Hiker Wants Great Smokies Mountain National Park To Divulge Comments On Proposed Backcountry Fee

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."

Comments

If the effort to have access to the Public Comments is like what I've experienced, NPS will not release them until after the EA is done and implemented. The tone of the comments submitted were mischaracterized in statements to support their objective and not by just a little either. The process was just a requirement and the result, a foregone conclusion. NPS Culture on display. Good luck!

this is commodifcation of nature and wrongheaded. check wildwilderness.org for information about these trends to pay to play

I'm fortunate enough to have the G.S.M.N.P. within 1/2 hrs. drive from my house.
I spend an incredible amount of time x-c backpacking across those beautiful mountains.
In all the time i've spent up there, I've never seen the overcrowding that they talk about.
This proposal is being based on false information, and will do nothing but drive the people away who are the true stewards of those mountains.

No fee is charged for driving a car into the park (a practice established by the laws that established the park). No fee is required for entering high-cost maintenance areas like the park's historic districts, although recently I found no staff present nor sanitary facilities open at Cataloochie Valley Historic District. Therefore, why should any fee be charged for the use of the backcountry, including the Appalachian Trail?

Since public comments to a pre-decisional agency action are fundamental to the action itself, why not make these written comments systematically available to the public at large? It would bring the NPS one step closer to getting itself in line with Obama's pledge for openness and transparency in goverment. Since these documents have most likely already been scanned and put into some form of electronic data base, why not release these documents in electronic form?

You can be sure Park Headquarters is well staffed every day.

Well Owen, would you accept if the New Congress and President in January of 2013 asked you to be Director of the National Park Service. With some character at the top (Trickle Down) those things you mentioned just might have a shot (openness and transparency).

My husband and I backpacked in GSMNP three years ago and found there to be very few backcountry campers but also very little trail maintenance. We remarked that if the park charged a small fee for backcountry camping (like most other parks - at least for the reservation), that could potentially pay for some maintenance, which would hopefully encourage more people to visit the beautiful backcountry. We've done most of our backpacking out West, and the trails at most of the national parks there are incredibly well maintained, comparatively. We wouldn't have minded paying a fee for some better trails.

Katrina,

None of these fees will fund any trail maintenance whatsoever.