Great Smoky Mountains National Park Receiving Political Push-Back On Backcountry Fee

It's not on the same scale as the Boston Tea Party, but the sentiment is there: Don't tax us for using the backcountry of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

That movement, spurred in 2011 when John Quillen took exception to the park's approach to weighing public sentiment concerning fees for those who overnight in the Smokies' backcountry, has gained some support from the Blount County (Tennessee) Commission.

The commissioners narrowly (11-9, with one abstention) voted last week to go on record against the fee. That resolution carries no weight against the park, but with it in hand Mr. Quillen and others aligned with him under Southern Forest Watch are now looking to other counties that touch Great Smoky as well as the state of Tennessee for similar support.

"Despite the intervention of a prominent senator, our resolution condemning the Smokies' backcountry fee and calling for its repeal passed in the Blount County Commission following the impassioned pleas by nine Southern Forest Watch members," said Mr. Quillen, who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, and backpacks frequently in the park. "We will be pursuing similar resolutions to include a resolution by the state of Tennessee on the heels of this great victory for the cause."

The fee, $4 per person per night in the backcountry, up to $20 maximum, took effect February 13. The fee is intended by park officials to help streamline and improve the backcountry permitting process and heighten the presence of rangers in the backcountry.

Pinched by an inadequate budget and unable to charge an entrance fee for any of the roughly 9 million yearly visitors, park officials see no way of improving visitor services and protecting backcountry resources without charging users who spend the night in the woods.

Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson attended the commission meeting, and urged the commissioners to reject the resolution.

“The fact is, we began the civic engagement process almost two years ago,” he said. "What is completely overlooked in the resolution is the fee is generally improving customer service.”

Comments

No superitendent, your new system does not improve customer service. That is yet another falsehood in a long, long list of falsehoods.

Previously, you signed a slip, put it in one of a dozen boxes and started hiking up a trail. Period.

Now, you have to go online, click through a rather remarkable number of windows (including promising not to burn PAPER or wood thicker than your wrist in your campfire) and PAY money for something that has been free for 78 years.

It is ridiculous.

You are correct. We are fighting tyranny.

NPT gives ear to a plight and movement that grows daily. The backcountry fee is so unpopular in the Smokies that I cannot remember a controversy so heated. The public overwhelmingly opposed this from the beginning but the National Park Service doesn't care about public input. They are above answering to the populace. If the NPS wanted to rebuild their image with the public in the MOST VISITED National park, they would revoke authorization for this fee immediately and use friends groups monies to provide the paltry amount it would generate. Does 200k per year justify the backlash the Superintendent has created? C'mon NPS, respond to your citizens. Do what the Blount Commission did. Revoke and repeal this fee before multiple resolutions and legal actions are staring you in the face.

Kurt,

Thanks to NPT and you your covering this issue and bringing it to the user community. I would point out that the intent of the fee, according to the request from GSMNP administration to the Dept. of Interior was merely to cover the cost of a reservation system, and not to increase the presence of rangers in the backcountry.

What is overlooked in the comments made at the Blount County Commission is this fee and the system it is to pay for have added a layer of complexity to what was a very efficient self registration system for non-reservation sites. For those who would like to see the actual meeting, it is accessible through the Blount County Tennessee Commission web page via a link to youtube. It was a wonderful, living civics lesson and a powerful reminder that "all politics is local".

Thanks to Kurt and NPT for recognizing the far-reaching consequences of this refusal by common citizens and local officials to be silent and submissive in the face of an arrogantly dismissive agency of our federal government. It is a perfectly American story being perfectly ignored by local media.

The Superintendent's claim of "improved customer service" -- note customer, not visitor -- is more accurately expanded "customer" service. If you want to improve the experience of the so-called customer, you minimize, simplify or eliminate the need for service. That was the case previously for the majority of backcountry campsites where one simply self-registered. This is nothing but government becoming more expansive, more expensive. In addition, when a government agency proceeds full steam ahead unimpressed, undeterred and unabated after 95% of public comments come down in opposition to the plan put forth, such an agency has conducted nothing more than a public notice period -- a far cry from the Superintendent's "civic engagement." No matter how we feel about the growing national debate over public land fees/ taxes, the handling of this issue in Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been an undeniable train wreck. The whole thing is a continuing disgrace to the American public in general and especially to the dedicated park staff who had no hand in it.

I would add to the previous comments by SmokiesBackpacker that if the NPS wishes, beyond rebuilding its "image," to rebuild relationships and trust with local communities it will be very difficult, if not impossible, with this Park Superintendent in place. The misrepresentations and blatant lies propagated by park administration are revealed in what documents the NPS made available following a difficult Freedom of Information Act request (for details visit http://southernforestwatch.org/ and click on "Follow the deception" on the left). Such shenanigans don't sit well in this region, especially considering the Park's history and the resulting skepticism with which administrative motives and methods are viewed.

Kudos to those who have struggled to bring the facts to light, to the Blount County Commission which brushed off U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander's eleventh hour attempt to politically influence the proceeding on behalf of the Park Superintendent, and to National Parks Traveler for reporting on a significant news event with local and national implications.

I don't like user fees any more than anyone else. But the fact is the NPS is being choked of funding. Maybe a $20.00 yearly backcountry fee that applies to the entire park system is a good compromise? I'm very concerned about the funding being cut off for park management. What is allocated will be spent where the most visitors are, the backcountry will continue to move lower and lower in priority.

I'll pay the fee, but the money should be earmarked for backcountry, not paving roads or other development projects.

Non-profit groups that support our national parks and national forests will gladly accept earmarked donations. The government agencies, though, will not "limit" themselves -- in more ways than one.

Think of all that stimulus money that was poured into GSMNP. In a time of economic belt tightening, the NPS instead received a massive influx of dollars. Was there attention drawn to or given to the backcountry at that time? No, but we've got a bevy of new vault toilets all around the park at frontcountry locations.

Over at Big Creek, by the way, the new vault toilet near the ranger residence is locked. Isn't one of the chief benefits of a vault toilet that it can be available year around without fear of freezing pipes? Predictably, if you walk around behind the vault toilet at Big Creek the ground is covered with used tissue and worse -- a wonderful snapshot of park management and our tax dollars at work.

While reviewing the utube video I was struck by the relevation by one of the council members that the superintendent didn't have the courtesy or forsight to come personally and talk to the county commissioners about the fee proposal early on in the civic engagment process to get their input. How is this possible? GRSM is not a learner park for some wet behind the ears nubee. It is a major park within the NPS system that usually gets a veteran manager who knows his/her politics. If the superintendent had discussed the proposal with the commissioners of the counties surrounding the park and gotten this type of pushback any sane manager would have likely thought twice about pushing the fee proposal forward so vigorously. At the very least, the superintendent should have alerted the Director of this sentiment when he was considering approval of the fee proposal.