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Traveler's View: Great Smoky Mountains National Park's Backcountry Fee Debate Points To Larger Problem

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While a backcountry use fee might help meet a small portion of Great Smoky's bills, a better solution is a park entrance fee/Kurt Repanshek

In a 25-page motion attacking not just the propriety but also the legality of a backcountry user fee at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a group of backpackers has not only asked that the fees be tossed out, but shined some light on the conundrum of how to afford our public lands.

The overwhelming dilemma here is not that backcountry users have to pay $4 a night, with a maximum fee of $20 for one trip, but rather that the National Park Service has its hands legislatively tied in its efforts to meet the needs of one of the most popular national parks. Politicians seem quick to oppose the fee but not as quick to solve the problem.

The lawsuit (attached below) makes accusations about how the staff of the park, under former Superintendent Dale Ditmanson, went about building its case for the user fees. Among the charges is that the staff concocted complaints about the existing backcountry reservation system, that minutes of public meetings were missing from the administrative record, and that some staff discussions of the matter were conducted on private, not government, email accounts. It also argues that federal regulations prohibit fees for backcountry campsites unless they come with "drinking water, access, road, refuse containers, toilet facilities ... (and) reasonable visitor protection," none of which exist, short of privies, in the park's backcountry.

More so, the lawsuit, contends that federal law prohibits the National Park Service at Great Smoky from charging "an entrance or standard amenity recreation fee ... unless fees are charged for entrance into that park on main highways and thoroughfares."

Southern Forest Watch, which brought the lawsuit, also contends that "(A) 25 percent drop in backcountry camping (from 84,236 in 2012 to 62,863 the following year) since full implementation of this fee is dramatic evidence that this fee has impaired this generation's use of the Smoky Mountains ... "

In February 2012, Superintendent Ditmanson told the Traveler that, faced with an inadequate budget and unable to charge an entrance fee for any of his roughly 9 million yearly visitors, he saw no way of improving visitor services and protecting backcountry resources without charging users who spend the night in the woods. 

The solution would seem to lie with those political entities that have sided with Southern Forest Watch in its anti-fee fight: the speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, the Knox County (Tennessee) Commission as well as county officials in Bradley and Blount counties in Tennessee and Swain County in North Carolina. Rather than simply opposing the backcountry fees, these politicians should work to overturn the prohibition on entrance fees to Great Smoky, or to pressure Washington to better fund the Park Service. Or both.

Similar support should be sought from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, who in the past has been honored by the National Parks Conservation Association for his pro-Park Service stances. Moving to shore up financing for Great Smoky Mountains specifically, and the National Park Service in general, would burnish that William Penn Mott Jr. Park Leadership Award he received from the NPCA in 2007 for opposing drastic changes to the Park Service's Management Policies and the costly "Road to Nowhere."

This is not to wholeheartedly endorse fees in the parks across the board. But when entrance fees are charged at one-third of the 401 units of the National Park System, and put to good use in improving the parks for the visitors' benefit, the longstanding ban against such a fee at Great Smoky is an anachronism in this day of scarce federal funds. 

While recreation fees are generally unsavory, if there are to be fees, the Smokies would benefit much, much more from a $10-$20 per car fee from the millions who enter the park and exert considerable wear and tear on not only roads but also frontcountry facilities each year than from a $4 per night fee on 65,000 backcountry campers who sleep on the ground and walk down a path.


Congress does not have the power to allow the NPS to charge an entrance fee for GRSM when accessed from Tennessee. Not being familiar with the Park I don't know if there are other access points where an entrance fee could be charged, but charging at some access points and not others would likely create a logistical nightmare.

The State of Tennessee conveyed their highways to the United States with a deed restriction prohibiting fees in perpetuity:

[I, Charles F. Wayland Jr, Commissioner of Highways and Public Works, under authority of the governor and General Assembly of the State of Tennessee] do hereby sell, transfer, and convey to the United States of America, subject to the reservations hereinafter set out, all of the right, title, and interest of the State of Tennessee in and to any and all State Highways located on, over, or within the lands which are a part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
. . .
The grantor conveys said right, title, and interest in and to State Highways subject to the following reservations:
. . .
3. No toll or license fee shall ever be imposed by the United States of America or any agency thereof for the use by the public of state highways Nos. 71 and 73, and the rights is especially reserved unto the State of Tennessee to allow the public to use said highways; provided however, that the United States of America may regulate and restrict the use of said highways by commercial vehicles of more than one and one-half (1 1/2) ton rated capacity between the hours of 8:00 am and 6:00 pm.

- Accepted by the Director of the National Park Service, June 1, 1951

You're right Kitty, but that's not to say Congress -- Sen. Alexander in particular -- couldn't persuade the Tennessee General Assembly to alter that prohibition for the good of the park and all who enjoy it.

Well said, Kurt. 

I backpacked in Cataloochee last fall before the shutdown. It was a last-minute decision,  and I did not have access to make the reservation online. I made well over 20 calls trying to get the permit. One reservation number didn't give the option for GSMNP. No one there could tell me who to call. I left voicemails all over the place, no one called me back. I finally crossed paths with another backpacker who gave me a number to call. There was NO signage at Cataloochee about how to call to get a permit. (Yes, I had cell service in the area) When I finally got someone to make the reservation,  it took in excess of 20 minutes - how that is a good use of the Ranger's time is beyond me. 

But, I wonder how charging an acess fee for vehicles would impact things - that requires manning the booths, administration, etc. In the Spring and Fall, it certainly would generate a lot of revenue... 

The reservation system is cumbersome when it does work properly.  You need a printer, credit card and it really isn't operable on a phone with internet service.  But that is just the tip of the iceberg.  The lies that drove this fee are the biggest issue and why?  To generate less than a couple hundred thousand in revenue?  You want to know why Lamar alexander supports the fee?  Because his friends are the beneficiaries of the political patronage of which the lawsuit speaks.  Both the park and Lamar and the private resorts want folks out of the backcountry because they see people as the problem with the resource.  Therefore they fabricated data to make it sound like a problem and successfully reduced visitation to the backcountry by %25.  I've seen numbers that say up to thirty percent but the point is clear.  Horses are the problem in the backcountry if folks are honest but the horse crowd is also the Lamar voting/Blackberry Farms crowd so instead of addressing something that really causes damage, we will just dispense with the meddlesome backpackers that actually can see the bs being spouted by Ditmanson and his cronies.  Everyone except Clay Jordan that had something to do with this fee is gone.  The lady who spearheaded the lies was promoted to a superintendency out West, Melissa Cobern.   Ditmanson brought this scandal to town and quietly retired like the rest.  It was his soul to the devil so he could live well.   Charging an entrance fee is a whole other issue.   I'd like to see Lamar try to get that on the books.  He is vulnerable politically right now.  The Southern Forest Watch has exposed him for the Smokies phony he really is. 

The real travesty of this backpacking fee in the Smokies is the park has admitted that the fee money only covers a system to collect the fee! It doesn't help the park budget or other needs in any way. Truly a monumental waste to anyone with the least bit of common sense. I think what happens in this case will go a long way in setting the tone for the rest of the NPS system. 


A better fee idea would be charging folks who drive the Cades Cove loop (how about $4 per person, per loop!)  I'd venture to say it gets the most visitation of any area in the park, and it's probably not even close.  It also seems to require a lot of resources (rangers, etc) to open/close, patrol, break up bear-jams, maintain structures, etc.  Finally I'd venture to say there is more pollution (auto emissions, trash, etc) generated from that area than any other area of the park.  Let a loop fee pay for the upkeep and encourage carpooling, or gasp, walking the loop.

If NPS can figure a way to charge people for sleeping in the backcountry, they can figure a way to charge for Cades Cove auto access.

Tom, you are correct.  If they can concoct data to justify sleeping on unimproved ground, then they could easily fabricate data to justify a loop fee in the Cove.  But here is why, in my opinion, they dont.  If they started charging folks to drive the loop, then Sevier County would be up in arms because all those tourists would have no reason to visit the park.  Because that is the extent of their experience in the Smokies.  Heaven forbid they ever leave their vehicles. Sevier county wants people driving into their restuaruants, hotels and go kart tracks and Cherokee wants folks visiting their casinos.  A toll on the road would eliminate that commerce.  A tax on backpackers is a foot in the door for a tax on trailhead parking, fly fishing and many other nickel and dime schemes.  None of which will affect those loop clogging rednecks because they keep the Pigeon Forge buffets in business.

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