Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials are proposing to begin charging fees for overnight backcountry use, though in return they're promising better service in obtaining a backcountry permit and better ranger presence in the backcountry.
The proposed changes, which would not apply to day hikers, will be the subject of two public meetings in the weeks ahead. Fees under consideration range from $10 to $30 per reservation, and then an additional $2.25 to $4 per night per person, or simply $5 per person on top of the base reservation fee.
According to a park release, permits already are required for all backcountry users planning to stay overnight. Additionally, those wanting to stay in one of the park's 15 shelters and its "most popular campsites" also must make a reservation for those spaces either by phone or in person at the park’s Backcountry Information Center located in the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg. The reservations ensure that the number of campers on a given night do not exceed the carrying capacity of the site, the release said.
Many other less-sought-after sites do not require that a reservation be filed, but users are still required to self-register at one of 15 permit stations when they arrive in the park.
The desire to start charging backcountry users stems, in part, to a lack of park personnel, which has led to the Backcountry Information Center being open just three hours a day and its phone line often busy or unstaffed, park officials note.
On top of that, the officials note that "(O)nce backpackers do obtain their reservations and arrive at their campsites, they often find the area filled by individuals without permits. In addition site capacities are frequently exceeded, which results in food storage violations, increased wildlife encounters and the need to close campsites to protect visitors and wildlife. Lack of staff in the backcountry severely limits the Park’s ability to resolve these issues."
With hopes of solving those issues, Great Smoky officials are looking at turning things over to a computerized reservation system that would take reservations both online and via a call center for all its backcountry sites 24 hours a day 7 days a week. The reservations would be made by a contractor at: www.recreation.gov, which is the site currently used to book frontcountry campsites.
The park also would "expand the operations of the Backcountry Information Center to provide quality trip planning advice to help users develop a customized itinerary that best fits their available time and ability."
And park officials are promising that with some of the revenues generated by the backcountry fees they would hire additional rangers "who would exclusively patrol the backcountry to improve compliance with park regulations as well as helping to curb plant and wildlife poaching and respond more quickly to visitor emergencies."
“We feel that the proposed changes offer better customer service to backpackers, as well as reducing impacts to park resources," said Great Smoky Superintendent Dale Ditmanson. "In order to implement these changes we are considering several fee structures that would cover both the reservation contractor’s fee and the cost of field Rangers and staff at the Backcountry Information Center.”
Park officials, who note that most other national parks with similar backcountry opportunities already charge fees, plan to solicit public input on the new plan both on-line and through two public meetings. Comments may be sent electronically at: GrsmComments@nps.gov. or by mail to: Superintendent, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, TN 37738.
Informational open houses are scheduled for Tuesday, August 16 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Old Oconaluftee Visitor Center at 1194 Newfound Gap Road in Cherokee, and Thursday, August 18 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Park Headquarters Lobby at 107 Headquarters Road in Gatlinburg. Comments should be submitted by August 26,