On Feb. 13, the National Park Service initiated a new fee system for backcountry camping in the Smoky Mountain National Park. Historically, park visitors were required to pay for camping in vehicle campground areas only.
Backcountry camping simply involved filling out a permit to let park workers know where people were staying. With little surprise, the new fee has been met with considerable conflict.
Although park officials maintain that the new fees are necessary to provide adequate backcountry upkeep and visitor service, many groups insist otherwise.
“It’s a tax — plain and simple,” said local outdoor lover Eric Graves. “The proposal seeks to tax the smallest and least politically connected user group of the GSMNP … Why, if you ostensibly need revenue to make improvements to the park experience, focus on the user group that will generate the least amount of funding?”
While some folks are fine with paying a fee to enjoy the Smokies, the conflict runs much deeper.
Recent allegations against the National Park Service claim that notable public input was ignored entirely regarding the new fees. There is also concern that fee income will be used solely for maintaining the new online reservation system.
“The superintendent (Dale Ditmanson) has changed his justification for the fee so many times we had to make a list to keep up with it," said John Quillen, an avid backpacker and member of the Southern Forest Watch. "He is perpetuating a misconception amongst the populace that this fee will be used to improve the backcountry. That is a lie, which specifically stipulates that it will go to fund a reservation system and reservation system only.”
The new reservation system will be available online for users to check occupancy at certain backcountry sites or shelters within the park. For many people, using the fees exclusively for maintaining an online reservation system is simply unreasonable.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park spokesperson Dana Soehn issued a response last week, explaining that recent allegations are misleading and unfounded.
“We really feel that this new system will provide better visitor service and maximize protection of resources,” she said. “We’re really excited that we’ll be able to provide hands-on education and maintain contact with users of the park’s resources.”
She went on to clarify that the fee money will, in addition to running the new online reservation system, be used to provide visitor services seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Previously, she explained, volunteers handled most of the phone calls and visitor inquiries.
In addition, there are roughly 100 backcountry campsites and 15 shelters to maintain within the park’s boundaries. According to Soehn, funding from the fees would enable the NPS to hire two backcountry rangers to help with trail maintenance and provide much-needed campsite and shelter upkeep.
Dr. Mike McKinney, director of UT’s Environmental Studies program, viewed the fees from a sustainability perspective.
“My opinion is that the fee is a great idea. It is well known that people tend to undervalue environmental resources because they have historically expected them to be ‘free.' Things like clean air, water (and) wildlife," McKinney said. "That works okay when you have few people in an environment that is resource-rich. However, now that we have high population densities and nature is being overwhelmed all over the place with things like urban sprawl, that value system is obsolete. Nature is not free and people will have to learn that it is going cost them if they expect to enjoy it.”
Thru-hikers attempting the 2,180-mile footpath known as the Appalachian Trail (AT) will also be affected, as it runs through the heart of the Smokies. A $20 permit purchased in advance will be required for thru-hikers, with a maximum of eight days to make it through the 72-mile Smokies portion.
Ben Royer, graduate student in forestry, weighed in on the issue from the perspective of recently completing a thru-hike of the AT, from Maine to Georgia.
“I hiked the AT southbound in 2010. It was one of the best experiences of my life. If I did it over again, a $20 fee for one 70-mile section wouldn’t ruin my experience," Royer said. "Vandalism and abuse of park structures in the backcountry is a problem, as is trash, campfire impacts, and cutting of vegetation around shelters and campsites," Royer said. "I’ve seen this damage firsthand as a volunteer maintainer … So, yes, I’d support the fee if it meant more rangers in the backcountry helping to deter vandalism.”
However, like many local backpackers, Royer expressed concern with the use of the fee money.
“As I understand it, however, most of the fee for overnight use will go to funding an online reservation system," Royer said. "I have never had a problem with the current reservation system. No one I know has ever had a problem with it. No one I have spoken to on this issue supports the website … I can support an overnight-use fee if I know that it is being used directly to enhance the backcountry experience. I do not think that an expensive online reservation system will serve that goal, and I do not plan to use it.”
In addition to complaints about use of fee money, the Southern Forest Watch has raised interesting questions regarding the public comment process of enacting the fee system. While the NPS asserts that the fee system has been well received, groups such as the Southern Forest Watch disagree, contending that initial public complaints about the fee system were overwhelmingly ignored in 2011.
Accordingly, the Southern Forest Watch is preparing a lawsuit against the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The objections caught momentum in Maryville last Thursday when the Blount County Commission passed a resolution against the fee system, calling for the Tennessee General Assembly to investigate and review the legality of the proposed system. They’ve publicly encouraged other counties bordering the park to join the fight.
“It will be a very sad day when I have to pay it," Royer said. "The National Park Service is obviously going to make sure it happens, and I understand. Budgets are tight, but there won’t be any going back, and I will really miss being able to do what I love for free in a place as beautiful as the Smokies.”
Information regarding trip planning and the new reservation system can be found at https://smokiespermits.nps.gov/.
To follow the legal situation, check http://www.southernforestwatch.org/.