Those who head off into the backcountry of Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a night or two will have to pay for the privilege beginning in 2013 under a plan approved by the National Park Service.
The proposal, which has drawn a fair amount of controversy, is intended by park officials to help streamline and improve the backcountry permitting process and heighten the presence of rangers in the backcountry.
Great Smoky Superintendent Dale Ditmanson today announced that the plan has been approved by the Park Service's Washington headquarters.
The proposal was open for public comment last summer and some 230 written comments and two petitions were received during the comment period, according to park officials.
According to the park superintendent, the public comments provided a great deal of constructive input on the concerns park backcountry users had about the fee plan.
“Many commenters were under the misconception that the Smokies is legally prohibited from charging user fees. The park is prohibited from charging a toll or license fee from motorists crossing park roads, by language in a 1951 deed under which the ownership of some park roads was transferred from the state of Tennessee to the National Park Service," Superintendent Ditmanson said in a release. "But, we have long been authorized to collect user fees for specific activities such as front country camping, weddings, and commercial filming.
“There was also a significant amount of concern about our initial plan to utilize the same computerized federal reservation system, www.recreation.gov that virtually all national parks use to reserve drive-in sites in front country campgrounds," he continued. "We acknowledge that some of the policies, such as the lead time for making reservations and cancellations, are not a good fit for more spontaneous backcountry users. We will not use that system unless we are convinced that it can provide the level of service we want to offer, and are exploring the alternative of developing a stand-alone software program tailored specifically to the Smokies. The system developed will also need to be practicable for Appalachian Trail thru hikers whose itineraries evolve from day-to-day.”
As for how much the permits will cost, the superintendent said he hoped the park could rely on the lowest, "and simplest," of the fees proposed last summer: $4 per night per person.
"Most importantly, 100 percent of the revenue from this program will be invested in improving back-country services through extended hours of the back-country office, trip-planning assistance, on-line reservations, and protection of park resources through increased ranger staff," Superintendent Ditmanson said.
Park managers plan to provide periodic updates as plans for the reservation system evolve.