Great Smoky Mountains National Park Planning To Implement Backcountry Fees In 2013

A backcountry fee system will be implemented in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2013, unless a legal challenge derails it.

The fee, for overnight stays in the park's backcountry, has been talked about and debated for more than a year. Under the plan, backcountry travelers, whether on foot or horseback, will be charged $4 per night per person, up to a ceiling of $20 for seven days.

Park officials say the money raised through this program will be used to pay for a better reservations system, and more backcountry rangers.

However, 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 a recent letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, and Superintendent Ditmanson, attorney J. Myers Morton maintains 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."

In the letter, which notified the federal officials that a lawsuit would be forthcoming, Mr. Myers maintains that the Park Service lacks the authority to impose the backcountry fee.

Great Smokies officials have been working with a software company to create a reservation system different than the system many other national parks use for reservations. This new system, based off one used at Zion National Park in Utah, is seen as being able to provide users with the ability to make backcountry reservations every day of the week at any time of day.

"Reservations may be made at any time up to 30 days in advance, allowing maximum flexibility for those making last minute plans," a park release said. "Backcountry users will no longer be required to call the Backcountry Office to obtain reservations. Reservation and permit requests will also be accepted in person at the Backcountry Office, which is located at the Sugarlands Visitor Center."

The reservation software still is being created and tested, though park officials hope to have it on-line for public use early in the new year.

“It is anticipated the on-line reservation and permit system will be available to the public within the first few months of 2013,” said Superintendent Dale Ditmanson. "We will provide notification of a specific implementation date later this year.”

In an effort to address questions about the change, the park has created an "FAQ" page that runs through a variety of quesions about the reservation system, ranging from whether an annual backcountry pass can be purchased (No) to whether there's a discount for children or North Carolina and Tennessee residents (No).


More backcountry rangers? I'm pretty certain that NPS has stated that the $4 fee collected will only fund the reservation line. Do the math, there is no way enough funds would be collected to pay for extra rangers. Simply not enough backcountry campers. And there will be even less if this fee comes to fruition.

Do you want one example of the National Park Service's disinformation and dishonesty?

The very park release in this article is disingenuous:

"Backcountry users will no longer be required to call the Backcountry Office to obtain reservations. Reservation and permit requests will also be accepted in person at the Backcountry Office, which is located at the Sugarlands Visitor Center."

Backcountry campers are not required to call the Backcountry Office to obtain reservations NOW on 75% of all campsites. You only make reservations on 25% of the campsites. The rest, you just fill out a form, stick it in 1 of several boxes and drive to the trailhead. You call noone.

There is much, much more disinformation and dishonesty coming out of these government employees.

Wait a minute. Before we throw the NPS under the bus let's think a little bit. Ok, so the NPS wants to make a few bucks off people camping in the backcountry at GSMNP. Face the facts. At almost any other park you would have to pay an entrance fee just to get in. Last time I was at GSMNP there was no entrance fee yet it is one of the most heavily used sites in the system. $4 per night or $20 maximum seems reasonable for the experience you get. Heck, I pay $9 for a movie at the cheap times. And that's only me and only for a couple of hours.

We need to realize that, given the budgetary restraints that government and individuals have, we can't always have our park experiences for free. It seems like a reasonable fee for a backcountry camping experience.

Also, if you are just filling out a form at the trailhead you are not "making a reservation", you are registering your experience. A reservation system allows the park management to keep up with who's out there and where, valuable information for them if you happen upon unforseen, unfortunate circumstances. And it allows management to establish use patterns, spread out the impacts of use and enhance everyone's backcountry experience by making sure everyone is not camped on top of each other. There are many benefits to a reservation system. Let's not throw the idea under the bus along with the park service.

Ranger Dave - NPS isn't making any money (so they say) off the $4. It goes soley to fund a reservation line. And aren't we already paying for backcountry experiences via federal income tax? Now we have to pay again? The GSMNP roads and parking lots are the most heavily used in the system, I will agree. Meanwhile the backcountry is virtually empty.

And why isn't NPS charging cars and horses to use the park? They do far more damage and use up FAR more Park resources than a backpacker could ever do.

NPS is testing the waters to open a floodgate of GSMNP fees. $4/night will become $10 before we know it. Boy Scouts and other groups will be priced right out of the park. Fine by NPS I suppose, they seem content to keep everyone in their cars anyway.

Ranger Dave, I'm sympathetic to all those issues. And I know that the law prohibits an entrance fee on the main highway.

But this particular fee discriminates, and in a particularly invidious way: it asks backcountry users who go into the backcountry to get away from the frontcountry to pay for services that frontcountry users consume.

It would be more honest to put parking meters in the visitor center and turnout lots to collect revenue from the automobile tourists who dominate the park. A tollbooth at Cades Cove would also align fee-payers and service beneficiaries more effectively. Neither option would impose a fee on Highway 441 in violation of agreements with NC & TN.

Ranger Dave.

Okay. Assuming the LAW allowed the GSMP "to make a few bucks" on backpackers, why the disinformation, false justifications and hogwash?

Your last paragraph may reveal the Park Service's true motiviation. Control.

As a tax paying "front country" user in the Great Smoky Mountains, I am appalled by the self-centeredness of our "backcountry" users who resent having to pay a $4 fee to tramp through the park, use the facilities, leave behind horse manure and Power Bar wrappers on the trails, and otherwise consume the same environment for which I pay upwards of $20 a night, with no ceiling on our fees. Enough with your arrogance! You don't own the park, anymore than we do. You owe the park, and the National Park Service, your support. One Power Bar less a day will not break the bank and will mean cleaner trails for the rest of us.


What facilities?

That's the point!

Tennessee Hiker -

I've not had the opportunity to use the park's backcountry, but according to the park's website, the area has: 800+ miles of hiking trails, and I suspect there are at least some trail bridges and a fair number of signs at key trail junctions; backcountry shelters for overnight users; backcountry campsites (at least some with fire rings) that require at least minimal occasional maintenance; five drive-in horse camps that likely serve as staging areas for some backcountry trips....and so on.

In the context used above by Revkeebler, it seems the above items could reasonably be described as "facilities."

Tom, aren't our tax dollars paying for the roads I drove on two weeks ago at Mt. Rainier and Crater Lake? Why did I have to pay an entrance fee to drive on those roads? And why shouldn't a backpacker have to pay for his/her use of the park? If I bring my own food and linens on a cruise can I go for free or get a discount? Of course not. If you are enjoying what you want to do in a park then you should support it just like anyone else does. And I hardly doubt that the NPS is going to price out backpackers in any park.

Bob, given your argument, only folks who drive in a park need to pay for it? Who is going to pay for the biologists and law enforcement rangers and trail maintenance crews and fire monitors and smoke jumpers etc., etc. who work for the park to make sure you can have that "backcountry" experience? I contend it is the backcountry users who are expecting the frontcountry uses to pay for their experience in the park.

Tennessee, have you seen some internal NPS document that states that, contrary to what they told the public, they have no intention of hiring additional backcountry rangers? And all park managers need some degree of control in their parks or chaos would reign.

Good points Rev and Jim.

My final comment on this issue is this. I have visited many of our national parks and I have come across way too many people who felt like the activity they wanted to participate in was not one that should have a charge. But here's a fact, no park makes nearly the amount of money it requires to operate from the fees it charges. If you are on this website you know that government monies are tight and so where is one of the first places cuts are made? In the parks because we aren't as important as schools, hospitals, and any number of other social services. (I would beg to differ.) So why is it such a burden for a park user, ie backpacker, to be asked to pay a little, $4 per night, $20 max., to make sure they have Great Smokey Mountain National Park in which to enjoy their leisure activity of choise? I think it is quite a bargin.

Howdy Rev. most back country campers I know of are on foot and leave no manure behind. In your example of staying in a frontcountry site, you are also being provided services and amenities that are not provided in the back country sites. You mention maintenance of fire rings, trails, and such, historically this is done by those who volunteer and make various other contributions in both time and money. Beyond these facts, there is a matter of how this
fee proposal and process has been obviouly rigged and is fraught with deception throughout by the NPS. Before you pass judgment too hasitly on these you refer to as "self-centered" perhaps you ought visit the "" site and look at the list of mis-representations documented to have been made by the NPS folks. I would hazard a guess that most of the"crimes" or sins that you blame on back country campers have actually occurred at the hands of other such as the manure issue being a result of the equestrion folks and more often than not the litter issues are related more to the "day-hikers" than folks who love the park, give to it, and often take the time to pickup after others that fail to place the same value upon the park or fellow hikers.

Good discussion folks. I don't disagree with your comments Ranger Dave. But while the $4 doesn't seem like much, there are some real drawbacks to how it was proposed, and more importantly how it could be implemented. For example, this will be the only part of the entire Appalachian Trail where hikers have to pay to camp. As for thru-hikers, how in the world will they know which site they'll need on which nights? You can't plan for that much exactness in a 2000 mile hike!. And what about youth and scouts? They could be priced out of a backcountry experience by these fees. They'll add up very quickly for a scout troop.

I know that the fee proponents have dished out a lot of ridicule and bashing of their opponents, and that detracts from their case. But that aside, they do have some really good points. This one size fits all proposal bring hammered home by the NPS isn't really that well thought out.

My last point is that there are a lot of other GSMNP users that are much harder on the environment and represent a much bigger revenue stream that could be tapped. Like horse users, and people who stop their cars in the middle of the Cades Cove Loop road and block traffic. But I don't think those are politically attractive targets.

"If you are enjoying what you want to do in a park then you should support it just like anyone else does."

Ranger Dave - then tell me how the cars and horses are "supporting it". Again, why isn't NPS charging them? The car traffic in Cades Cove alone soaks up a lot of NPS resources. Trails are rutted 4' deep in some places due to horse use. How are those 2 groups supporting it? Why don't they have to pay a fee?

Also, I remind everyone that this fee will only cover the cost of the reservation line. NPS has said as much already. It WON'T be for trail maintenance, repairing bridges, shelters, campsite improvements, etc. Volunteers are doing much of that. The extra rangers they speak of are already paid for by Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains.

And finally I would add that the folks opposing this fee contribute PLENTY to the park in the way of adopting campsites and trails for maintenance, repairing bear cables, packing out other's trash left behind. Not to mention they are typically the most respectful users of the park.

Ranger Dave, I'm not anti-fee. I'm happy to pay a backcountry fee for backcountry trail maintenance. If the revenue were dedicated that way - correct me if it is - no problem.

(And yes taxes should be paying for lots of the NPS too.)

But my understanding of this fee is that it's driven by the fact that the NPS *can't* charge the eight million annual auto tourists an entrance fee, so they charge the backcountry users more or less because they can. That's not fair. Put up parking meters.

It's ALL about control. They don't want us in their backcountry. The best way to raise some $ would surely be a charge to drive the Loop. $5 a car would bring a boatload of cash rolling in. Is anyone else who frequents the backcountry in the Park sick of hearing the phrase "we are loving the park to death"? Once you get away from the black top it is rarely crowded. Overnight use is down according to the info we received via FOIA request.

Ranger Dave,

I would be interested, and presumably you are or have been affiliated with the park service as implied by your handle, in your perception of the deceit and manipulation that has characterized this particular fee initiative in the Smokies. The question here is, are those methods acceptable. Why does the public input have no bearing on the policy and why backpackers and backpackers only. We are the lowest of impact groups. We are low hanging fruit and easy pickins for the NPS. You can speak of the park needing funds, I don't particularly agree since they just got an extra 80 million dollars, but is it fair to target one specific group when horses and cars do immeasurable damage and they get a pass.

I said in my last post that it would be my last one on this subject but John asked me a couple of questions. First question answer is NO, it is not acceptable to use deceit and manipulation ever. However, my perception is this: I know that as you go through a process sometimes things change. In this case, it is probably cheaper for the park to use an in-house reservation system than to pay for the service. This change from the original intent may provide the additional money needed to pay for the extra patrols, maintenance and planning services. And this decision probably was made because of public input complaining about fees, cancellation policies and flexibility to deal with thru-hikers. Based on minutes of meetings I read this was one of the main reasons for opposing the fee. Public input may also have been one of the reasons the additional revenue is being dedicated to these extra services.

Believe me, charging a new user fee is never a decision a park superintendent makes easily. And based on what I have read about this issue from both sides, I don't believe the park service ever intended to charge backcountry users only because they couldn't charge an entrance fee and because they can charge backcountry users. (No one would be nieve enough to believe that the amount charged to backcountry users would fund other aspects of park operations.) It's not that simple. Based on my research and experiences, this fee was probably the best solution the park service found for addressing the complaints about mis-use and overcrowding at the most popular backcountry sites. It may have started with only a reservation system that gave the park the tool it needed to keep up with who was supposed to be on a site but became more as time went on. And it is a fee that is charged at many other parks that are large enough for backcountry camping. And those parks almost all charge an entrance fee in addition.

You are right that backpackers are low impact. But the complaints I have read about overuse and improper use of some backcountry sites is one that has to be addressed. I once worked in a park where campers complained about the conditions in a particular campground. So, we shut it down one fall and winter and renovated it. When we opened the campground in the spring some of those same campers nearly took my head off because we had reduced the number of sites to make the improvements and thus made it harder for them to get a reservation. Someone once said you can please some of the people some of the time but you can't please all the people all the time.

The $80 mil you mention is stimulus money and it can't be used for operational expenses. That money is dedicated to particular projects, mostly road improvements, and has limitations. The park depends on its appropriation from the tax coffers and user fees to operate. (And the multitudes of volunteers who give so much to the parks.)

And when general fund appropriations don't keep up with inflation or user demand, the stress put on park employees is jacked up. We care about providing a quality experience for all our guests and when we don't have the resources to do enough backcountry patrols (etc., etc.) and we hear complaints from our guests it bothers us to our core.

My final, final word is this, John, there is never (I believe) an intent to be deceptive or manipulative. Sometimes circumstances or situations change and we go with it if it makes sense. All managers need the latitude to do this. And words in one person's memo may not be exactly what is needed to paint the whole picture. We need to look at the whole picture before we make a judgement. What can be done at GSMNP to make user fees more equitable for all? This is a tough one because of the legal limitations. I believe there are ways to do it. How would you address the 8 million visitors who don't pay and explain why they will have to pay now? If you feel strongly about it join the park's friends group and get involved. Throw out some possible solutions and banter them about. Maybe one will come up that makes sense and you can go with it.

The NPS spends 25 cents in cost of collection for every dollar collected.

That's just to get the money into their vaults.

Another 10 cents disappears to friction loss in spending the money.

So you can reduce the 'benefits' of this fee by some 33 percent.

The effective yield will be only some 200,000 dollars.

Should charge only 50 percent of the fee it collects for processing Half Dome hiking fees in Yosemite........, and considering the costs of collection and overhead......Smokies will be losing money on this new system long before it hires any rangers

Will Appalachian Trail thru hikers be charged for their use of the backcountry? Most people that visit the smokies do not leave sight of their car. So why is the smallest number of visiters that travels into the deepest part of the park the only getting slapped with this fee? I feel this is just the beginning. The math does not add up in their statement. I personally know several volunteers that do annual trail maintance in the smokies. The government in turn pays the GSMNP for each hour of volunteer's work. Volunteers already patrol the backcountry.

OK. I'm getting’ on the permit bandwagon. I haven't read this whole thread in detail but I'm sure everyone has a valid their own mind…as I do. I think "Tennessee Hiker" is making an overly big deal on "disinformation and dishonesty". Pardon the NPS for not clearly stating in their press release that only backcountry campers who want to reserve a space at a campsite that requires reservations will no longer be required to call the Backcountry Office. Pardon them also for leaving the other 75% of the non-reservable backcountry campsites out of the picture. What's $4 a night? How many nights do you plan to spend in the park anyway?

I’ve tried using the call in reservation line before and could not get through. Fortunately, I live close by so visiting the backcountry office at Sugarlands is not a problem and it also avails me the flexibility of seeking alternate plans to use campsites which do not require a reservation. That may not be so for a back country user coming from a greater distance.

But if $4 a night could solve, or even improve, the current reservation system, I’m all for it. If $4 a night can help support the park in any way, I’m all for it. It isn’t like the NPS is making a mint on revenues. I don’t think the NPS is being “disingenuous” by trying to fix something that is broke.

If you drive to your campsite you will gladly pay a $20 fee to camp overnight, but if you walk to your campsite you gripe about a $4 fee to camp overnight?

Slow - I think the difference is the front country campsites have amenities that cost money to maintain. Personnel, bathrooms, clean water, tent pads, trash collection and maybe some other stuff. The only backcountry campsite amenity are bear cables and those may be maintained by volunteers (not positive about that).