Great Smoky Mountains National Park To Institute Backcountry Fees

Great Smoky Mountains National Park users who spend the night in the woods at a shelter along the Appalachian Trail or in one of the backcountry campsites, such as this Mount Sterling site, will be expected to pay for the privilege beginning in 2013. Photo by Randy Johnson.

Those who head off into the backcountry of Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a night or two will have to pay for the privilege beginning in 2013 under a plan approved by the National Park Service.

The proposal, which has drawn a fair amount of controversy, is intended by park officials to help streamline and improve the backcountry permitting process and heighten the presence of rangers in the backcountry.

Great Smoky Superintendent Dale Ditmanson today announced that the plan has been approved by the Park Service's Washington headquarters.

The proposal was open for public comment last summer and some 230 written comments and two petitions were received during the comment period, according to park officials.

According to the park superintendent, the public comments provided a great deal of constructive input on the concerns park backcountry users had about the fee plan.

“Many commenters were under the misconception that the Smokies is legally prohibited from charging user fees. The park is prohibited from charging a toll or license fee from motorists crossing park roads, by language in a 1951 deed under which the ownership of some park roads was transferred from the state of Tennessee to the National Park Service," Superintendent Ditmanson said in a release. "But, we have long been authorized to collect user fees for specific activities such as front country camping, weddings, and commercial filming.

“There was also a significant amount of concern about our initial plan to utilize the same computerized federal reservation system, www.recreation.gov that virtually all national parks use to reserve drive-in sites in front country campgrounds," he continued. "We acknowledge that some of the policies, such as the lead time for making reservations and cancellations, are not a good fit for more spontaneous backcountry users. We will not use that system unless we are convinced that it can provide the level of service we want to offer, and are exploring the alternative of developing a stand-alone software program tailored specifically to the Smokies. The system developed will also need to be practicable for Appalachian Trail thru hikers whose itineraries evolve from day-to-day.”

As for how much the permits will cost, the superintendent said he hoped the park could rely on the lowest, "and simplest," of the fees proposed last summer: $4 per night per person.

"Most importantly, 100 percent of the revenue from this program will be invested in improving back-country services through extended hours of the back-country office, trip-planning assistance, on-line reservations, and protection of park resources through increased ranger staff," Superintendent Ditmanson said.

Park managers plan to provide periodic updates as plans for the reservation system evolve.

Comments

Huge surprise here. Ditmanson plows forward ignoring the almost 20 to 1 ration of comments against the fee. Never engaging any user groups, displacing the AT through hikers, pricing boy scouts and many others out of HIS park. They release the comments when it suits their purposes like with the elk introduction but when it doesn't, they try like crazy to keep it suppressed. His name is worse than Mud around the Smokies and there are calls for his resignation throughout east tennessee and North Carolina. Although we know that never happens in this NPS culture, they protect their own. No service provided in the backcountry, just the hiring of two addtl rangers and outsourcing of reservations. When folks start pirate camping and sneaking into the park with illegal campsites and treating the rangers as the enemy, it can be traced back to this moment. And that is sad for the good guys who do work there.

The parks are hurting for money. Would prefer that facilities be shut down?

Yes

10 dollars a night, plus 2.25 a person does not sound extremely unreasonable, considered the budget pinch most parks are in these days. 90 dollars for a week of backcountry camping is still peanuts compared to what one will pay for a recreational endeavour at most other venues elsewhere. Your mid-quality local hotel is going to charge at least 60 dollars before tax for a night, so a mere 12 bucks sounds like a pretty nice deal, more so since the scenery is far nicer. Up in Ontario at Algonquin, for instance, the fee for a person just to enter the park is 17 dollars a day, and the camping fee per person per night is 12 dollars (even to US dollars at current exchange rates). The fees at the Smokies are new, but not unheard of elsewhere, and certainly not the steepest around.
Now, that said, I am sure there are more details that get left out of this set up. Local politics, corruption both within and outside of the service, etc. need to be taken into account, and an "outsider" like me does not have all the information at hand. It sounds like greater transparency is desired in regards to the inner workings of the park, and let's face it, no one likes the idea of additional taxes. Sadly, what seems to be said on public forums is a combination of emotional outcries and ad hominem attacks on park administration personnel. While there might be many legitimate issues involved, the parties involved in this dispute need to clean up their complaints. Please do, because I want to better understand the situation!

It did catch me off guard. I fully understand the cost. But $4 a night is too much for some when they where like me when I use to use the park all the time when I could barely afford to buy the gas to get there. I would rather see a more complex pay scale. Of $5 to 8 first night and $2 to 3 additional nights with a max of $30 dollars per ADULT (18 plus). Youth $1 dollar a night with one adult min.
How will it work for the AT hiker. I do not carry much cash, do not carry a computer, or fancy cell phone when hiking. Will there be discounts for volunteers? What about a year pass?
W3

Are you presuming that these would be facilities that you would not use/need?

Actually, this change is being driven by the current backcountry users who are ignoring the existing (free) permit system, and displacing those of us who go up permitted, to find the shelters on the AT are already overfilled.
Similar fee schedules work well in the other national parks (Glacier for instance).
Give it a chance.

So Bray - people who ignore the permit requirement while it is free will heed the requirement when they have to pay for it?