Officials at Great Smoky Mountains National Park are being asked to make public all the comments they received on a proposal to charge for overnight backcountry use. Park officials say they'll comply, but it will cost John Guillen $1,200.
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 raised this summer. 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, has said 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.
But Mr. Quillen notes that overnight backcountry use has declined in the Smokies in recent years and there's no need for additional rangers.
"Because the park used false data to support their claim, citing campsite overcrowding, locals are furious," the Knoxville, Tenn., man says. "Backcountry camping is on the decline and if you break down the numbers there are less than two campers per campsite per night. Is that overcrowding?"
Mr. Quillen had to resort to filing a Freedom of Information Act request with park officials to provide him with copies of the more than 1,500 comments -- "I was certain that they were overwhelmingly negative with regard to the proposal." -- only to be told that he'd be charged $1,200 for copying them.
"The outsourcing of (campsite) reservations to a Canadian-based company is a slap in the face to local volunteers who have manned that office," Mr. Quillen tells the Traveler.
"Supt. Ditmanson has allowed the office to go understaffed to create this 'crisis.' They have turned away volunteers in droves at the Sugarlands. Smokies' management has created the perception that the hiring of two rangers will solve all manner of problems.
"There are 800 miles of trails in the Smokies. The most crowded areas are the A.T. Shelters which, in our collective opinion, are hardly backcountry," he added. "Icewater Springs, which the park cites as their main problem area, is 3 miles from Newfound Gap where FDR dedicated the park. I am a weekly backpacker and have completed every single trail in the park multiple times. There is no overcrowding, this is a federal control and fee grab by the park."