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 recreation.gov 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).