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Tennessee's House Of Representatives Opposes Backcountry Fee At Great Smoky Mountains National Park


In its biggest political coup to date, a group fighting the backcountry fees charged at Great Smoky Mountains National Park has gotten the backing of the Tennessee State House of Representatives.

In a proclamation adopted April 9, the House expressed its "opposition to the imposition of any backcountry camping fees in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that are not directly associated with the use of amenities or a commercial purpose and strongly urge an immediate appeal of any such imposed fee."

Previously, the Knox County (Tennessee) Commission, as well the commissions in Bradley and Blount counties in Tennessee and Swain County in North Carolina, condemned the fee and called for its repeal.

The backcountry fee of $4 per night per person, with a $20 per person cap per trip, took effect February 13. It 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 say they see no way of improving visitor services and protecting backcountry resources without charging users who spend the night in the woods.

The park can't charge an entrance fee because the state of Tennessee, when it agreed to transfer land to the federal government for the park, essentially forbade it.

"By condemning and calling for a repeal of this hugely unpopular and specious tax on backcountry users, the State of Tennessee has proven its intent to provide a voice for citizens that was ignored by the National Park Service as evidenced in the public comments that tallied 18-1 in opposition to the fee," said a statement from Southern Forest Watch, a non-profit group organized to lobby for the fee's repeal.


Ranger Dave -- I know nothing of this situation other than what I've read here. But your explanation is the best of any comments out of the flood that appear here. Thanks.

It's responses like yours -- one that doesn't fan the flames, but tries to offer a rational explanation -- that can accomplish good things. We need more like it in many places around our country. But there will be those who are willing to listen and those who will refuse to even consider it. That has to be up to the receiver. Change is always difficult and virtually all changes meet at least some opposition. That happened when the shuttles were proposed for Zion. Now you'd have to look long and hard to find anyone who won't tell you it's the greatest thing that has happened there since the place was discovered. Even those who opposed it most vehemently have been converted. Maybe that will happen in the Smokies, too. Only time and experience will tell.

I can understand why horsemen aren't charged a fee to use trails for the day at GSMNP. It's the same reason hikers don't pay to use trails for the day. And the same reason people who enter by car or by bicycle or by motorcycle or by moped or by foot aren't charged a fee just to access the park during the day. That's an entrance fee and that's contrary to the original GSMNP contractual agreement.

Ranger Dave

Thanks for your response. there is one problem, however. The Southern Forest Watch requested copies of complaints regarding the backcountry and backcountry issues for the 3 years preceeding the fee implementation. Do you know how many complaints there were? Get ready. It was a whopping 15 total complaints. I have seen the FOIA documents and can provide a link where they are posted. That hardly justfies this backcountry reservation system. As a matter of fact, I don't believe that there was but one or two that had anything to do with the reservation system. Most had to do with horse damage to trails (they don't pay the fee unless they overnight, which rarely occurs) and all but 5 were from the same person!

SmokiesBackpacker, I am not an NPS employee, I am a state park employee (see my bio on this website) and I can give a little insight maybe into this from my perspective. The public comment periods that occur when an action by a park requires it (some actions don't require it) are taken into consideration by the decision makers. But there are many factors that are considered in addition to the public comments. In this case (and I haven't delved too deeply into the details) the park probably over the years has had complaints from backcountry campers concerning overcrowding at the most popular sites (particularly during the heavy use seasons) and perhaps degradation of the sites caused by overcrowding. (The statistic you use of 2 campers per campsite per night is probably an annual figure and doesn't account for the typical winter months of no use or weekdays when many sites are empty.) So, let's say the park staff have received lots of complaints over the course of a number of years and the rangers have had to address numerous issues of overcrowding during the heaviest use periods. And maybe persons who had reserved campsites even during the slower season occasionally arrive at the site they reserved only to find someone without a permit already there. So over time this has become a recurring complaint and issue. As popular as GSMNP is I can certainly see this could be a problem.

What do you do as manager of the park? Well, you can do nothing and continue to hear complaints year after year or you can propose a solution such as a reservation system. You and many others do lots of research and you come up with what you think is a viable solution. Maybe you know it won't be popular with some folks but something has to be done and this is the best solution you and others have come up with. Now you are required to have a public comment period. The minimum period for federal agencies, I believe, is 30 days. So you post public notice of the comment period and you receive comments. And the comments are 18 to 1 against what you proposed. Now what?

You must now consider: All the years of complaints you had, the number of times your rangers were called out to address issues, the costs of repairing overused sites, the cost of the proposed solution, the revenues to be generated, (will they cover the costs and should that be a factor? Suprised? some things need to be done even if no recovery of costs are available) natural resource destruction concerns, and the public comments you received. After all the factors (and there could be more) are considered, you again ask is what you proposed the best solution? It may not be. Sometimes you propose something thinking it is good and then after public comments and additional analysis you see that perhaps in general what you thought was the best could be tweaked in a way that will still accomplish your goal but can alleviate some of the concerns people had. But sometimes, after you look at all the factors, even though the public comments were mostly against it, the other factors outweigh the concerns of the commenters and you have to go forward with what you and your agency feel is the best solution.

So, to put it in a nutshell, public comments are certainly a part of the process and sometimes can spark a change in a proposed action that will accomplish the task and satisfy most of the people. But in the end the park management has to make a final decision and move forward. To bastardize a phrase, you can please some of the people some of the time but you can't please all of the people all of the time. My guess is that the park received enough "informal public comments" if you will, in the form of complaints (which often are verbal and not documented on paper but may have also been letters) and/or law enforcement actions over a course of years and that was the driving factor of looking into a reservation system. And after all was considered, it was still considered the best solution.

One last note, public comments are valuable to managers who make decisions but the best are the ones that not only verbalize against the action but offer viable alternative solutions. And by viable I mean they must meet the "lawyer tests" of within agency policy, public safety and privacy among other tests.

I hope this has been helpful. I have faced issues like this before both from the park management side and from the "opposed to" side. It takes both to make sure we do what's best for the precious resources entrusted to us as managers. It's often frustrating as heck but my experience has been that when those who oppose look at the result later down the road they usually end up saying maybe they didn't agree with it but things are better as a result and the right thing was done. I hope that will be you and many others someday.

PS: I wonder if anyone has ever done studies on public comment periods and the number of comments in opposition as opposed to comments in favor? My experience is that the oppositon is usually much louder and more numerous at public meetings and in public comments. Is there a psychological reason for this? Perhaps folks in favor tend to think "Ok, they are proposing what I want so I don't need to comment". I don't know. I'm sure someone has studied this. It would be interesting to see results of such studies.

You know, I am curious since there is obviously a preponderance of NPS employees here if you will indulge a question. The over riding rub in this situation appears to be that the NPS makes unilateral decisions without any troubling concerns of citizen input. I am very willing to hear a proposal from you NPS people as to how public input should be incorporated into decisions such as this? It is apparent that this whole fee thing was a predetermined notion for which the park went through all the perfunctory motions and proceeded with their agenda. Is it the purpose of the house natural resouces sub committee to provide oversight when this federal agency marches on? Is is the place of citizens such as the Southern Forest Watch to pursue the matter in court? Is it the place of the local unit, in this respect, the GRSM to actually give weight to citizen input? I am just curious if NPS people actually have any concern at all for the desires of citizens or if that is just something that is specific to the upper echelons like Jarvis and Ditmanson?

Rick B. , eh law, I guess we'll see. This thread has now stretched as far as the accusation of tyranny.

Rick B,LOL, this one may never end.Lot's of passion !!!!!! over ????

Just curious here. After four pages of comments, are there any points that haven't been peated and repeated?

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