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Great Smoky Mountains National Park Looking To Backcountry User Fee To Improve Services, Protect Resources


Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials want to charge a fee, possibly $4 per person per night, possibly more, for backcountry users who spend the night in the woods at a shelter along the Appalachian Trail, such as this one at Spence Field, or in one of the backcountry campsites, such as the Mount Sterling site. Spence Field photo by Kurt Repanshek, Mount Sterling shot by Randy Johnson.

Editor's note: The issue of fees in the National Park System comes up from time to time, with some park users in favor of them and others feeling they're unjust and unequally levied. At Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials last summer proposed a fee for backcountry use that brought outrage from some who enjoy the park. The following story examines that issue and how Park Service officials utilize public comment in making decisions.

In a day when a cup of coffee can run you $4, how much pushback should you expect if you were charged that much to spend the night in the woods of Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

Surprisingly, quite a bit.

Pinched by an inadequate budget and unable to charge an entrance fee for any of his roughly 9 million yearly visitors, Great Smoky Superintendent Dale Ditmanson sees no way of improving visitor services and protecting backcountry resources without charging users who spend the night in the woods.

“I’ve certainly been quoted as saying that I don’t have the same tools in my toolbox that the superintendents of Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon have. Especially when the (fee) legislation authorizes 80 percent of that money to stay within the park," says the superintendent in reference to those other parks that are able to charge entrance fees and keep most of the money. "We could do some really great things at the Smokies, but I just don’t have that tool at this time.”

What Superintendent Ditmanson does have, however, is a skeleton staff of volunteers who run his backcountry reservations office three hours a day, five days a week, and a backcountry that in places and at times is overcrowded and too often trashed. A fee system, he says, would extend the park's backcountry office to five eight-hour days, enable two rangers to patrol the backcountry daily, and provide users with an on-line reservation system.

The over-riding situation -- too many demands and needs, and precious few dollars -- is commonplace throughout the National Park System. There have been opinions voiced that the problem with the National Park Service budget is that it's top-heavy and thus denies precious dollars to flow down to the park level. Regardless, more and more parks are turning to fees -- backcountry fees, interpretive program fees, entrance fees and more -- to maintain the parks.

While fees have never been charged at the Smokies for overnight backcountry stays, outside of a bed at LeConte Lodge, there has been a reservation system on and off for campsites over the years, one that has its own nuances.

"As recently as the mid-1980s, all overnight backcountry campers were required to make a reservation for all sites in the backcountry, either in person at a reservation booth near park headquarters or the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in North Carolina, or by telephone through the same office," says Great Smoky spokesman Bob Miller. "In the late 1980s the park decided to eliminate the 'all campsite reservation requirement' and scaled back to a system that required reservations for the most popular or heavily used campsites/shelters, which is comprised of  24 sites and the 15 shelters. 

"Backcountry users are currently required to contact the park by phone or in-person to make reservations for these sites, and upon arrival, they must fill out a free self-registration permit that they carry with them," Mr. Miller continued. "We refer to these as 'rationed' sites. The other 65 sites are 'un-rationed,' but users are still required to self-register and fill out the permit.  All sites (rationed and unrationed) have capacities which specify the number of campers permitted, per night, per site."

New fees and higher fees are seldom popular, and so it wasn't surprising that when Superintendent Ditmanson proposed a fee for overnight use in the park's backcountry that it was met with much condemnation when the public was asked to comment on the proposal.

Part of the concern was that the proposed fees, which range from a low of $4 per person per night to a high of a $10 registration fee plus $2.25 per night per person, could eclipse front-country campsite fees, which range from $14-$20 per night, depending on how many are in your group. Other issues raised in the comments were complaints that day hikers would not be charged a fee, that those who traveled the backcountry by horse would not see a higher fee to help repair the damage hooves do to trails, that motorists traveling through the Smokies do so for free.

"I am in favor of reducing poaching and improving backcountry campsites. However, the benefit to flora and fauna benefits ALL who use the Smokies, not backpackers alone," "KTW" wrote in commenting on the fee proposal. "If backpackers, whose impact is minimal are charged, then day hikers and motorized vehicles should also be charged and an entrance fee should be charged. The AT (Appalachian Trail) through the Smokies is rutted. Will AT hikers be charged? If all those charges are in place we no longer have 'wild' acreage available to all.

"Having backpacked extensively across the country for about 40 years, I believe that those of us who choose to walk and carry our belongings should be allowed to do so freely."

Jennifer Kelley added: "In my opinion, as the park cannot charge an entrance fee as (Route) 441 is a major U.S. highway, is that the Park Service needs to up front-country fees (where 99 percent of your tourist traffic goes). I also encourage entrance fees for Cades Cove, as you're only going one place if you're going there. I feel this would make much more money than a backcountry fee. If the Park Service is dead set on a backcountry fee, why not charge horse campers per horse? Every horse camp I've been to has been in terrible shape and I always pack out at least a pound of trash. All trails in the park that allow horses are badly eroded and are mostly in terrible shape, as well."

Others feared the fee system would price them out of the backcountry.

"As a long-time visitor to Great Smoky, I am opposed to all the fee-based aspects of your proposal," wrote James Johnson. "Your proposed fee rates would make backcountry camping more expensive than your campgrounds, and that is not how it should be. I would not object as much to a per-reservation fee, but a nightly per person fee would make it difficult to take my kids and visit the backcountry in the park. If this proposal is implemented, my family would be more inclined to take them to one of our great national forest areas which are much closer and still free, thus avoiding Great Smoky. Not only will the park lose my money, but so will the towns and businesses that are in close proximity to the park."

Not all comments were against the proposal, though. Christoper Wieland expressed a viewpoint that was shared by more than a few of the 230 comments (including two petitions) submitted during the comment period.

"I whole-heartedly support the proposal to provide a reservation call center and a fee structure for backcountry camping sites," he wrote. "A call center will eliminate the hassle of getting reservations by phone or in person, and the fees will help with trail maintenance and patrols. I personally have had reservations at shelters and found that the bunks were taken by campers without reservations, a problem that can be mitigated by more rangers. I also would hope that some portion of the fees will be reserved for trail maintenance."

Carol Anderson also endorsed a fee system.

"The backcountry office has provided excellent service, but is understaffed and overworked," she wrote. "The backcountry areas need more ranger patrolling, assistance, and support. The honor system for backpackers and horsemen is definitely broken. Your plan to charge fees for usage is excellent."

Fees often are a controversial issue in the National Park System, even though they've long been associated with gaining entrance to the parks. Great Smoky has never had an entrance fee, however, due to a quirk of history tied to the park's creation. When the state of Tennessee transferred ownership of Newfound Gap Road to the federal government in 1936, it stipulated that “no toll or license fee shall ever be imposed…to travel the road.”

While Superintendent Ditmanson points to that language in saying a blanket prohibition against an entry fee doesn't exist, he did say trying to get the necessary authority to implement one would not come easily.

"I guess you would refer to it as the political third rail, because of that handed down history," he explained. "It is very powerful, and a lot of the elected officials in my mind would be very apprehensive to even consider that conversation. ... It would take the Tennessee General Assembly to reconsider that deed in order for us to consider an entrance fee.”

While fees have been introduced to the park -- fees to use front-country campgrounds, fees to get married in the park, fees to fish, fees to commercially guide hikes -- there never has been a fee tied to strapping a pack on your back and disappearing down one of the 800 miles or so of trail in the Smokies.

Superintendent Ditmanson and his staff, though, are not venturing into uncharted territory with their proposal to assess backcountry fees. Among the parks that already charge some form of fee, whether it's a "reservation" fee, an "overnight" fee, or both, include Yellowstone (a $20 reservation fee), Grand Teton ($25 reservation fee), Yosemite ($5 per confirmed reservation plus $5 per person), Olympic ($5 per group to register, then $2 per person per night), Mount Rainier ($20 reservation fee), Zion ($5 reservation fee), Grand Canyon ($10 permit fee, plus $5 per person per night below the rim, $5 per group staying above the rim), and Glacier ($30 per reservation).

These fees generate a reasonable amount of income for the parks that charge them. According to Park Service officials, in 2005, backcountry fees generated $1.3 million for the parks that collected them. By 2011 that sum had risen to $1.5 million. If Great Smoky gains permission from the director's office to institute a backcountry fee of $4 per person per night, it would generate at least $300,000, according to estimates.

"And the three places that funding could be spent is on an on-line system, whether it’s, which has a fee that we pay based on the national contract, or, if that is not servicable, we would have some funding to develop our own system," Superintendent Ditmanson says. "And then staffing in the backcountry office to extend those hours from three hours to a full day operation, and two backcountry rangers. So that I think is getting a lot of mileage out of that.”

But that "mileage" might not come without a good measure of resentment. John Quillen, a Tennessean from Knoxville who fought to have the public comments on the fee proposal made public, says that by his calculation the comments were "almost 20 to 1 against the fee." Mr. Quillen's breakdown of the comments shows 827 opposed to the fee and just 45 in favor of it.

"Superintendent Ditmanson hasn't reached out to any of the actual user groups since receiving the public input, so the perception is full steam ahead, 'let them eat cake!'" Mr. Quillen said in an email. "Many of the large user groups such as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy with untold membership, Southern Appalachian Backountry Horsemen, the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers with 1,500 members, all count as one vote.  That really lowballs the 20 to 1 estimate, since the public comments period was very short to begin with.

"It is more than apparent that this has become a foregone conclusion and that Ditmanson is more interested in attracting corporate sponsorship of the Smokies e.g. Friends groups, concessionaires, and others who wield cash," he went on. "It is like the scene from History of the World when the King said, 'I love my people,"  before raising the shotgun to shoot one that was thrown across his target range like skeet.'"

At times during his conversation with the Traveler the superintendent sounded as if instituting the fee was a done deal. He acknowledged as much when it was mentioned that the Park Service stance on public comment periods is that the comments do not equate to a vote, and so cynics might assume that the fee was going to be implemented regardless of the number of comments against it.

“Well, I guess that’s a good point," said Superintendent Ditmanson. "When I was at a public meeting talking to people, I admitted that we wouldn’t put the idea forward if we didn’t think we couldn’t improve service to the public and protect the resources. So from that perspective, have we put ourselves on a road to that kind of decision? Yeah, I can see how that can be interpretted."

At the same time, he added, if issues raised through the comments show that a fee system is untenable, "then certainly we would not pursue it beyond that point."

While the fee proposal is being reviewed by officials in the Park Service's Washington office, and, if approved, won't take effect before 2013, the superintendent said there are issues that need to be resolved before a fee is levied. Perhaps foremost surrounds the use of, a website where reservations can be made at many front-country and backcountry campsites across the federal landscape. More than a few of the comments complained about the system.

"It gets a lot of criticism," Superintendent Ditmanson said of the on-line reservation system, "and in fact there are some things in there that are untenable under the current practice that would make me go down a different road. ... if we can’t get past a 48-hour cancellation fee, because spontaneity of backcountry campers is really important.

"I’m still working through things internally to make sure what the contractual issues are with and, well, we want to work with that site, because it is a one-stop shopping for the Park Service and other federal agencies," he said. "But at the same time, if we can’t figure out the mechanics of it in a way that serves our visitors, then I won’t have achieved what I set out to do. So we’ve said if that’s the case we’ll work to come up with our own software system.”

Another issue is how to deal with Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, a gypsy-like group of backpackers accustomed to traveling at their own pace, with a willingness to speed up, slow down, or layover when the desire and need strikes. How they would reserve campsites for specific dates could be problematic, the superintendent acknowledged.

“There’s comments on both sides of the equation about how we deal with thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail. It’s a real big question, and some of the folks who camp in some of the more traditional campsites are, ‘don’t treat them any different than us. We should all be treated equal,'" said Superintendent Ditmanson. "And then thru-hikers are ‘we should be treated different because we are different.’ And so we’ve actually had a couple of follow-up meetings here with a group of people representing the thru-trail people to really understand what that is. We want to address those kinds of concerns that are out there.”

With a surge of thru-hikers coming through the park in April, that, too, could present a problem for other backcountry users hoping to enjoy the spring and early summer in the backcountry. Might thru-hikers leave others with few backcountry sites to reserve?

“Well, there is that rush of people when they start out in Georgia and they start hitting us, usually in April, and how do we manage those numbers and how do we identify them?" said the superintendent.

A problem that can affect both thru-hikers and weekend hikers is the unexpected: What happens if heavy rains or a twisted ankle force some to stay over an extra night in a shelter? In such situations, he said, it wouldn't be unreasonable for rangers to excuse the layover.

“We recognize that there can be those situations where people can’t get to where they thought they would be on that next night," Superintendent Ditmanson said.

If a fee program is instituted, Superintendent Ditmanson said it will underwrite two rangers whose sole responsibility will be patrolling the backcountry.

"I’ve made it very clear to my chief ranger that these are not rangers that are one day a week driving the roads and two days a week in the park. These are rangers that are going to hike in on their Monday morning and they’re going to be in the backcountry and then they’re going to hike out," he said. "Whatever it turns out, three or four nights, four 10-hour days, or however we manage to schedule it. But they’re going to be physically out moving around."

While two rangers working 40-hour weeks might not seem like much in a park with roughly 800 miles of trails, the superintendent pointed out that their presence will be aided by the Appalachian Trail Ridgerunners and other volunteers.

In the end, some see the fee proposition as a way to gain better control over what goes on in the park's backcountry.

"Our entire staff at A Walk in the Woods not only welcome these proposed changes, but are very excited about them," wrote Vesna and Erik Plakanis, owners of a guide service that operates in the park. "We are happy to pay more to fund backcountry rangers and are also looking forward to tighter regulations in the beautiful and worn backcountry.

"Too often we have come upon people abusing the resources, too many people at a tent site or shelter, folks cutting down trees to burn, burning garbage, leaving food out, feeding wildlife, bringing dogs on the trails. Not all the problems will go away, of course. Eight-hundred miles is a lot to patrol, but with fees and required reservations at all sites, the issues will certainly be mitigated."

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Ms. Bernstein was so wrong in this case and time has proven that so. The bear cables that she commented on as being proof of amenities are provided by Friends of the Smokies not the park. Looks like the lawsuit by Southern Forest Watch is going forward as the judge ruled this week despite the park trying to dismiss it. I think history will show folks who wanted a fee just to make them feel better as if they were protecting the mountains were the true fools here.

This is silly, backpacking requires adaptability
and you don't always know where you're going to sleep every night, especially
on multi-day excursions. Reservations are okay for safety reasons, but charging
a per person fee? They don't even do that for car camping. This fee will make
backcountry camping less safe because it will encourage backpackers to not
reserve sites, not check in, and setup camp in non-designated campsites. This
will cause more damage to the smokies and cause hikers to be less safe. 

Also, this is basically a toll on AT thru-hikers,
not a usage fee. There shouldn't be any difference if they enter the park on
foot via the AT or by car via a road. It goes against what the original donors

Nick Kamm


Here is my two cents which is the body of the letter I sent to the GSMNP Superintendant, Dale Ditmanson:

My passion for the backcountry was born as a boy scout early in life. As I got older the boy scouts got trumped by fumes (car fumes and perfume); and, as a result, my time in the back country dwindled until I headed off to college. 

College brought about a fresh dose of the real world for me: the stress of balancing all of my responsibilities and a need to escape from it all. The backdrop behind these two competing issues in my life was a limited budget. Hence, I found myself coming back to the wilderness. And lucky for me it was essentially free of cost and nearby! Oh, my gear wasn't as nice as it is today. My knowledge and appreciation for the trails and all the history therein is faint in comparison to where it stands today.

However, my thirst for an escape to God's creation, where the world and its problems seem to melt away was oh so very real and desirable. Needless to say, these visits to the backcountry in college re-kindled my love with the back country. Today I am an avid hiker, Lifetime member of the Great Smoky Mountains Association, and father of two boys who frequent the back country as often as possible.

I can't help but wonder: would this love affair have never re-kindled were I to have needed to clear these new proposed requirements and cost? I am afraid so. Ten or twenty bucks isn't a lot of money to some working adults.  But to the future of our Park (youth to young adults), it may be the very hindrance that keeps them away from this treasure in our backyards (The Great Smoky Mountains National Park). And, it would do so during the years in which it is critical for them to be there. And who knows what that may cost down the road…

I understand your need to raise fees in the park. But please, consider a different population than your best stewards: backcountry campers. In my humble opinion, the greatest damage in the backcountry is enacted by the horse riding crowd. Maybe they would be a better target for fees?

If you want to police the over used and abused campsites, may I humbly submit that you consider a volunteer/stewardship program (similar to the AT Ridge Runners program) to be
your eyes and ears.  Since our observation and frequency of visits to the backcountry would trump what any two rangers could possibly accomplish, it would seem logical to engage us to help you.  After all, we desperately want to fix the damage and abuse to the campsites most affected.  Furthermore, using volunteers to man the reservation lines during peak hours would seem more cost effective way to address the booking problem. I average 12-24 nights in the backcountry per year and I generally am able to get through, maybe an occasional re-dial, but not always. That is a small price to pay for the experience of actually getting into the back country. It would seem a few volunteers would address this problem.

In closing, we both know that fees that start up, never go down or away, so please be creative in addressing the problems before you.  Money isn’t always the best solution… it just sometimes can seem that way. I stand ready to help you or a member of your staff brainstorm these ideas in a more constructive format. Until then, thanks in advance for your careful consideration in this important subject. 


By far the best response that I have read on the ACTUAL proposal from the Park came from Al Smith, 900 miler and backcountry user since 1979, so I quote:

URL Link to Original proposal: Original Smokies Proposal

Date submitted: 8/25/2011

Submitted via Email to:

Problem Identification by the NPS--Synopsis followed by our comments

1. Complaints about the amount of time and effort it takes for visitors to get a backcountry reservation and/or acquire backcountry planning information.

We agree that it is sometimes difficult to make contact with the backcountry office via telephone. Also many times when we've visited personally, there were no NPS staff available in the backcountry office--notwithstanding the fact that during those times I discovered plenty of NPS staff available in the visitor center manning the information desk. Furthermore, there is no longer a backcountry information office at the Oconaluftee visitor center—hikers on the NC side must travel all the way to Gatlinburg to get an in-person briefing.

2. "Frequent" requests from the public that more rangers be provided in backcountry areas to address problems such as dogs on trails, and permit and camping violations.

We've each hiked thousands of miles in the Smokies (all of the trails at least once, most of them two or three times and many of them several times) and have camped in the front country and backcountry scores of times over the past 20 years.

a. Rarely have we seen problems in the backcountry with dogs on trails and we've never seen an attended dog on a trail more than 1 mile from the trailhead.

b. We've only seen flagrant camping violations in two locations in the Smokies--Hazel Creek trail and Forney Creek trail; the worst was along Hazel Creek trail in 2006 and again in 2007 where hikers are allowed to use carts to ferry in equipment and supplies far in excess of what would be expected for a backcountry camping experience. We documented that problem with the NPS at the time and a subsequent change to the park's special regulations was made to address the use of carts along Hazel Creek trail. Unfortunately, use of carts was not forbidden (only the use of horse-drawn carts was banned) and the problem with excessive food & equipment being ferried into various campsites along Hazel Creek trail still exists today. This creates significant problems with compliance with food storage regulations and makes camping in sites along Hazel Creek more perilous for all hikers. Use of carts and pack animals should be banned on all trails leading to backcountry campsites. See my story "Backpacking Fifth Avenue Style along Hazel Creek ". The violation on Forney Creek trail was in an illegal campsite only about 1/2 mile from the lake boundary where we found the after effects of a camping expedition that included lots of trash (much more than we could haul out in one trip), discarded camping supplies (propane bottles, cookware, sleeping bags, clothing, etc.) and unconsumed food.

c. Complaints about permit violations must surely be restricted to those staying overnight in shelters along the AT where it has (always?) been the case that AT thru-hikers don't have to have a permit to stay overnight. Even though non thru-hikers with reservations are supposed to have priority on shelter space, the practical fact is that shelters along the AT are first-come, first-served when it comes to securing space to lay your sleeping bag during the season for AT thru-hiking. No permit system will change this and we already have a trail patrol system in place (AT Ridgerunners).

3. Public desire for more NPS personnel in Backcountry Information Office to provide trip planning services.

Problem #3 is just a restatement of problem #1. We agree that a full-time NPS staffer should be on hand during the stated 8 am - 6 pm period each day to address backcountry inquiries. With 800 miles of hiking trails in the park it seems to us a misallocation of park service human resources to not dedicate staff for this purpose.

4. "Frequent" usage beyond design capacity of non-reservation backcountry campsites which results in food storage violations and subsequent problems with dangerous wildlife encounters.

Problem #4 is really much the same as problem #2 and our comments above for #2 address our views on that topic.

5. Inability to "reliably" notify backcountry users of closed backcountry sites which in turn may result in more risk of injury or death to those visitors and/or wildlife.

We do not agree with the premise that a backcountry reservation system for all backcountry camping sites would result in a significant improvement in the ability to communicate the sudden closures of backcountry campsites to scheduled users. Frequently it is the case that backcountry hikers are not available via telephone during a period of up to several days before a planned overnight hike in the Smokies. It would be better to require backcountry users to make last minute verification of the status of backcountry campsites via methods which might include the bulletin board outside the backcountry planning office, the NPS website or some type of automated telephone message system (such as one with the ability to accept input of specific backcountry site numbers).

We suggest there is another "problem" Smokies park managers should address and that is the difference in adverse impact upon trails and camping facilities between visitors on horses vs. hikers on their own two feet. Any reservation or permit system fee you establish should include higher fees for horse use since that usage results in significantly more adverse impact upon the trail and backcountry facilities. During our times on the trails, we've observed that horse riders frequently pack-in more food and leave more waste than mere hikers. This creates a much greater problem when it comes to food storage and campground clean-up. Anyone who regularly hikes trails used by horses and then hikes on hiker-only trails can attest to this fact as being readily apparent.

Al Smith & Janice Henderson's Comments Regarding Proposed Solution and Outcomes

Proposed Solutions & Outcomes Proposed by NPS followed by Al Smith & Janice Henderson's Comments

1. Contract with for online and call-in reservation services for all backcountry campsites in the Smokies. Park studies suggest that almost 100% of the reservations would then be made via with only a few requiring input at a Backcountry Information Office in the Smokies.

We like the concept of being able to see online the real-time campsite and hiking shelter availability.

Freeing-up NPS personnel from reservation-only calls would be a good thing as long as they remain available to provide those "high quality" trip planning services in person and via phone instead of solely manning a visitor desk or engaging in other functions as is now apparently the case in the Sugarlands office. Unfortunately, it has been our experience that "high quality" trip planning often suffers when ill-informed personnel engage in briefings for backcountry hikers. A classic example we recall clearly involved a family group we met at the "tunnel" on the "Road-to-Nowhere" who were about to hike the full length of Forney Creek trail. They'd been briefed that morning by a park ranger (volunteer?) at Oconaluftee(?) but didn't have a clue that the route would include several (approximately 9) unbridged stream crossings--some of which would have been above knee-deep levels. Their group included small children and none of them were prepared for such an experience. is not a substitute for a real person with specific knowledge of Smokies trails. The organization handles hundreds of sites with an almost infinite variety of conditions. There is no way a briefing sheet system can be used to provide reliable information on something as complex as a hiking trip involving one or more trails in the Smokies. People requiring that amount of detail will still be looking to contact the Backcountry Information Office.

Based upon current fee schedules, this service will cost backcountry campers $10 per reservation just for the administrative processing fee collected by and another $11 for changes to or cancellation of any reservation made thru this system.

Why not move the backcountry planning office to the main lobby of the visitor center(s) where backcountry staffers could brief both backcountry hikers and other visitors such as day hikers and automobile tourists? It would be a much wiser use of human resources.

2. Most other parks with similar backcountry operations charge between $10 and $30 per reservation, and many have additional per person or per person, per night fees.

We strongly disagree with this summary. Only two parks similar to ours charge any kind of a fee for advance reservations and both of those offer free reservations for walk-ins. All four parks similar to ours in the continental U.S. offer free permits for backcountry camping. Here are the four specific examples of parks we believe to have "similar" backcountry operations as the Smokies:

Glacier NP. 700+ miles of trails. Reservation fee: None. Permit fee: None

Yellowstone NP. 1100 miles of trails! Reservation fee: $20 for reservations 48 hours or more in advance. Walk-in reservations (within 48 hours of trip start) are FREE. Permit fee: None.

Yosemite NP. 750 miles of trails. Reservation fee: $5 plus $5/person for advance reservations. No charge for changes. Walk-in reservations: Free (for trips beginning up to one day prior to the wilderness (backcountry) trip). Permit fee: None.

Shenandoah NP. 500+ miles of trails. Reservations not required. Permit fee: None

The online reservation system is a service we'd be glad to pay to have at our fingertips, however, $10 per reservation seems steep. How about $5 per reservation?

We think that should not benefit to the tune of $10 per reservation, without restriction or exception, for all reservations made to use backcountry campsites in the Smokies.

What about last minute walk-ins?--shouldn't they be exempt from a reservation fee as is the case in each of the other four large parks we included in our comments for comparison?

What about an annual pass or lifetime pass for backcountry camping in the Smokies? The annual or lifetime pass option would be attractive for locals like us who are retired and living on a fixed income but desire to continue to use the backcountry areas extensively.

A pre-paid pass could also serve as a reward to be given to park volunteers, employees, key donors, etc.

Again, we know that the third-party reservation system managers will not like the concept of a "free" or reduced fee for holders of annual or lifetime passes. It is very important that this provision be included in any negotiations for a contract.

3. Create a cost recovery fee structure for reservations that will generate revenue to cover both the contractor cost of the reservation system and support an increased NPS presence in the Backcountry Information Office and in the park's backcountry.

Wow. That was a pretty expensive tally of services you've listed there. Just how expensive would it be to do all of those things? We suggest you've either severely underestimated the expense to hire enough people to do what you want or you've been way too optimistic about how many hikers will be paying those backcountry fees once you implement a mandatory reservation and permit system for all backcountry camping.

We think you run the risk of adopting a system based upon incorrect usage projections only to find after a year of operation that you need to double or triple the permit fees to meet your original revenue goals. Already you're proposing a fee system that would cost two people about $30 for a two night stay at one campsite in the Smokies. If they overnighted at two sites instead of one the fee would be $40 for two people. That is pretty close to outrageous. If after a year of operation you find you need to double or triple permit costs from the $5/night per person levels , such a move would, for many people, make backcountry camping untenable due to the high cost for a reservation and permit.

We considered how much it would cost you to add two experienced staffers for the backcountry office function. By our estimate, you'd have to allocate at least $80,000 per year to get two full-time staffers with enough experience to be backcountry planning qualified. How about park rangers for trail patrols? Darn, we don't think you've really thought this out when it comes to how many rangers it would take to provide anything more than a token presence in the backcountry. There is a viable alternative to having park rangers patrol backcountry trails and campsites: Use Volunteers.

You should recruit, train and equip seasonal volunteer "Wilderness Guards" like are used by the U.S. Forest Service to patrol wilderness trails all across the U.S. The cost to the government is minimal and those dedicated volunteers greatly enhance the overall experience for most hikers with whom they come in contact--plus the added benefit is a much improved voluntary compliance with park/wilderness regulations. And the cost? A pittance compared with the cost of hiring full-time park rangers.

Before you dismiss the problems with recruiting and retaining volunteers, you should make a detailed comparison of the overall process used by the NPS vs. that used by agencies such as the USFS and even private agencies such as the Student Conservation Association (SCA). One of us (Al Smith) has volunteered for both of those groups and even considered being a volunteer for the park service here in the Smokies (until he got the 3 lbs. of paper forms required to apply). Further, we've had the opportunity to interact with some of the volunteers in the Smokies and almost universally they report feeling underappreciated, overworked and oftentimes assigned to menial tasks. We've learned that volunteers are often not assigned to tasks that capitalize on their unique skills and preferences. Many times, we've learned, that the jobs assigned to volunteers in the Smokies are those that are shunned by regular park employees. Accordingly, it is no surprise to us that you may find volunteers to be difficult to recruit and retain. If you agree that your volunteer program isn't as successful as you'd like, then you need to develop a new volunteer recruitment plan. We are certain you'd find a very large pool of willing applicants in the form of retirees in the surrounding communities.

Bottom line: Volunteers are out there waiting to provide the trail "patrol" services you need at only a small fraction of the cost you'd have to pay for a park ranger patrol.

Did your field personnel tell you how often hiking shelters are reserved but not used? Many nights we've stayed in both hiking shelters and backcountry campsites that were supposed to be full or nearly full only to find our party of two to be the only one there. Where were all of those other folks who made reservations? We can tell you from long-term experience that there are at least two reasons people over-book campsites and shelters: 1) They make dual reservations under different names to limit the number of people who'll be sharing the facilities and/or 2) They make an "extra" reservation for extra people and/or a different date range just to cover their as yet unconfirmed itinerary (possible conversation...Question: Are the three of us going to the Smokies backcountry next weekend or just you and me two weeks from now?...Answer: Why not make a reservation for both weekends for all three of us in case it rains next weekend.). Any reservation system should, to the extent possible, reward hikers for cancelling unwanted reservations instead of penalizing them for cancellation. Otherwise, those scarce backcountry sites and shelters will continue to have empty spots instead of happy hikers.

Bottom line: If you've used prior years' reservations to calculate your projected revenues then you've likely overestimated backcountry usage.

4. Require reservations for all backcountry sites.

We agree. Just avoid trying to charge everyone a $10 non-refundable online reservation fee in addition to the charges for the overnight camping permit. Speaking of charges per reservation, I think you've failed to fully disclose the true cost of the fee system that would result if your proposed fee structures were adopted. Perusing the current website quickly reveals there is an additional non-refundable $10 administrative fee for the online reservation. That $10 is in addition to whatever fees are charged for the campsite, which in your examples would be in the range of only an additional $5 per person or something thereabouts. Oh yeah, if I want to cancel then it is another non-refundable $11 administrative processing fee.

That $5 per person per night fee seems mighty unlikely to change the status quo in terms of staffing for the backcountry information office and additional park ranger presence in the backcountry. Did you really figure that you'd get that many reservations? Here's the results we came up with:

$80,000 for two staffers, plus $50,000 for one (yes, only one) ranger with car = $130,000/year additional costs. At only $5 per person per night that would require:

26,000 person-nights per year

An average of 71.23 people per night with paid reservations/permits staying in Smokies backcountry campgrounds (all 365 nights of the year--even those nasty, rainy, icy, freezing, sweltering nights when most sensible people stay home or in a warm motel room).

Most likely you'll see a significant decrease in backcountry camping if you require paid reservations and permits. This will further diminish your chances of generating sufficient revenue to achieve your cost recovery goals.

Consider briefly that with only one ranger roving all 800 miles of Smokies trails, just how much of a difference do you think it will make on the current problems you've identified (specifically, those that you felt could be improved by more ranger patrols)?

Bottom line: Use volunteers to patrol the backcountry and equip them with radios so they can contact rangers to report problematic encounters. Skeptical? Please review our earlier comments on the use of volunteers.

We hope our comments will be helpful in your decision process. We love the Smokies and wish only the best outcome for any changes to our current backcountry information and reservation system.

Respectfully submitted,

Al Smith & Janice Henderson (900 Milers and Smokies Hikers Since 1979)

So you think a shelter is backcountry?  Then we don't have much common ground.  The shelters are THE problem.  Beginner magnets.  Do yourself and your family a favor and get into the real backcountry, not a manmade hut where you lay next to 11 strangers.  C'mon.  Locals despise shelters because they attract beginners yet they represent a small fraction of what the Smokies mgmt calls "backcountry".  Eliminate the shelters and put tent camping in place and you would eliminate the beginner behavior.  Then folks would quit walking into the place expecting some type of service, running water and toilets.  True backcountry enthusiasts need none of that and shouldn't be required to pay for that beginner behavior.  There are over 100 backcountry sites that are totally empty most all of the time.  I just returned from 3 of them.

If charging a small fee would allow us to set up a tent close to the shelters and sleep in our own environment, as opposed to sleeping next to rude, stinky drug addicts and criminals, I'm all for it.  The stories and experiences at those shelters are absurd! Friends have been embarrassed to take their young family members or wives to those places because they hear filth and sees rules being broken freely.  --------Charge and Patrol!!!!!!

If the fee proposal to camp in the backcountry goes through in spite of overwhelming opposition from those who actually use it then we all need to get GoPro Helmet or vest cams to videotape our experiences hiking theose many miles of the Great Smokies ... collaborate those videos and make a new virtual experience of the Smoky Mountains wilderness available to all the boy/girl scouts and junior ranger groups who will no longer be able to afford a first hand experience.  We could even take those collaborated videos of actual hikes to a videogame producer, add in the NPS Super and all his subs, rich man guided camping and rogue hikers ... make it fun for all.  Just buy the WII computer game to hike anywhere in the Smokies, Yosimite, Yellowstone etc. to battle the elements, the wildlife, the rangers, and the idiots.

Ousted from the mountains: A Perspective
First came the Cherokee Trail of Tears, and all of us who know anything about US history know it was not just the Cherokee who were systematically removed from their homelands.  Second came the settlers, who loved their new lands as much as the indigenous peoples before them, and were ousted by the Rights of Emeninent Domain in order to creat the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Thirdly come the backpackers who camp in the wilderness now known as the GSMNP.  The NPS who administers the GSMNP want to impose fees on the backpackers who camp in the wilderness, and the NPS knows the backpackers for the most part will disappear ... since most backpackers don't have the money to pay such fees. 
Now the Cherokee, the settlers and the backcountry campers are kindred spirits in the loss of use of the mountains all of us call home.  And all the losses are atributable to our fine democracy, our government.

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