about campsites and campers.Yet an FOIA request revealed that the last three years produced a total of 15 backcountry-related complaints. Most of those had nothing to do with campsites.

Two open houses and a 30-day comment period were offered. They were a sham. No notes were taken and apparently no effort was made to record the thoughts of attendees. Clearly the open houses were held to meet policy requirements. Failure to record them rendered public opinions meaningless.

Superintendent Ditmanson summarily dismissed an online petition by misrepresenting its key statement when he reported to his superiors. Through parsing, he summarily silenced the voices of 522 people.

Another FOIA request revealed that by a ratio of 19 to 1 comments opposed the fees. Ditmanson cavalierly ignored these comments as well.

The pattern is clear. Ditmanson fostered an unneeded, unwanted fee despite widespread opposition. In so doing, he abrogated a system which has worked well for three-quarters of a century. The fee comes in hard economic times and has the greatest impact on those least able to afford it: local residents, backpacking families, scouts, and some of the Park’s staunchest allies. It is a sorry saga. Mountain folks consider integrity a key measure of a man. That quality is shamefully lacking here.

Jim Casada grew up in Bryson City, N.C. and has spent much of his life exploring and writing about the Smokies.

9 Comments

  • Muchos Gracias for your blog article.Really looking forward to read more. Will read on…

    Jaron Ballance   16 Oct 12, 10:18 pm

  • This summer I have hiked/backcountry camped several times and have yet to encounter: 1) a problem obtaining reservations. I have yet to had to leave a message. I seem to always get thru on the 1st attempt. 2) experienced over-crowding. Unless you call 4 others in a huge campsite crowded? 3) experienced any sort of need for additonal staff, either in the offices or on the trails. What I have encountered/experienced thus far are 1) Piles of horse scat in the trail. (introducing non-native alfafa seeds, etc., into the park). 2) Destroyed trails by horses (riders on a day trip) 3) picnicers droping blankets in non designated areas and leaving thier footprint behind. 4) Dog Scat. 5) Most recently, the obvious disregard of the “No TresPassing” signs in the Elkmont area as herds of “hikers” explore the homesteads.

    I don’t support the fee on backcountry users. There are other revenue streams that could be considered, but this is certainly not the answer.

    John Harrell   06 Aug 12, 12:12 pm

  • First, the claim that the Smokies are the most visited park is specious, based on the number of people who drive on Newfound Gap road. The number of visitors who actually do more than wander 1/2 mile from the road must be no more than 10-20% of those who drive to Newfound Gap.

    Second, it would be better to administer a $2.00 per car parking/picnic fee. The casual visitors are the ones who create most of the degradation of the park, with litter, noise, abuse of plants and animals, and the disgusting practice of defecating on the ground near trailheads. If anyone should be assessed a fee, it should be those that create the most problems pay.

    A. Reasoner   26 Jun 12, 4:18 pm

  • I say NO on this fee! I have never stayed overnight in a back country campsite, just not my cup of tea. But I do day hike every weekend I can. Why only charge back country campers? Why not also charge picnickers (who leave messes in the picnic areas), horseback riders (whose animals do much damage to the trails, & who also do not clean up their animals feed/waste. I saw a whole load of horse feed left last month at the Newton Bald campsite!), pit stop users (who leave messes in the restrooms)?!!! Most back country campers I know, are park volunteers, trail maintainers, help with maintenance of shelters. They show their love of The Smoky Mountains by giving back. Why put all the burden of fees on the back country campers? A little unfair in my opinion.

    Diane Mason   05 Jun 12, 5:02 pm

  • While I admire Mr. Barr for accomplishing a goal I hope to attain someday, I must dismiss his comments as ignorant of the true facts. Had he read the information obtained through the FOIA, he would know of the contradictions and deceptions surrounding this FEEasco. As one who grew up camping with my family in the Smokies, and one who now enjoys hiking and backpacking as an adult, I love the Great Smoky Mountains and would do anything to protect and preserve it for the future. However, this FEEasco is not about resources that are truly needed by the park. It is based on deception and protection of outside guide services to whom the NPS caters. Pay attention to what Myers Morton stated earlier:

    US Department of Interior’s Memorandum F5419(5072) from the Southeast Region’s Regional Director… states:
    ” There will be no increase in overall annual revenue as the result of this proposed increase as this will simply be a new fee to cover the recreation.gov service fees…”

    I have read the memo, which states the above about this being a fee to cover service fees to the CANADIAN-based recreation.gov, not to provide resources for the park.

    Many of us who enjoy the backcountry are also trail volunteers who devote many hours toward maintaining the trails. To place this fee on our backs is not only unfair, but makes no sense when there are other entities that cause damage to the park. Know the facts and be informed before supporting this fee!

    Janet Dalton   05 Jun 12, 1:32 am

  • Appears Mr. Barr is ignorant of the facts. It has already been stated from the regional director that these fees will only cover the reservation system costs, not the backcountry. Even if they did it would be to hire two rangers to patrol 800 miles of trails and uncrowded campsites just to make sure people have paid their fees. Tell me how that will improve the backcountry? It isn’t about acting spoilt or taking anything for granted, its about the lies these fees are built upon and the problems that really do not exist. Its also about the problems this park DOES face (cades cove loop fiasco, horse destruction of trails, development encroachment) that will not be solved by these fees. Be careful what you wish for and know the facts before you support this.

    Aaron Cruze   05 Jun 12, 12:41 am

  • Apparently, Mr. Barr quit hiking and camping after he hiked all the 900 miles. (Congratulations by the way! An amazing accomplishment.)
    Had he kept hiking, he’d understand you need reservations for backcountry campsites for only 26 of the 100 or so campsites. For a vast majority (3/4ths more or less) of the backcountry campsites, you do not call anybody. You just drop your information in a box and drive to the trail head. Period.
    Secondly, the National Park Service acknowledges the tax will NOT FUND ANYTHING OTHER THAN USE OF RECREATION.GOV. Mr. Barr has not seen the US Department of Interior’s Memorandum F5419(5072) from the Southeast Region’s Regional Director that specifically states:

    ” There will be no increase in overall annual revenue as the result of this proposed increase as this will simply be a new fee to cover the recreation.gove service fees…”

    Mr. Barr, does that change your mind?

    Myers Morton   04 Jun 12, 10:03 pm

  • As a fellow 900 miler (backpacking miles, not dayhiking), I can attest to the desolation of backcountry campsites in the Smokies. There are many folks who can talk about trails but this fee is about backcountry campsites, of which I have stayed in most every one multiple times. They are not overcrowded (unless you think 2 people per campsite per night is crowded) there is no widespread resource degradation (insert horses/cars here) and absolutely no need for a reserved permit system for empty campsites. The shelters, which we backcountry folk refer to as moron/beginner magnets get crowded during AT thru hiker time and that displaces the guide services which started this whole feeasco in the first place. Since the guide services cant get their paying customers in the shelters, we independent backcountry campers (not dayhikers) have to foot the bill. When are people going to quit allowing the federal government to lie to the people to justify arbitrary taxation. We pay for the park, volunteer for the park and protect it’s resources. This is the singularly worst conceived idea in Smokies history. Jim is absolutely correct when he says you had better suspect an administration that manipulates data in this fashion.

    John Quillen   04 Jun 12, 9:03 pm

  • As a fellow 900 miler (backpacking miles, not dayhiking), I can attest to the desolation of backcountry campsites in the Smokies. There are many folks who can talk about trails but this fee is about backcountry campsites, of which I have stayed in most every one multiple times. They are not overcrowded (unless you think 2 people per campsite per night is crowded) there is no widespread resource degradation (insert horses/cars here) and absolutely no need for a reserved permit system for empty campsites. The shelters, which we backcountry folk refer to as moron/beginner magnets get crowded during AT thru hiker time and that displaces the guide services which started this whole feeasco in the first place. Since the guide services cant get their paying customers in the shelters, we independent backcountry campers (not dayhikers) have to foot the bill. When are people going to quit allowing the federal government to lie to the people to justify arbitrary taxation. We pay for the park, volunteer for the park and protect it’s resources. This is the singularly worst conceived idea in Smokies history. Jim is absolutely correct when he says you had better suspect an administration that manipulates data in this fashion.

    John Quillen   04 Jun 12, 9:02 pm

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