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 recreation.gov, 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 recreation.gov, 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 recreation.gov 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."