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.


This headline is a bit misleading since it was not the collective body of the TN House of Representatives that proclaimed their opposition to the backcounty fee. The proclamation I read expressed the views of only two representatives: House Speaker Beth Harwell and District 19 Representative Harry Brooks (District 19 contains areas bordering the NE portion of the Knoxville Metro area http://www.capitol.tn.gov/districtmaps/HouseDist19.pdf).

A truly powerful statement would be a proclamation that represented the majority view of the entire Tennessee State House. I'd like to know why at least representatives for districts bordering the Smokies didn't sign-on to this proclamation? Those areas are represented by Jeremy Faison, District 11; Dale Carr, District 12; and Art Swann, District 8. What were their official views regarding this proclamation? Here's a link to an interactive State of Tennessee webpage that shows maps for political districts along with the politician for those districts; just click on the appropriate areas to see details for that district: http://www.capitol.tn.gov/districtmaps/

This entire process reminds me of a political fight where the higher-up the political ladder you climb, the less likely it is that the politician in that position will be interested in making waves. You can bet your bottom dollar that our federal-level politicians will not come out in official opposition to anything the National Park Service supports. This is why it is important for us to express our views on special interest blogs such as National Parks Traveler.

More and more political entities echo the sentiments of the citizens on this issue and Jarvis and Ditmanson march blithely on. I hope that Sec Jewell will reign these cowboys in and revoke authorization for the fee as a mechanism to regain the public trust in the most visited National Park. It would be a very, very smart move, especially in light of the lawsuit pending over this fee which could have implications for the entirety of the NPS.

Thank you National Parks Traveler.

Thanks TnHiker for pointing out that only 2 people signed this. Indeed the article title is somewhat misleading. Frankly, I don't understand all the anger over paying a small fee to camp overnight in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I'm grateful for the opportunity to experience this amazing place. At a time when funds are squeezed and portions of parks are having to shut down due to budget cuts, bringing such a frivolous lawsuit makes no sense.

This proclamation is a precursor to a full joint house and senate proclamation condemning the Smokies fee. The public comments are 18-1 opposing the fee. Apparently, you are in the minority if you can't understand the outrage. Now the growing list of counties opposing the fee is undeniable and will serve the lawsuit well in proving that the NPS didn't properly vet the stakeholding counties. It is quite the embarrassment to Ditmanson and Jarvis, I imagine.

I'm in the minority on many issues I suppose, because I don't simply follow the status quo of what everyone else thinks. Then again, I'm grateful for the national parks, in particular for the GSMNP, and I don't mind paying a small fee to camp. The parks are already under financial duress in these times due to federal government budget cuts. To me, this is a time to support our national parks, not work against them.

Yea Mountainhiker.

What difference does the law make anyway? huh?

And it's okay for our federal government to lie, cheat and steal too, huh?


At the least, your last paragraph hit the nail on the head.

Tennessee Backpacker, you seem very angry and, from this thread, it's not clear why. But if you don't support the parks and you don't want to pay a small fee to camp in the national parks (or state parks, or private campgrounds, or wherever), then that's up to you. And you have the right to find other places to go where its free to stay overnight. Those of us who do support the parks will continue to enjoy them. Freedom of choice.

I can tell you that a lot of people are mad at Ditmanson's lies and deception. And tell me why you think that backpackers and backpackers alone have to foot the bill for his mismanagement of the Smokies? He could come up with a quarter million dollars to complete Newfound Gap road in record time but can't open up backcountry trails that have been closed for two years? Give me a break. If anyone should be paying in that park it is the concessionaires like Leconte Lodge and local guide services who make millions off the park. It's like someone told me yesterday, Ditmanson takes credit for the good and blames problems on other people. He is a bad seed and liability for the NPS. I look forward to the exposing of his bs in court. Just google private resort and their private trail system in the Smokies on NPS land. He can sure turn a blind eye when a prominent senator is involved in some misdealings in the park, huh?

SmokiesBackpacker -

I believe a little research would reveal that most of the funds for the emergency repairs on the Newfound Gap Road came not from park sources, but from the Federal Highway Admininstration. According to news reports, the Cherokee Nation also made a significant contribution to the work.

This was not, as suggested, an example of Mr. Ditmanson playing favorites with park funds for a road repair vs. backcountry trail work, and park managers have a lot less discretion in using funding from various sources than you seem to believe. In this case, I'd give the superintendent and his staff some credit for finding money outside of park sources for what was clearly an urgent need that affected millions of visitors to the park.

The backcountry fee is obviously a very personal issue for you, and you're certainly entitled to be opposed to it. Perhaps the fee decision process could have been handled better by the park, but as illustrated by the above comment, the issue has taken on the feel of a personal vendetta on your part against the park superintendent.

Let's all at least try to be fair in our discussions on the Traveler.


Backcountry trails in the smokies have been closed for two years but a road is completed in record time. You are mischaracterizing something. Backpackers will be paying a fee but no one else in the park has to pony up anything. It just proves that Ditmanson does not care about the backcountry or backcountry users and wishes to reduce backcountry usage by restricting access to it. Your idea of fair and mine are very different. There is a petition to recall Ditmanson from folks in Ohio and Kentucky. Don't know if you are a Smokies "customer" as that is what we are now called but Ditmanson's "customers" are mad. Check it out. http://www.change.org/petitions/repeal-the-great-smoky-mountains-np-backcountry-camping-fee?utm_campaign=signature_receipt&utm_medium=email&utm_source=share_petition

Sorry, SmokiesBacker, as explained above, attempts to compare funding for this road repair job and the lack of repairs to backcountry trails are what's being "mischaracterized."

The reasons there are no entrance fees for US 441 users as there are for similar roads at most other parks have already been covered in detail in several stories on the Traveler, and it would be futile to revisit that topic yet again.

You're welcome to draw your own conclusions about the Superintendent's feelings about the backcountry, but there is evidence the park staff is also doing what they can for trails with the funds they have available. Just one example is found in a recent article on the Traveler.

And, yes - I'm happy to say I visit the Smokies several times a year, and no, given the park's lack of better options, I do not object to the backcountry fee.


I am not a park employee past or present. Therefore, as a customer, I am allowed to criticize the mgmt of the park and stand with the majority of Smokies "customers" who reject this tax on backcountry usage. I am interested in your opinion as to the public comments which are 18-1 against this fee. That places you in the minority. Do you think that the NPS cares about public comment? I am very interested in your take on that situation given your history with the NPS.

Such a strangely volatile thread here. I can't believe the anger over small fees that all campers pay at GSMNP. I don't think it matters how you get into the park or what you're carrying or what you're bringing with you. You enter free and you only pay a fee if you stay overnight. That's across the board, so no one single group of the public is singled out to pay in order to experience an overnight stay in the park.

Jim Burnett, thank you for your rational comments here and for offering a voice of common sense on this topic. It's starting to sound like the unexplained anger expressed by some is indeed more of a personal vendetta. In the meantime, I do believe I'll just enjoy the park and appreciate its beauty.

Not really volatile when you consider the toxicity of dishonesty driving the fee. Evolving justifications, misrepresentation of scientific data to justify the fee, discounting of public comments and use of concessionaires to make false assertions about an out of control backcountry "crisis" have locals fighting mad. Now it has spread to user groups in Ohio and Kentucky. Folks don't appreciate the NPS lying over and over. It is pretty simple and has less to do with the fee than the outright lies driving it.

Smokiesbackpacker, I never knew a government entity to sufficiently justify raising fees or taxes on citizens, at least not from the citizens' perspective. So if that's the real reason for all the anger, that sort of thing is everywhere in local, state and national governments. But just because they (whoever 'they' might be) didn't justify the fee to your satisfaction doesn't mean they can't impose a fee which makes all campers equal. So yes, all campers now have to pay a fee to stay overnight -- be they local, out of state, whatever. No special group gets to stay overnight in the park for free anymore. Frankly, I see no problem with treating all GSMNP overnighters the same in this regard.

Mtn Hiker,

You do understand that there are NO amenities in the smokies backcountry, right? When I say no amenities I mean none. For instance, should a backcountry camper be required to pay almost the same amt as a front country camper that has bathrooms with showers, paved roads to their site, picnic tables, treated water and barbecue grills?

The only thing nearing an amenity in the backcountry is a bear cable and that is provided by donations. There are no level tent sites, no bathrooms (unless you consider the shelter privies bathrooms but again, those are provided by volunteers no the NPS). To say that backcountry campers should pay a fee to sleep on unimproved ground by walking on trails that are volunteer maintained into campsites that are volunteer maintained is inequity at its zenith. We all know this is a backdoor entrance fee because of the deed restriction. It is wrong and the NPS will have to answer for it in the pending lawsuit. Consider the damage one horse does to a trail and they pay nothing unless they overnight, which rarely happens. Targeting backcountry campers was Ditmanson's biggest mistake. I assure you it is one he wishes he could revisit. The lawsuit may afford him that very opportunity.

I understand no amenities. Campers who camp in the backcountry don't want or need amenities. But if a horse camper or hiker or backpacker sleeps overnight in the backcountry, they all pay a fee for that experience. If they go in and come out in the same day, they don't pay any fee because that would equate to an "entrance fee." So, this overnight fee is not "targeting" any one particular group. All overnighters pay a fee for the overnight experience. If "free" is what you must have, you may have to find another place to sleep overnight to get it.

I don't see how a fee for overnight camping is illegal, even though an entrance fee would be illegal. So if that is the focus of the lawsuit, I don't see how a judge could rule to prevent such a fee because, clearly, it isn't an entrance fee. You still enter for free, regardless of how you enter (foot, horse, bicycle, car, motorcycle, moped, etc.). Only if you stay overnight are you charged a few bucks. I guess we'll see when the ruling is made.

As for who does the most damage, the point of public parks is that they are open to the public. A wheelchair or a bicycle may do more damage than a barefoot walker and a shod horse may do more damage than a couple of dogs on leashes. But the park is owned by the public, open to the public, and serves everyone in the public, not just selected individuals or selected groups of people.

So, this overnight fee is not "targeting" any one particular group.

Mtnhiker - I can fathom why you aren't getting this. It is targeting one group - overnight backcountry campers. Its not targeting drive throughs, its not targeting front country campers, its not targeting horseback riders, its not targeting day hikers all of which put as much if not a greater burden on park resources.

ecbuck, how can an overnight camping fee be targeting any one group when *all* people who camp overnight in the park pay a fee? It doesn't matter about anything else -- whether you call yourself a horseback rider, a backpacker, a local, a handicapped person. It only matters that you stay overnight. If its "targeting" anybody, it's targeting all those who stay overnight. If you don't want to pay the fee, don't stay overnight.

From this discussion, it's beginning to sound like one particular group of overnighters want to single themselves out as the victims of a draconian $4 per night fee to camp. Whatever. I don't see how any judge would think an overnight fee that *all* campers pay is the same as an entrance fee that no one is paying. But, like I said before, when the ruling comes down, we'll all get to see it.

Mtnhiker - Is it OK to discriminate against one group (overnight backcountry campers) as long as you discriminate against all of them?

Okay, so the national park system is discriminating against people who camp in the national parks overnight? Because overnight campers are charged a fee? If that's the case, all the overnight camping fees would have been deemed illegal for decades.

all the overnight camping fees would have been deemed illegal for decades.

No, because the other parks don't charge exclusively for backcountry camping. Besides the issue isn't so much what is "legal" and "illegal", it is what is right. Is it right to charge backcountry campers a fee when they have little if any incremental cost on running the park when you don't charge a fee for other usage which is for more taxing on park finances?

Internal documents provided through FOIA requests show that Ditmanson is authorized to collect a fee to pay for a reservation system and a reservation system only. Any other use of those funds exceeds their authorization through the Dept of Interior. All of this "feel good" help the Smokies stuff is bull. And here is the proof. Look at page 5 and take a good look at all the other documents. https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B3rQxlRiSX1Rczd4OV9maENTdG1DenM0ejhkR1hEQQ/edit

Although I know nothing about this other than what I've been reading in Traveler, I think this is one more example of an odd trait among many Americans. They demand services, but balk violently at paying for them. Our national infrastructure is crumbling, and when a bridge gives out or a sewer backs up, watch out for the seismic waves of wrath. But if anyone in any government suggests increasing fees or taxes, then here comes the wrathful earthquake anyway. It's not just in our parks. It seems to be a national epidemic.

Something isn't making sense here.

So Lee - what "services" are the backcountry campers getting that their fee is paying for?

We aren't demanding any services, Lee Dalton. As a matter of fact the public comments were 18-1 rejecting a reservation system. If anything, we are asking for a reduction in "services". This fee is a solution in search of a problem. Backcountry campers don't want the federal solution to a non existent problem. The problem in the Smokies is top heavy bureaucracy that concocts these unpopular, big govt solutions for non existent problems. But public comments are really not of any consequence to the NPS.

ebuck, you say other national parks don't charge for backcountry camping, but several of them do. For instance, Yellowstone National Park requires advance reservations for backcountry camping and charges a fee for it. Rocky Mountain National Park requires advance reservations for backcountry camping and charges a fee for it. Grand Teton National Park requires advance reservations for backcountry camping and charges a fee for it. Those are just a few. I suppose these are called "administrative fees" or "service fees" not camping fees, per se, but they are in place and they are established precendent in our national park system.

ebuck, as for what is "right" -- that would be a personal opinion. Apparently it is "right" in other national parks to charge fees for all campers, including front country campers, backcountry campers and horse campers.

Surely the lawsuit we are discussing here is being addressed by the legal system because the lawsuit is about what is "legal" -- and it appears there is already precedent in our national park system that suggests clearly these reservation fees/administrative fees/service fees related to overnight camping (anywhere in the park) are indeed legal.

Isn't just keeping a national park open a "service?" As I said above, I'm not really familiar with the situation in the Smokies -- but was commenting on what I've observed frequently seemingly almost everywhere around me.

Cut spending -- but don't cut anything that might affect ME!

you say other national parks don't charge for backcountry camping, but several of them do.

No I didn't and don't say that. I say other parks don't charge EXCLUSIVELY for backcountry camping. You pay a fee to get into Yellowstone whether to drive, hike, horseback ride or camp. You pay a fee to get into Grand Teton whether to drive, hike, horseback ride or camp. You pay a fee to get into Rocky Mountain whether to drive, hike, horseback ride or camp.

Isn't just keeping a national park open a "service?"

Actually, Lee no. Keepong the backcountry open to camping cost virtually nothing and what it does cost is supplied by volunteers. People were camping in this backcountry long before it was a national park.

EC, not sure you're exactly right on the exclusivity of backcountry fees. You do indeed need to pay $25 for a backcountry permit at Yellowstone, and there are similar fees at Grand Teton, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and other parks. Those fees, often are referred to as administrative fees, but you can't legally go backpacking without a permit. And they are separate from the entrance fee you pay to enter these parks.

Kurt, I am not saying that GSMNP is the only park that charges for backcountry camping. It is the only park I am aware of that ONLY charges for backcountry camping and not for other uses. All the other parks you mention charge just to get past the gate.

Thanks Kurt Repanshek . I see no exclusivity either. ALL campers pay a fee to camp overnight in GSMNP (whether front country, horse camping, or back country). Likewise, ALL campers pay a fee to camp overnight in the other national parks you mention -- Grand Teton, Grand Canyon, Glacier, Yellowstone, etc. And in those other parks, that fee is separate from and in addition to a park entrance fee (which GSMNP obviously does not have).

I don't see how a judge can look at those same fees in all the other national parks and not allow such a fee in GSMNP. They set precedent. They are legal.

ebuck, there are indeed fees charged for other uses at GSMNP besides backcountry camping for backpackers. There is fee for picnic shelters, a fee for campsites, a fee for group camping, a fee for horse camps, a fee for use of Mt. Le Conte Lodge, to name a few. Everybody who camps pays a fee. No one group is being singled out.

Everybody who camps pays a fee.

But, unlike all other parks, not for those that don't camp. And all those items you mentioned have amenties that have associated costs. The backcountry has no amenities.

Yep, that's true ebuck, GSMNP has no entrance fee. Thus, it can't charge people just to wander through the park for the day. As far as amenities go, the backcountry areas in all those other national parks have no amenities either and yet folks who camp overnight there are charged a fee. If you want amenities, you need to camp in the horse camps or the group camps or the car camping sites. If you want more of a wilderness experience, backcountry is it. But, just as in the other parks mentioned, you pay a modest fee for the overnight experience wherever you choose to camp. No big deal.

The truth lies in the details and will be examined in court. No amenities is the test of FLREA here. I maintain that the NPS provides no amenities for which they can justify charging a fee. FLREA says that they must provide a minimum of amenities. The only amenity provided is a reservation system no one wants. I'm hoping the judge rules according to law and takes note of the mischaracterization of scientific data such as the campsite overcrowding fallacy purported by Ditmanson and his crew.

Yep, that's true ebuck, GSMNP has no entrance fee. Thus, it can't charge people just to wander through the park for the day.

Which is the point SmokiesBackpacker was making from the beginning.

I say if you can't charge an entrance fee, then charge a parking fee. I am ok with backcountry camping fees. It seems the intent of the agreement for not charging entrance fees was to not burden the locals from driving through the park out of necessity (to see family, go to the next town for shopping, etc...) When you are talking about one of the most visited national parks, my question is how many are only passing through and how many are there to see the park. You have to pay for park personel and upkeep somehow.

ebuck, I have no argument with the "no entrance fee" policy at GSMNP. My point is, a camping fee (or site reservations fee or administrative fee for overnighting in the park) is clearly not an entrance fee. All campers pay a fee. That makes the practice *inclusive* of all campers, not exclusive of any special group of campers. And because other national parks already charge such a fee for reserving campsites where there are no amenities (and this camping/admin fee is obviously not a park entrance fee there either), there is legal precedent.

But when it comes to this lawsuit, my opinion and your opinion don't matter. Only the ruling of the judge matters. And we will all see that when it comes out.

The intent of "do not charge an entrance fee" by the state of TN was to keep locals and their ancestors who were forced off their land from being "charged" to enjoy it in the future. The park service by putting in these type of fees are disgraceful. Believe me the people of the state of TN are looking at every avenue to make sure the GSMNP superintendent knows how we feel. This is not over by a long shot.

So maybe give the TN and NC a free pass and charge the rest of us an entrance fee.

Is a back country ranger an amenity? Is search and rescue an amenity?


You are hilarious.

You are avoiding the topic of honesty and the truth. You must work for the National Park Service or the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

You're dang tootin I'm mad. I don't like thieves and cheats...especially those who work for me.

David Crowl -- an interesting proposal for sure. But I expect that the original legal agreement isn't written quite that way. Also, descendants of the original GSMNP land owners may no longer live in NC or TN. (And to be exact about it, the true original owners of that land were, for the most part, forcibly moved to Oklahoma.) That said, I don't see that anyone -- local person, out-of-state person, descendant of either the original white or indigenous land owners, etc. -- is being denied the right to enter the park.

Tennessee Backpacker, no, I don't work for and have never worked for the National Park Service or any branch of the federal government. Neither have any of my family members. In fact, I don't personally know anyone -- friend or aquaintance or neighbor -- who works for the Park service. I have gratitude for our national parks. And I just call it as I see it.