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Great Smoky Mountains National Park Planning To Implement Backcountry Fees In 2013


A backcountry fee system will be implemented in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2013, unless a legal challenge derails it.

The fee, for overnight stays in the park's backcountry, has been talked about and debated for more than a year. Under the plan, backcountry travelers, whether on foot or horseback, will be charged $4 per night per person, up to a ceiling of $20 for seven days.

Park officials say the money raised through this program will be used to pay for a better reservations system, and more backcountry rangers.

However, a contingent of Great Smoky's backcountry users, organized as Southern Forest Watch, maintains park officials overlooked the vast opposition to the fee proposal that was voiced during the public comment period. In a recent letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, and Superintendent Ditmanson, attorney J. Myers Morton maintains the fee is "a tax on us without our consent...a tax on us in violation of the law...a tax on us based on deceit."

In the letter, which notified the federal officials that a lawsuit would be forthcoming, Mr. Myers maintains that the Park Service lacks the authority to impose the backcountry fee.

Great Smokies officials have been working with a software company to create a reservation system different than the system many other national parks use for reservations. This new system, based off one used at Zion National Park in Utah, is seen as being able to provide users with the ability to make backcountry reservations every day of the week at any time of day.

"Reservations may be made at any time up to 30 days in advance, allowing maximum flexibility for those making last minute plans," a park release said. "Backcountry users will no longer be required to call the Backcountry Office to obtain reservations. Reservation and permit requests will also be accepted in person at the Backcountry Office, which is located at the Sugarlands Visitor Center."

The reservation software still is being created and tested, though park officials hope to have it on-line for public use early in the new year.

“It is anticipated the on-line reservation and permit system will be available to the public within the first few months of 2013,” said Superintendent Dale Ditmanson. "We will provide notification of a specific implementation date later this year.”

In an effort to address questions about the change, the park has created an "FAQ" page that runs through a variety of quesions about the reservation system, ranging from whether an annual backcountry pass can be purchased (No) to whether there's a discount for children or North Carolina and Tennessee residents (No).


Slow - I think the difference is the front country campsites have amenities that cost money to maintain. Personnel, bathrooms, clean water, tent pads, trash collection and maybe some other stuff. The only backcountry campsite amenity are bear cables and those may be maintained by volunteers (not positive about that).

If you drive to your campsite you will gladly pay a $20 fee to camp overnight, but if you walk to your campsite you gripe about a $4 fee to camp overnight?

OK. I'm getting’ on the permit bandwagon. I haven't read this whole thread in detail but I'm sure everyone has a valid their own mind…as I do. I think "Tennessee Hiker" is making an overly big deal on "disinformation and dishonesty". Pardon the NPS for not clearly stating in their press release that only backcountry campers who want to reserve a space at a campsite that requires reservations will no longer be required to call the Backcountry Office. Pardon them also for leaving the other 75% of the non-reservable backcountry campsites out of the picture. What's $4 a night? How many nights do you plan to spend in the park anyway?

I’ve tried using the call in reservation line before and could not get through. Fortunately, I live close by so visiting the backcountry office at Sugarlands is not a problem and it also avails me the flexibility of seeking alternate plans to use campsites which do not require a reservation. That may not be so for a back country user coming from a greater distance.

But if $4 a night could solve, or even improve, the current reservation system, I’m all for it. If $4 a night can help support the park in any way, I’m all for it. It isn’t like the NPS is making a mint on revenues. I don’t think the NPS is being “disingenuous” by trying to fix something that is broke.

Will Appalachian Trail thru hikers be charged for their use of the backcountry? Most people that visit the smokies do not leave sight of their car. So why is the smallest number of visiters that travels into the deepest part of the park the only getting slapped with this fee? I feel this is just the beginning. The math does not add up in their statement. I personally know several volunteers that do annual trail maintance in the smokies. The government in turn pays the GSMNP for each hour of volunteer's work. Volunteers already patrol the backcountry.

Should charge only 50 percent of the fee it collects for processing Half Dome hiking fees in Yosemite........, and considering the costs of collection and overhead......Smokies will be losing money on this new system long before it hires any rangers

The NPS spends 25 cents in cost of collection for every dollar collected.

That's just to get the money into their vaults.

Another 10 cents disappears to friction loss in spending the money.

So you can reduce the 'benefits' of this fee by some 33 percent.

The effective yield will be only some 200,000 dollars.

I said in my last post that it would be my last one on this subject but John asked me a couple of questions. First question answer is NO, it is not acceptable to use deceit and manipulation ever. However, my perception is this: I know that as you go through a process sometimes things change. In this case, it is probably cheaper for the park to use an in-house reservation system than to pay for the service. This change from the original intent may provide the additional money needed to pay for the extra patrols, maintenance and planning services. And this decision probably was made because of public input complaining about fees, cancellation policies and flexibility to deal with thru-hikers. Based on minutes of meetings I read this was one of the main reasons for opposing the fee. Public input may also have been one of the reasons the additional revenue is being dedicated to these extra services.

Believe me, charging a new user fee is never a decision a park superintendent makes easily. And based on what I have read about this issue from both sides, I don't believe the park service ever intended to charge backcountry users only because they couldn't charge an entrance fee and because they can charge backcountry users. (No one would be nieve enough to believe that the amount charged to backcountry users would fund other aspects of park operations.) It's not that simple. Based on my research and experiences, this fee was probably the best solution the park service found for addressing the complaints about mis-use and overcrowding at the most popular backcountry sites. It may have started with only a reservation system that gave the park the tool it needed to keep up with who was supposed to be on a site but became more as time went on. And it is a fee that is charged at many other parks that are large enough for backcountry camping. And those parks almost all charge an entrance fee in addition.

You are right that backpackers are low impact. But the complaints I have read about overuse and improper use of some backcountry sites is one that has to be addressed. I once worked in a park where campers complained about the conditions in a particular campground. So, we shut it down one fall and winter and renovated it. When we opened the campground in the spring some of those same campers nearly took my head off because we had reduced the number of sites to make the improvements and thus made it harder for them to get a reservation. Someone once said you can please some of the people some of the time but you can't please all the people all the time.

The $80 mil you mention is stimulus money and it can't be used for operational expenses. That money is dedicated to particular projects, mostly road improvements, and has limitations. The park depends on its appropriation from the tax coffers and user fees to operate. (And the multitudes of volunteers who give so much to the parks.)

And when general fund appropriations don't keep up with inflation or user demand, the stress put on park employees is jacked up. We care about providing a quality experience for all our guests and when we don't have the resources to do enough backcountry patrols (etc., etc.) and we hear complaints from our guests it bothers us to our core.

My final, final word is this, John, there is never (I believe) an intent to be deceptive or manipulative. Sometimes circumstances or situations change and we go with it if it makes sense. All managers need the latitude to do this. And words in one person's memo may not be exactly what is needed to paint the whole picture. We need to look at the whole picture before we make a judgement. What can be done at GSMNP to make user fees more equitable for all? This is a tough one because of the legal limitations. I believe there are ways to do it. How would you address the 8 million visitors who don't pay and explain why they will have to pay now? If you feel strongly about it join the park's friends group and get involved. Throw out some possible solutions and banter them about. Maybe one will come up that makes sense and you can go with it.

Ranger Dave,

I would be interested, and presumably you are or have been affiliated with the park service as implied by your handle, in your perception of the deceit and manipulation that has characterized this particular fee initiative in the Smokies. The question here is, are those methods acceptable. Why does the public input have no bearing on the policy and why backpackers and backpackers only. We are the lowest of impact groups. We are low hanging fruit and easy pickins for the NPS. You can speak of the park needing funds, I don't particularly agree since they just got an extra 80 million dollars, but is it fair to target one specific group when horses and cars do immeasurable damage and they get a pass.

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