Proposed Backcountry Fee At Great Smoky Mountains National Park Would Be A First For Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers
"Do you have a reservation?"
That question for some time has been asked of backcountry users in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but in the future you might have to hand over some money to be able to answer affirmatively.
While the park long has required overnight backcountry users to have a free permit, and required reservations for all shelters and some backcountry campsites, it has not charged backpackers for those permits or reservations.
That could change under a proposal currently open for public comment. And if a charge for overnight backcountry stays is levied, it would create the first area along the 2,180-mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail where thru-hikers, who have to traverse nearly 72 miles of the park, would have to pay to lay down for the night.
Though most of this year's legions of thru-hikers currently are somewhere out in the woods on the A.T. and likely not aware of the proposal, officials at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy are reviewing it and plan to meet soon with park officials to discuss its ramifications.
The desire to start charging backcountry users in Great Smoky stems, in part, from a lack of park personnel, which has led to the park's Backcountry Information Center being open just three hours a day, and thus its phone line often is busy or unstaffed, park officials note.
Melissa Cobern, the park's backcountry management specialist, said this past week that part of the intent is to make it easier, through an on-line reservation system, for backpackers to reserve a spot in the park. With an on-line system, she said, the few rangers currently on hand to handle backcountry reservations would have more time to help backpackers who have more questions about the park and its backcountry.
Additionally, a reservation system would enable the park to better manage shelter use, said Ranger Cobern.
“A lot of times people will get to backcountry sites, particularly the ones that aren’t reservation only, and they’re significantly overcrowded," she said. In those situations, backpackers often will simply pitch a tent nearby instead of heading down the trail in search of a shelter with room; that results in resource damage, the ranger said.
As for Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, she said whether to charge them is a question still being explored. “We’re hoping that if people have ideas, that they share them," said Ranger Cobern.
Park officials have not settled on a specific fee, but have noted that some other parks, such as Glacier National Park, charge as much as $30 to make a reservation, plus a per-person daily fee. Dollar-figures currently being mentioned at Great Smoky range from $10 per reservation, plus $5 per person, down to simply $4 per person per night, the ranger said.
Morgan Sommerville, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy's southern regional director, plans to meet with Great Smoky officials in a week or so to discuss the proposal. He declined Friday to specify what aspects he wanted to discuss out of courtesy to the park officials.
“There are lots of considerations that need to be discussed, but I’m not interested in blindsiding the park," he said during a call from his Ashville, North Carolina, office. He did allow, though, that, “We don’t have any opininon one way or another yet."
One idea being mulled by park officials is to find a way to work with businesses along the A.T. that are within 30 miles of the park's boundaries so they might be able to make reservations for thru-hikers.
“That could work," Mr. Sommerville responded when the idea was floated to him, adding, though, that "I’m not willing to commit one way or another. We don’t know enough about it to comment yet.”
At a website dedicated to A.T. hikers, White Blaze, by Friday afternoon nearly 200 comments had been attached to a post containing the park's press release outlining the possibility of instituting backcountry fees for overnight users.
"Not completely opposed to it but it's always been free here. I think I buy enough GSMNP maps, coffee cups and bumper stickers," commented P-Train, a 38-year-old from Knoxville, Tennessee. "I'm all for giving where it counts but..."
"Carl in Florida," meanwhile, wrote that, "Mixed feelings here. Pay for use is a fair way to distribute the expenses of maintaining a national park, but then my tax dollars are supposed to be already at work here doing that. The Libertarian in me says no, the Pragmatic says yes. It will depend on what the $5 covers."
"Bearpaw," though, was deadset against the proposal.
"It's an outrageous proposition. The motorists who create the demand for the massive majority of park staff and facilities will still swell and park and pay nothing," the 40-year-old from Ooltewah, Tennessee, wrote. "Where will these 'improvements' occur. It seems unlikely it will be for backcountry development or new campsites. More likely, it will either be spent on frontcountry improvements or more staff to administer and enforce the permit system, thereby negating any benefit to those actually paying.
"Worse still, some talks include farming the responsibility out to private contractors, meaning the money will go directly to their profits. Ultimately, the likelihood of the permit money supporting hikers' interests seems slim to none. Absolutely, positively no is the best I can give.
"Unfortunately, backcountry hikers and campers are a small enough portion of the GSMNP visitor population that this will likely be pushed through with little opposition, so long as the free entrance clause is still honored," he/she wrote. "Just remember, if you say 'I'd be fine with it,' you could save the trouble and simply put donation money into the many locked boxes at most parking areas to support the park. Don't put an extra tax on those who put the least strain on the park."
To that argument, Ranger Cobern said park officials weren't trying to single out backpackers, but improve their experience in the park by putting certainty into where they'll be able to spend the night, reduce resource damage, and increase the number of rangers out in the backcountry. How many additional rangers might be deployed has not been determined at this point, however.
Park officials 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 p.m. 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 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Park Headquarters Lobby at 107 Headquarters Road in Gatlinburg. Comments should be submitted by August 26.