Proposal for back country fees at GSMNP – my take

For those of you who don’t know, there’s a proposal for some new back country fees in our free national park.  Below is the release from the park service.  My opinion will be after that.  

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
News Release

Immediate Release                                    Contact:  Bob Miller
Date: July 29, 2011                                        865/436-1207

        National Park Managers Consider Backcountry Camping Changes

      Managers at Great Smoky Mountains National Park are considering some
changes in the process by which backpackers make reservations for overnight
camping at the Park’s nearly 100 backcountry sites and shelters.  The
proposed changes, which would update the reservation procedure as well as
increasing Ranger presence on the Park’s 800 miles of trails, would be
covered by a minimal user fee.  No fees are being contemplated for day
hiking.

      The Park currently requires that all those planning to stay overnight
in the backcountry obtain a permit and those wishing to stay in the Park’s
15 shelters and most popular campsites make a reservation either by phone
or in person at the Park’s Backcountry Information Center located in the
Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg. The reservations ensure that the
number of campers on a given night do not exceed the carrying capacity of
the site.  Many other less sought-after sites do not require that a
reservation be filed, but users are still required to self-register at one
of 15 permit stations when they arrive in the Park.

      Due to limited staffing, the Backcountry Information Center is open
only three hours a day and the phone line is often busy or is unstaffed,
which makes the process excessively time-consuming and often frustrating.
Once backpackers do obtain their reservations and arrive at their
campsites, they often find the area filled by individuals without permits.
In addition site capacities are frequently exceeded, which results in food
storage violations, increased wildlife encounters and the need to close
campsites to protect visitors and wildlife. Lack of staff in the
backcountry severely limits the Park’s ability to resolve these issues.

                                  (over)

Smokies backcountry Camping Proposal – Page 2

      In response to these concerns, managers are evaluating the
implementation of a
computerized reservation system which would take reservations both online
and via a call center for all its backcountry sites 24 hours a day 7 days a
week.  The reservations would be made by a contractor at:
www.recreation.gov which is the site currently used to book frontcountry
campsites.  The Park would also expand the operations of the Backcountry
Information Center to provide quality trip planning advice to help users
develop a customized itinerary that best fits their available time and
ability.

      In addition, the Park would hire additional Rangers who would
exclusively patrol the backcountry to improve compliance with Park
regulations as well as helping to curb plant and wildlife poaching and
respond more quickly to visitor emergencies.

      Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson said, “We feel that the proposed
changes offer better customer service to backpackers, as well as reducing
impacts to Park resources  In order to implement these changes we are
considering several fee structures that would cover both the reservation
contractor’s fee and the cost of field Rangers and staff at the Backcountry
Information Center.”

      The Park plans to solicit public input on the new plan both on-line
and through two public meetings.  Details of the proposal may be found at
the Park’s website: http://www.nps.gov/grsm/parkmgmt/index.htm.  Comments
may be sent electronically at: GrsmComments@nps.gov. or by mail to:
Superintendent, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 107 Park Headquarters
Road, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. Informational open houses are scheduled for
Tuesday, August 16 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Old Oconaluftee Visitor
Center at 1194 Newfound Gap Road in Cherokee, and Thursday, August 18 from
5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Park Headquarters Lobby at 107 Headquarters Road in
Gatlinburg.  Comments should be submitted by August 26.  

So, what are you thinking about the proposed changes?  I’ve already written my email to the address provided in the release.  It remains to be be seen if I’ll be able to make the townhall meeting due to the fact that I’ve got unpredictable work hours, but here’s my take: 

I’m not 100% opposed to a fee for back country camping.  In fact, every other place I’ve back country camped I’ve had to pay a fee.  What makes this hard for me is the fact that they don’t know how expensive the fee is yet.  A flat four-dollar fee is reasonable in my opinion.  There are other price options, however, including a 10-dollar permit fee plus 5 bucks for each person in your party.  This, in my opinion, is grossly expensive for a backpacker.  Let’s say David and I wanted to go for a 2-night backpack.  That would be 20 bucks for the permits (each day, different place) plus 10 bucks for him to be on my permit.  Add that to a 35-dollar per night stay at the kennel for our dog (no dogs in the Smokies!) and you’ve got a 100-dollar weekend!  Am I going to backpack in the Smokies? Hell no I won’t.  I’ll go to Frozen Head or Big South Fork where a weekend would cost me 10 and I could take my dog.  I won’t spend 100 in gas to get there and back, so it’d be cheaper for me to go somewhere else.  

The Smokies was established on the fact that US 441 – a major highway at the time – ran through it.  Therefore, the park service promised there’d never be an entrance fee due to the fact that this road was running through.  An entrance fee to the park couldn’t be implemented.  However, in my opinion, if you’re driving to Cades Cove, you’re going to Cades Cove.  Chances are you aren’t going to drive there to use Parson’s Branch Road to get yourself to 129.  This road isn’t major, is a 1-way dirt road that takes at least an hour to travel.  Same with Rich Mtn. Road.  You just aren’t going to Cades Cove to get somewhere else.  Why not have an entrance fee to the loop road there?  They’d make tons of money with very little damage (well, the damage has been done) as hardly anyone gets out of their cars.  

The entrance fee also applies to the firefly event at Elkmont every year.  Why not start charging people to come in to view the fireflies?  As this is a special event and the road to Elkmont is closed at night, anyone riding the trolley in is going for one thing and one thing only – fireflies.  People still want to go, and they’ll pay I’m pretty sure. 

Lastly, returning to my stance on the back country fee – If you’ve ever taken a horse and hiking trail in the Smokies, what do you remember about it?  Maybe the mud, deep ruts and mud pits, and trash?  If you’ve ever stayed at a horse camp, like on Deep Creek or Noland Creek/Divide, what do you remember about the camp?  Maybe that it was crowded and full of trash and you probably packed out more trash than you packed in?  This last idea I have is simple.  If you’re going to charge a backpacker, how much are you going to charge the horses?  A horse weighs a hell of a lot more than I do and do a WHOLE lot more damage to the trail than I do.  So would it be safe to assume a horse should be charged double?  If there’s a per person fee, I think the horse fee should be double, if not triple just due to the fact that erosion and damage is that much worse.  

The park service claims the fees would go towards rangers on the trail and more implementation of checking permits and kicking out illegal campers.  If you’ve ever run into a ranger in the Smokies, you know they do this anyway.  They also say that more rangers will make people follow the rules better.  I’m just not seeing the logic being drawn here.  I’ve seen people with dogs miles into the park without rangers in site.  It will still happen.  I’ve seen people stealth camping (aka – illegally, not on a maintained and designated campsite) and it will still happen.  I don’t think upping the park “police” presence is going to solve the problems like the park service thinks it is.  Granted, it’s hard to get ahold of the people at the permit office for reservation-only sites, but I don’t think charging people to use a website for permits is going to make anyone happy.  In fact, I think they’ll lose some backpackers, especially local folks. 

If you’re from out of town and you’re coming here to backpack, you’ll pay the fee.  If you live here and you’re in the park more than once a week, this fee is a punishment for all the tourons getting it wrong.  

My last question is about thru-hikers.  Are they going to be charged and forced to get permits like everyone else?  This new rule will certainly affect me next year for my AT thru hike.  How are they going to enforce that?  Thru hiking is defined by the park service as starting a hike 50 miles outside all park boundary lines and ending your hike more than 50 miles outside the boundary lines.  How is this going to be enforced?  

Honestly, they’ve got a lot of work ahead of them.  I urge any of you, whether or not you live here in the Smokies or you’re just getting to my blog and live far away, to email the park service at the email provided in the press release: GrsmComments@nps.gov and let them know your thoughts.  You don’t have to agree or disagree with me.  The more people we have making their opinions known, the more we’ll help the park!

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