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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.


swore that a private resort never ever maintained their own trails in the Smokies


John, I think it's a no-brainer that you're going to lose that argument in court, or anywhere. There is no proof, written, documented, or otherwise, the BBF maintained illegal trails in the park. Conspiracy Theory. Seriously? You think someone in the park is naive enough to let someone come in and start building illegal trails? There's a lot of moving pieces to building and maintaining park trails. If the park, did indeed allow such activity, how 'come we don't see it on the park trail map? Don't they publish directions to ALL of the trails and campsites in the park? 

Gary, you have finally slipped to a new low.  Posting under my name on NPT.  Classy.

To the fake backpackr you might want to look at the Southern Forest Watch lawsuit that clearly shows the trails BF maintained in the park.  And if you took the time to read the NPS response, you would know that the Smokies Admin admitted they asked BF to remove their darn trail sign from NPS lands.  But if you don't think that is sufficient proof then just go to the text of the lawsuit and look at the pictures of the trails and downed trees.  But we have established that you are too lazy to go up there from the get go.  The abundance of evidence, along with a recent scouting trip to the area shows that Blackberry is clearly trying to remove all evidence of their use of NPS lands for a private trail system.  You really should go up to Ace Gap and check it out. I had friends up there last week who sent even more pics of BF own signs telling people to go away.  You think that is just coincidence?  Ha.  We got you folks on the run.  Methinks someone doth protest too much. 

Folks, I think going forward we're going to have to block all comments to stories about the Smokies. Not only are some of the comments in general caustic, but many are far from constructive, and now there are charges of folks usurping others' identities.

Unfortunately, under the current sign-on system we use to allow folks to gain an account so they can comment, all one needs to do is provide an email address and user name, both of which can be fictitious. And, sadly, it seems more than a few people are too timid to use their real names.


Gary, I understand your point, but of late the dialogue that has followed stories about the Smokies' lawsuit constantly devolves into name calling, insults, and the like, and the Traveler was never intended to provide that sort of forum. 

If those on both sides of the issue can't remain civil and on point, we're not going to allow that sort of dialogue on the Traveler as it serves no purpose other than to inflame. Readers who might have something substantial to contribute also are dissuaded from doing so because they don't want to be insulted or denigated for their point(s) of view.

Court filings are a matter of public record, and we will continue to follow this issue through its outcome.

Just for the record, that is not me.. and Kurt, if you're willing to post the conspiracy lawsuits, then you should be willing to keep open the threads for dialogue. 

John, seriously, I posted your original documented account of your trip into this area. It showed nothing similar to your later allegations.  And it also showed a GPS coordinate posted by your friend of the sign outside of the park.  There are also old maps from the 30s and 40s that you can download online that shows this old Hurricane Boundary Trail, where portions of it skirt the direct boundary between NPS and Blackberry farms property.  You make little sense.  You need to really research things before spouting off with conspiracies.

Face it there was nothing to cover up. You're just creating things out of nothing. Secondly, i'm not afraid to use my name. Why would I hide behind a pseudonym?

No offense, but I think this opinion piece that you wrote was going to inflame regardless if it was on the Smokies or not.

I used to enjoy reading the coments here. It was educational and thought provoking.  I don't enjoy seeing the name calling and disparaging remarks.  I understand those posting aren't doing so for my enjoyment but i'd hazard a guess that most feel the same way.  

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