Opponents To Backcountry Fees At Great Smoky Mountains National Park Seeking Counties' Support

Opponents to the backcountry fee at Great Smoky Mountains National Park are trying to line up the support of county officials surrounding the park.

The fee, $4 per person per night in the backcountry, up to $20 maximum, took effect last week. 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.

But 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 maintaining 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," the organization plans to sue the park over the fee.

To gain support for their cause, Southern Forest Watch organizers have been meeting with officials from counties surrounding Great Smoky.

On Thursday, the Blount County (Tennessee) Commission is scheduled to read for a second and final time a resolution against the fee.

"What this resolution hopes to do is let the Park Service know that we as a county, one of the seven counties that border the park, disagree with the fee," Blount County Commissioner Tab Burkhalter told a Knoxville, Tennessee, news organization.

John Quillen, who spearheaded the effort to defeat the fee, says "other counties (are) awaiting the outcome of this resolution."

"The (park) superintendent has cancelled a trip to Washington to speak before the commission Thursday," Mr. Quillen told the Traveler. "He even had the nerve to ask our sponsor, Tab Burkhalter, to remove the resolution entirely from the committee."

A park-specific reservation and permit system went live on February 13. It allows backcountry campers to make reservations and obtain permits online from anywhere Internet access is available. Reservations may be made at any time up to 30 days in advance.

Appalachian Trail thru-hikers may obtain a permit through the reservation system up to 30 days in advance of the date they anticipate being in the park and are required to carry a paper copy with them while they are hiking through the park. Their permit is valid up to 38 days from the date they obtain it.


The so-called "major opposition" to the backcountry fees seems to be coming from a small, albeit vociferous, microcosm of park users, and Southern Forest Watch's "tax" argument is tenuous at best. Their membership conveniently ignores the fact that, unlike most other national parks, there is no entry fee to GSM. As a frequent visitor to the park, I find these complaints about a $4/person/night fee ludicrous. Why shouldn't those who use backcountry resources help pay for them? Consider yourselves lucky that you had a free ride for this long!

Personally, I hope the lawsuit and public opposition to these fees prevail. $4.00 per person per night might not seem like much, but for a party of 5 planning on 5 nights backpacking in the park, that's a fee of $100.00 for the group.

I would hope that the NPS could manage backcountry use without charging user fees. Backcountry use in the Smokies amounts to a very small percentage of the overall visitation received by this park, the most visited national park in the USA. I'd assign permanent staff a few days a month to patrol and thereby become familiar with their park (and perhaps increase staff morale).

If fees for backcountry use of the Great Smoky Mountains get traction, where will NPS "fee creep" stop? Will it be extended to backcountry use of the Blue Ridge, Cumberland Gap, The Big South Fork, or the Obed? These are nearby NPS units that also do not charge an entrance fee.

Four bucks times five people is $20 for the day, and for five days that's $100.

Just correcting the math.

Thanks Rick, I just made the correction.

But if park budgets are going to be cut, will fees like these be needed just to keep the gates open?

Paullette - what backcountry resources do you speak of? The bear cables? You're right, it is free to enter GSM. So why are only the back-country campers being asked to pay a fee? For the use of the bear cables?

This fee pays for the fee-collection system, nothing else. It does not fund trail or campsite maintenance. It does not fund extra rangers. No money collected from this fee actually goes to the park.

This fee is just a test run for a bunch of new fees at the park that was formed as "forever free". Wait until they start charging $4 to climb Clingman's Dome lookout or $25 for a car-load to cruise Cades Cove. Then you'll really see some complaining :)

Resolution condemning the fee passed btw.

I would like to add that the Blount Commission passed the resolution condemning the backcountry fee last night. This is a resolution against deceit and disregard of public and stakeholder input and ignoring public comments.

[= 14pt]I wonder how many folks would jump on the band wagon if or when hearing of a politician's or a candidate's plan to improve the neighborhood and society...and would do so without questioning their means or objective. Back just a bit prior to WWII there was just such an individual who used such tactics and seemed to draw an immediate following of ignorant and yet dedicate followers...his name by the way was Adolph Hitler.[/]

[= 14pt]I have noticed that those who tend to find these fees acceptable or even desirable, seem to lack even the most basic understanding of the fees or of the process undertaken to implement them. I read or hear, time and again about how many different improvements will be made to the trails, shelters, and park overall...YET...the simple truth is that these fees will fund nothing more than the reservation system itself, for which no real need can be established. The old system worked fine for the most part and could have worked far better except that volunteers who offered to assist with reservations appear to have been denied or rejected. In other words once the NPS, "powers that be" decided they wanted this fee, it would appear that they determined to stack the deck a bit by seemingly allowing the system that was, to falter so as to reveal or aka produce information to support the "need" for change and fees.[/]

[= 14pt]Why are so many people so confused and why do they believe these fees will do anything other than support the cost of the reservations system and contractor's fees for running it? [/]Perhaps it's because of the various claims made along the path to the development and implementation of these fees by the "Park Service"? They claimed it would improve the "Backcountry", it would also fund added staff (later revealed to already be, being funded by "Friends of the Smokies"), etc...in fact they seemed to either say or imply that these fees would be the best thing for the park since "sliced bread". However, due to the diligence of the folks at "Southern Forest Watch", the truth surrounding these fees, their use, and the process of their adoption along with all of the various deceptions and in some cases the lies used to support the fee's creation.

[= 14pt]In closing I would challenge those who tend to think in favor or to lean toward the fees, to please read the facts obtained by FOIA requests. The documents are various memos by and among the folks at NPS and reveal some undeniable lies and deceptions such as the claim for overwhelming support of the fees during the "public comment" phase of the process. By the way, comments were 18 to 1 against the fees...yet those in charge at Sugarlands, claimed just the opposite either their/his perception is flawed or their/his integrity must be questioned...neither one a trait to be desired for anyone in such an influential position.[/]

[= 14pt]Mike[/]


I agree with the vociferous part; however, I understand you are sorely mistaken otherwise. You miss the point too. None of this fee will pay for anything other than the reservation system. All those public pronouncements by you guys...er..uh... the GSMNP administration have been flat out lies and deceit.

Some of us are motivated by a quote from Benjamin Franklin.

"Rebellion to tyrants, is obedience to God."

$4 a night seems pretty cheap to me, especially with a $20 cap. There's no free lunch.

It's not free Zebulon. We pay for it in the terms of taxes. Lots of them. As a matter of fact, the smokies got 80 million extra dollars in stimulus. They need to operate within their budgets like the rest of us. The time for bailouts of entities, corporate or federal, are over. People are standing strong against it and you are a shrinking minority if you think double taxation is wise policy. Should you have to pay the police dept again when they come to your house? We sleep on the ground and use no services or amenities of the park service. Even the bear cables are provided by volunteer funding. Explain to me how charging one group and one group only (backcountry campers) is equitable in a system where automobiles require 98 percent of resources? You cant.

Smokies, this is not a metaphor on tax policy... It seems like a pretty straight forward way of charging users for their usage. And at $4 a pop, it's most likely way under cost. Now, we can have a separate discussion on whether the NPS spends wisely, but that's another subject.

Zeb - the absurdity of all this is that this fee is not for use of the backcountry camp sites. It's for use of the online reservation system. A reservation system that was stated as "unecessary" by the vast majority of actual users. Even more maddening is that the reservation fee is assessed per person, not per campsite or per reservation. So my backcountry wkd with the family costs more than the same size group at a front-country campsite...the latter with a lot more amenities which I'm sure you know.

And no one has yet explained why only backcountry campers are assessed a fee. Automobile tourists cruising Cades Cover require a lot more park resources than a guy sleeping on the ground.


Usage of what?...................land donated to the NPS by local Tennesseans and North Carolinians? backcountry campsites maintained by volunteers? trials maintained by volunteers? bear cables provided by volunteer money? What amenities are provided in the backcountry for which we owe the NPS? The answer is nothing. Folks like you have ignored the basic question that we have been asking for years. IS it okay to change your justification for the fee when your first assertions are proven false? The NPS instituted a reservations system that the public objected to in the first place for campsites that are empty most all of the time. Your implication that there is this great drain of resources on the Smokies backcountry is just uninformed. How do you justify that horses, automobiles and inner tubers get a free pass and backcountry campers end up paying essentially the same as someone who drives an RV into the front country. There is no drain on the vein from the backcountry and they are taxing that user group because of a bad, bad interpretation of FLREA.

What is wrong is wrong and regardless of what you may think, the Smokies is a donated park. Just a fraction of federal money is involved in its creation unlike the parks out west. There are people talking on both sides of the smokies about revoking federal privileges on this land because of the lies used to double tax one user group. I hope this upcoming lawsuit upends the entire NPS and their culture of data manipulation. It will have implications for every unit and all because they wanted to get their foot in the door with a small fee group. Stupid management policy here. They've already lost millions of dollars in backlash. They didn't do their homework and the result is a revolt. A tax revolt for a righteous cause that gains momentum daily.

Tom, your explanation makes it indeed sound like a solution in search of a problem. As for Smokies, you clearly have an agenda that goes beyond the fee.

Seems to me that in general, we have a basic problem of funding decreasing and fixed costs increasing (as far as I can tell, there is no talk of reducing benefits/salaries of NPS employees), so the search for new funding sources will go on unabated.

Good way to avoid the hard questions, Zebulon. Just like the NPS, you change the subject and deflect attention from the real issue at hand.