Opponents of backcountry use fees in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are wrong

Photo by QT Luong -  Terragalleria.com

I can understand the frustration of having to pay for something that was once free. But normally that’s reserved for things like coffee refills or extra hot sauce on a taco.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the system’s busiest. It’s perpetually jammed with day-trippers detouring off of I-40 along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina—a very legitimate and enjoyable way to visit a national park. However, the deluge of traffic means that Rangers and park officials have to deploy more resources for costly road maintenance, traffic flow concerns, smog studies and the bevy of other problems that arise when too many Americans are in one place at the same time.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park does not charge an entrance fee. And lest we forget, the entire parks system is intrinsically under-funded. So there’s that.

Earlier this year, park officials introduced the idea of a fee for backcountry use similar to many of the system’s most populous natural wonders, like Zion and the Grand Canyon. The fees being proposed are nominal and are broken into a general reservation cost and a fee per person, or maybe a fee per night. Plus, sites could be reserved online (a tremendous convenience) and be accessed by a 24-hour call center. Yes, the park gets that busy.

The Knoxville News-Sentinel reports that 2010 estimates suggest 79,480 people slept under the park’s backcountry stars. That’s down from a peak of over 100,000 in 1996. It’s still a football stadium of people using trails, fire rings, bear boxes and hopefully (?) Leave No Trace principles. I’m not sure if that number also includes Appalachian Trail hikers, who would also have to pay to camp. (I assume that aspect of the fee plan will become the most troublesome for the park. You can read more about that on National Parks Traveler.com.)

A gentleman hiker from Tennessee, let’s call him John Quillen, because that’s his name, is not so happy about the proposal. He’s been raising a fuss since the plan’s inception.

I encourage Mr. Quillen to consider all the additional tasks the two backcountry Rangers proposed as part of the fee plan would handle besides pestering campers for their permit numbers, such as bear activity monitoring (one bruin per square mile), site maintenance and finding hikers bewildered by rhododendron, among many other duties above, beyond, across from, underneath and out of reach of their job description. These are things that would improve Quillen’s enjoyment of the park and, if it’s any consolation to him, they would still be significantly under-paid.

Mr. Quillen filed a Freedom of Information Act request to view the public comments made about the fee plan. Having once worked in a position responsible for accepting and managing citizen interest in a North Carolina public institution, I can attest firmly that more often than not, these documents do nothing to aid one’s stance against something. In short, there’s never a smoking gun. Area 51 won’t be uncovered in the paperwork, I assure you. Yet, people demand them, as is their right, with a “well, I’ll show you” demeanor and a reminder of who works for who. (Every time I heard the “I pay your salary” line in conjunction with the most haughty of these requests, I simply suggested that it would be best for them to hold off on paying me this month, because they won’t be getting their board meeting minutes or budget summaries anytime soon.)

I never complain about paying $15 to camp in the desolate landscapes of the Grand Canyon. And I wouldn’t complain about paying double that to sleep in the rich, ink-blackened forested tunnels of the Great Smokies. How could you?

The incredibly diverse woods and wildlife of the Smoky Mountains are tucked between towns like Cherokee, NC and Gatlinburg, TN, two of the most egregious testaments to tourist traps on the eastern seaboard. How could you put a price on the value of escaping for a weekend to their most inimical environments?

We’re lucky our national parks continue to exist as they do. The fight to keep them pure in their purpose and accesible for us to enjoy is waged every day. If I need to pay a few bucks to keep that fight in our corner, show me where to sign. I hope Mr. Quillan is willing to join me for a few rounds.

14 thoughts on “Opponents of backcountry use fees in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are wrong

  1. First of all, it’s Quillen. Second, you like paying fees so much, pay me to take you to an empty campsite. That is the premise upon which the proposal is based. Nothing else. Overcrowding. Is two campers per campsite per night in a site rated for 14 overcrowding? No. The whole “I love the park, I’m not afraid to pay” argument is flawed from the beginning because there is no other use for the money but to hire rangers. Why do we need more rangers when the ones that are there don’t even get out of their crown victorias to go to the A.T. shelters which are the problem spots, apparently. Even the park Superintendent has now said, “Perhaps overcrowding isn’t the right argument.” Just because everyone else is paying a fee, does that mean we should have to. I hope you don’t tell your kids to follow that line of reasoning. Every business in this country operates under a budget, you suggest the Smokies is exempt. Why? Underfunded? All the money goes to roads. Shouldn’t cars have to pay? I’m sorry, you just don’t seem to have any convincing arguments for those of us who backpack to have to forfeit our money to sleep on the unoccupied ground in an unoccupied campsite because the park service tells us they need more Rangers.
    Last, are you a native of the region? I ask because I have found that most fee proponents don’t have roots in N.C. or TN. They bring a West Cost Fee mentality to the argument that is full of holes.

  2. Hi John, thanks for reading. And sorry for misspelling your name.

    A native? No. I did live in NC for close to 15 years, having just recently moved away. I camped in the Smokies a number of times, although always in the shoulder seasons to avoid crowds. However, a couple of times I tried to secure permits, for 37 and 38 I think, along Big Creek, they were closed because of bear activity. Typically, that is a result of poor site management by backpackers and not enough staff to divert wildlife from popular camping zones. That could have been an isolated incident. But I was denied twice, many weeks apart. Someone wasn’t cleaning up after themselves. A backcountry ranger could remedy that issue, or at least minimize it.

    The problems I tend to see in the backcountry, having backpacked in the GC, Zion, Yellowstone and throughout WY and the desert SW, as well as in a number of southeastern national forests, usually stem from the masses trying backpacking for the first time; or those on dayhikes coming through more secluded areas. While it”s great that they are trying to learn/experience/understand wilderness, they don’t always recognize the threats or understand the level of care needed to preserve these areas. Fire rings are made. New tent spots are created. And of course, there’s the safety and rescue needs. Rangers can help there, too.

    Are you sure the rangers never get out of their cars? Is that fact or presumption? Maybe you’ve seen that happen a few times. Maybe other times they do get out to the shelters. Additionally, backcountry rangers have duties that are quite disparate from frontcountry rangers.

    The argument about being willing to pay “because you love the park” isn’t flawed because it’s a choice. It may not be your choice.

    It’s understandable that some may not want the fee to happen. And I agree that cars should pay as well, at the very least through the fall, when so many come to see the changing foliage.

    Would you be willing to pay a permit fee if it wasn’t going to back the hiring of two more rangers? For example, if the fees were designated for a conservation program or ongoing trail maintenance, would you be more willing to pay them? I ask only because you seem quite frustrated at the presence or role of the rangers, not necessarily the financial requirement. To be as motivated as you are to see that it doesn’t happen, which is commendable, as few people today actually carry out their efforts to make change, you must spend many nights/year in the park. Don’t you want to see it remain in the state it’s in now?

    Again, thanks for reading.

  3. you’re response to John has a few rather bizarre assumptions concerning bear activity and site closings. i’ll pass on parsing your statements.
    i will say though that i’ve had night time bear encounters in sites where i’ve been the only one there, and food up on the cables. but i don’t run panicking to the nearest ranger, which is what gets the sites closed.

    here’s my problem with this absurd proposal, one which i’ve explained to the park staff personally.
    i’m a long distance,x-c backpacker. i regularly get dropped of at one end of the park and hike to the other. the route i take, is sometimes planned, sometimes not.
    i make those decisions as i come to a trail junction. sometimes i travel old manways and other offtrail routes.(legal to do so)
    there’s no telling which empty site i’ll be at on any particular evening.

    the permit system in place now allows for my decision to alter what i’ve filled out on them. i’ve explained in the past my style of travel, and have been told just to be as accurate as possible in filling them out.
    the reservation system they plan on putting these sites under, will turn my freedoms into an illegal activity, subject to citations.
    a ridiculous situation to say the least.

    my other main point is, if the backcountry has been as overcrowded as they say, for oh these many years, then why is ditmanson not getting his rangers out of there crown victoria police cruisers and out on the trails where they belong half the time they’re on duty ??? why does he feel the need to slip this plan by under the radar and from behind closed doors to hire two additional rangers to do what, his already ample staff, should have been doing all along ???

    don’t kid yourself, this is all about money.
    the park is bursting at the seams with new GM suv’s, new crown victoria police cruisers, new john deere tractors and atv’s. new pavement covering over what was already good solid pavement to begin with. they’ve blown through vast amounts of money for many other projects as well. why now when the budgets are tight do they finally have an epiphany about this, supposed , long standing problem of backcountry overcrowding ???
    we all know the answer to that. it’s all about money. and we’re the only ones they can feasibly go after to get it.
    imagine the stink raised by the local retail business communities (of which ditmanson is a member) if anything was proposed to double tax the out of town tourists who routinely clog the roads around various areas within the park ??? that would dip into their t-shirt funds. can’t have that !!!

    no, they’ll double tax the locals who don’t contribute to the hideous retail blight that surrounds those mountains. how much of a percentage of their profits do you think are returned into the very national park that they feed off of ???

    i regularly see rangers gathered up in areas like cataloochie, abrams, elkmont and other areas, hanging out.
    in all my many years hiking the park, only once have i ever seen a backcountry ranger. that was during the last weekend of this past july. i had kayaked across the lake to the mouth of eagle creek. hiked the pinnacle creek manway to jenkins ridge, then up to the AT, across then back down via eagle creek. with the exception of the usual dayhikers on the AT at spence, i saw nobody else that day.
    a prime summer weekend, and not one single person was on the entire length of eagle creek. all sites were empty. (a sight i see everywhere i travel in the park’s backcountry, except for the fall color season) when i encountered the ranger above #90 we talked about the proposal and how the empty sites won’t be enough revenue to hire two rangers and pay for the web host in order to have all of the sites be on a reserve basis.
    he saw my point, but was obligated to tow the company line.

    as the myth of overcrowding has been exposed by those of us who oppose this plan, the amount of other “issues” created to deflect from the falsehood of the original reasons, have been pouring in at a rapid rate.
    (mouse traps in the shelters was a classic) and the amount of absolute lies told by those who have a vest business interest in the park, have been never ending. and when you try to question or debate those folks by wanting facts and figures to back up their statements, you get accused of personal attacks.

    no doubt there’s always going to be control problems with an area as vast as the G.S.M.N.P. but our tax money is already being spent to operate the park. this plan is a prime example of double taxation, something my congressman’s staff said immediately as i explain this to them.
    why the need to tax backpackers only ??? where does it stop once it’s started ??? how long before a modest fee increase to one not so modest ??? remember this is the federal government we’re talking about.
    they’re not here to help.

  4. As is true with most of the folks who have come out in support of these proposed fees, your justification of them is based on a number of false premises. For starters, the backcountry is anything but overcrowded, and if you had much experience at all in the GSMNP backcountry you would know that. You admit you have minimal experience camping there, and when you found the two sites closed because of bear activity, it would have been logical to consider the 100+ other ones which were available. $15 might not be much money to you, but for a family of five living close to the Park and utilizing it as a regular weekend getaway, you are suddenly looking at hundreds upon hundreds of dollars a year.

    You seem to think that two rangers patrolling the backcountry would be a cure-all. In truth, they couldn’t come anywhere close to covering the 500,000 square miles of the Park, its 100+ campsites, and upwards of 800 miles of maintained trails. Even if they worked seven days a week, 24 hours a day, simple math tells us that never would they be able to cover more than a very small percentage of the campsites.
    In truth, that coverage isn’t needed. You get off track when you talk about day hikers, new fire rings, and new places to pitch tents, because none of those figure into this particular equation. At issue is existing campsites and overnight campers, not hikers. Anyone familiar with the Smokies backcountry, and I have a full 60 years of camping, fishing, and sojourning in the Park, not to mention family roots in the region which pre-date the Park’s existence, will readily tell you that most campsites are woefully underutilized. You talk about 80,000 camper nights in football stadium terms, but thats for 365 days in an area just a tad bigger than even the biggest football stadium. The Smokies backcountry, outside the AT shelters (and yes, they are part of the proposal, which you would have know had you done your homework), is a wonderfully lonely place. This is a solution in search of a problem.
    Your arrogant dismissal of FOIA is shameful. The first word, “freedom,” is your key. Your condescension regarding FOIA requests would do the most shameful of bureaucrats proud.
    In the final analysis though, what is most troubling about this is that you are writing about something of which you obviously know very little. I don’t know where you live but I would urge you to get to the Smokies a bit more and spend some feet on the ground back of beyond. What you will encounter one you get say a mile and a half from the trailhead, no matter the time of year, will be splend solitude and one empty campsite after another.
    I don’t need a mindless government entity digging deeper in my pocket just to fund two rangers and add to the current list of Crown Victoria crusaders. If the Park really cared about backcountry issues, they would address what any experience backcountry hiker and camper will readily tell you is the number one problem–horses and all the damage they do. Instead, they ignore this elephant in the Park in a most studious fashion.
    Again, do a bit more homework and get out in the Park. You’ll find the splendid solitude refreshing and the experience will almost certainly give you pause to ponder your belief that there are problems in paradise which can only be solved by taxing us a bit more.
    Jim Casada

  5. Your collective passion is unquestionable. Your effort won’t be bolstered by a FOIA request, however, I can offer some advice to you in that arena: the open meetings/FOIA laws state that the public entity can charge a reasonable fee for copying and administrative fees. $1,200 is far from reasonable. How much is it to copy a piece of paper at the FedEx store, $.10? You should react to that, for sure. Are they providing them to you in full color? Also, if they printed them at one point, it means they also exist digitally, so ask them for an electronic copy. That should cost them nothing.

    Additionally, I don’t dismiss FOIA at all. Our government is far from transparent enough. I can tell you though, from significant experience, that rarely are documents ever worth the effort people exercise to obtain them. The most critical of decisions are always made in closed door sessions and outside the purview of the taxpayer. That’s a whole separate issue that goes way beyond what this blog is intended to address. I offer also this: ask for e-mails. That’s where you’ll get information.

    Your efforts would be better channeled by continuing to leverage local media and creating a groundswell of interest in finding a new way to cover the monetary gap the NPS says exists. No one likes change, especially those who are part of the community being changed. I get it. I’ve been to the park enough times, certainly not my entire life, but enough to make the opinion I’ve formed credible. A stance on park procedure is not the domain of only those who live within its borders. It’s a national public entity, thus everyone has a stake in it.

    If you have inside information about lazy rangers and mis-appropriated funds, alert local media. Make a stand on that. Attacking the fee itself under the auspices of “just not liking it” will get your nowhere.

    For example, the Grand Canyon was set to eliminate plastic water bottles. Coke, a major contributor to the National Parks Conservation Association, made a call to the head of the NPS to suggest the park reconsider its ban on plastic bottles. It did. Now though, more than 90,000 people have signed a petition against that decision by the park. You guys create a movement like that, and you’ll get heard. The Smokies is the systems most visited range, certainly others have interest in its politics.

    It’s clear we have disparate stances on the matter, but as I stated, I like to see fellow backpackers get ticked about something that impacts their enjoyment of the park.

  6. @John Quillen As a National Park Service Park Ranger, I am sad when people make blanket assumptions and accusations “…don’t even get out of their crown victorias to go to the A.T. shelters which are the problem spots, apparently.”
    First we don’t drive crown vics any more. When was the last time you have been to a park? 1976?
    Blanket stereotypes don’t help your argument at all. The park system has a lot of issues that need work. I am against back country fees myself.
    Park Rangers risk their lives for the places in this country that we treasure. Have a little respect.
    http://www.southeasternoutdoors.com/public-lands/national-parks/rangers-killed-on-duty.html

  7. Christina,
    I am not denigrating all Rangers. I know one darned good one that gets off his duff and interacts with the public and doesn’t assume they are all involved in criminal activity. Are you a Smokies Ranger, because the vehicles they use here are Fords, whether crown vics or not I don’t know but google a picture of Smokies Ranger vehicle and tell me what it is. Im not an auto expert. I am a backcountry expert and the last 3 “shakedowns” were what my Ranger encounters became. Automatically assume everyone is engaged in illegal activity. That’s ridiculous and it is common here in the Smokies.
    The park Supt. says that a particular shelter is a problem area. That shelter is 3 miles from the busiest road in the park. I have never, ever, ever seen a Ranger there at the most accessible shelter in the system. I have seen plenty of parked ranger vehicles sitting at the trailhead. What conclusion would you form? Would that motivate me to open my wallet and dispense cash like an ATM to a system that hemmorraghes money. Check out what Joey said about the abundance of paved roads that didn’t need paving and internal combustion vehicles that are brand new.
    Craig, I appreciate this discussion on your forum but in response to your inquiry about whether or not I would be willing to donate money for a different cause, I have this to say. Smokies mgmt based their fee proposal upon campsite overcrowding. When that was proved the be a falsehood, you don’t get a do over. You are not allowed to come back and say, “Okay, that was misrepresentation, how about, let’s fix some trails, now will you open your wallet.” They didn’t do their homework and in the real world you don’t make the sale.

  8. The real issue that is happening in our nations parks is that park rangers are having to be cops. Crime rate is a big issue through out the park system. When you have million acre parks and a few rangers that are busy with murders, rapes, and crime more indicative of a big urban area you run into problems. Exactly like you mentioned. Whoever heard of park ranger burn out? Its happening now and it just did not happen before. What has happened you get park rangers with the “cop” mentality and not the conservation “this is a park” mentality. I hope to make my little contribution and make parks awesome places to visit. I am sorry that you have seemed to been harassed. I think parks should be free for everyone but we need to pay for bathrooms and things like that. The National Park Service could very well live with in their means, but no one else is so why should they? You said that they are hemorrhaging money, look at the post office we are not the only ones. This is a much deeper problem then the parks.

    http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=123679&page=1#.TuWbAGPNlGU

  9. no doubt the rangers have had to evolved into being more police like than perhaps they would have imagined when they decided to pursue that career choice.
    but, as with any other job/profession, complacency has most of the ones in the G.S.M.N.P. to become glued to the drivers seat.

    i’ve personally heard radio chatter as they slowly drive through parking lots, running tags looking for cars/drivers with warrants.
    now just how does that fit into their job description ???

    i hike regularly with a former ranger who, back in his day, was one of the more renown backcountry experts. he readily admits that there’s no true backcountry rangers in the Smokies any longer.
    i’m in those mountains on average, three days and two nights a week.
    quite often more than that as my line of work has more than its share of down time lately.
    John Quillen is out there only slightly less than that.

    i/he speak from countless years of living every spare moment being completely self sufficient in the woods.
    the backcountry in the G.S.M.N.P. is anything but overcrowded.
    if it was, i’d be looking elsewhere for solitude when myself and my hiking partner head out every week.
    that falsehood shouldn’t be used as a reason to enhance park revenue.

  10. My brother is a wildlife biologist with TWRA specializing in migratory waterfowl. He is not in enforcement unless he needs to be: as in he sees an obvious violation of federal migratory bird hunting laws. Leniency is the golden rule with wildlife – innocent until proven guilty. And it’s pretty obvious when leniency does not apply, for example three duck hunters are hunting ducks from their boat on a National Wildlife Refuge and these hunters live only a few miles from the infraction. However it will not be that simple when it comes to a backpacking camper being in the wrong campsite when the “ranger” checks his/her camping permit.

    Christina, I salute you and applaud you for putting yourself on the front line in the park system to protect our common investment in public lands. You are correct about the crime, and it will most likely escalate in the near future since people are becoming more and more desperate for food and money (“Resource” is how Don Sheldon put it). And thank you Christina for signing your name to your comments, because some NPS employees don’t and would never want their true identities known for 2 reasons especially: the public response and the responses from the higher-ups in the NPS system who monitor performance appraisal.

    OK, now back to the “real issue” regarding the proposal to charge camping fees for backcountry campsites in GSMNP: who should really pay to hire Rangers? And probably more importantly – why are more rangers needed to patrol the backcountry in the first place?

    At this point I am tired of typing and am also being called off to another issue, so I would love for you – Christina – to respond with your thoughts on the two questions I just laid out in this comment box, and I sincerely hope you are still following this more than a month after your last post.

    Thanking you in advance. I admire your dedication to your work and think you might should run the whole kit-n-kaboodle if you are as passionate about human rights as you are about protecting the public lands!

    Sincerely,
    LPF

  11. You did some commendable work in going after the documents and I’m glad you didn’t pay what they were asking. That was way too much. If this is what the people want, then I hope the fees are not implemented. I maintain they could do some good. However, it’s clear the park service did a poor job in stating its case and managing the process with its most important stakeholders: the U.S. taxpayers.

  12. Thanks Craig,
    I appreciate you giving voice to this important matter. We will see if Superintendent Ditmanson responds to the public or ignores their wishes as the signs seem to suggest. He has turned in his recommendation to Washington, which is why he stalled the release of public comments until after that recommendation was on the NPS director’s desk. That fact alone is indicative of what is wrong with our government, in my opinion. The NPS operates in a vacuum largely devoid of public oversight. I am afraid that he has taken advantage of folks good will towards our gem known as the Smokies. There is already a backlash from locals who contact me daily saying they are discontinuing donations to Friends groups and volunteer activites pending the resolution of this issue and their distrust of Smokies management. And that is a very sad thing.

  13. John, thanks again for the update. It’s good to see the progress coming along for you guys.

    Again, I think some good could come from fees for backcountry use. However, I believe the Park Service should be able to clearly speak its purpose for them when juxtaposed against the fact that the system’s busiest park does not charge an entrance fee. It sounds to me like in this case, the DOI didn’t fully vet its case under the auspices of an easy implementation.

    Your efforts in relation to an environmental cause should be applauded and if more people took such a stance on other issues in this much need of attention, our natural resources would be in a much better state of affairs.

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