Ms. Jewell has her first headache.
A group called the Southern Forest Watch has filed a lawsuit against the National Park Service for its introduction of a backcountry camping fee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
I don’t feel the same anymore.
The state of Tennessee needs to get out of the way of the Park Service and allow an entrance fee. Considering how many vehicles enter that park from the Volunteer State’s testament to all things garish, Gatlinburg, the state itself should consider creating a fund to cover at least a portion of what would be collected if a fee was put in place.
The Smoky Mountains backcountry is occupied almost exclusively by locals. The vast majority of those who visit the system’s most traffic-rich park rarely venture more than 50 yards from their vehicle, unless it’s to get frozen yogurt or approach a mother bear and her cubs.
The majority of trail maintenance and upkeep is done through a supportive collection of advocacy groups and now their efforts are being rewarded with a $4/night fee. For folks who have been backpacking in this highly under-rated wilderness for nothing more than the time it took to complete a small form at the trailhead, it’s much more about the principle of the fee than its amount.
Still, with fees come logistics, reservations and without doubt, increases.
The bottom line is that its absurd to charge backpackers a fee when without an ounce of equivocation, the majority of park upkeep costs stem from having to accommodate a perpetual stream of food-stained mini-vans and ear-splitting Harley Davidson riders who think everyone else within a ten-mile radius wants to hear them coming.
image from nps.gov
I’ve been to enough wilderness medicine courses, backcountry hotspots and generally interact with enough dirtbags to know that in the trenches of the outdoor adventure sect, somewhere around where dreadlocks start to appear below the shoulder on white people, that REI is looked upon as some sort of cutthroat, outdoor product body snatcher, an unholy, ever-present strip-center testament to everything the outdoor spirit doesn’t embody.
Well, I’d like to exorcise those demons. And here are five vindications for the great unwashed who preach such nonsense (I’m talking about people who literally don’t ever wash) to consider the next time they land at the trailhead with a broken french-press or shattered headlamp.
#1: Locations just about everywhere
Any business with a ubiquitous major market presence, like Cheesecake Factory or Ross, is automatically lumped into the imaginary “big business” cabal sent from planet Deep Pockets to plunder precious pot and beer money from the change-purses of poor, van-dwelling rock climbers broken down along CA 395. (Somehow Apple and Starbucks dodge this stereotype.) Look kids, market presence is a good thing. REI’s ability to lease space close to the Wal-Marts and terrible taco chains of the world means that when you forget something, you probably won’t have to go too far to get it. I see last minute and emergency shoppers in my Vegas REI every time I’m there. (I don’t need to ask, but the odor and climbing capris are usually evident enough indicators.) However, if you leave Denver proper and don’t discover you need a can of fuel until you’re rockies deep into the mountains, well then have fun paying Grand Lake mark-up on your IsoPro.
#2: Whatever you need
We gear nerds have some unique needs. Like titanium sporks and tent footprints for a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2. (Although anyone silly enough to pay what’s charged for tent footprints anywhere shouldn’t be complaining about price. Ever.) I love small locally-owned gear shops. Many of them have stuff that is of much higher quality than what REI’s primary demo is willing to lift from the rack. Like, serious mountaineering garb and aid climbing gadgets. However, many of them just don’t have the shelf space for the goofy gear amenities a lot of us have been suckered into thinking we need, like those folding butterfly chairs. Once it becomes part of our pack’s standing inventory, we’ll find a reason to bring it along. And thank you REI, for having it in stock when we leave it in the garage.
#3: Return policy
Just as every manager of a highway-exit hotel chain location is cursing the day Holiday Inn Express made us all believe a night’s stay must include a waffle maker and rubbery half-moon omelets folded over some lukewarm cheese product, every other outdoor gear store in the industry laments the day REI’s return policy became the baseline for adequate customer service. Absolutely people abuse its magnanimous take-back strategy, but if it was eroding the co-op’s revenue, limits would be put in place. Fact is, it’s super gracious of the company to do so. And lest we forget, all those returns get fed right back to the hungry gear-buying public come quarterly garage sales, which are way safer for discounted gear than meeting some sketchy dude in jean shorts from Craigslist in back of a CVS to buy his “used-once” 20° down bag. (Shudder.)
#4: It’s a Co-Op
Take that, corporate America. All the anti-Wall Street 99%ers should take themselves a quick lesson in business operating structures before assailing the nation’s largest retail organization of its kind. It was started by a bunch of mountain climbers who held the same belief about business that most of its modern-day detractors currently espouse. That little $20 piece of flat plastic members keep in their wallets actually means something. Co-ops are considered by the conscious capitalism set as the answer for big business tyranny. It’s a clearly transparent organization (try uncovering the contact information of Apple’s board members) that also gives tens of millions every year to environmental causes.
#5: The dividend
Yep, fully aware that it goes right back into the next pair of Smartwool socks or Prana flannel. But that makes it a rolling investment. Spend a lot one year and your dividend goes up. Larger dividend, the more spent next year. There is without question some bonafide retail marketing ju-ju going on here, as your very presence in the store with money in hand pretty much scripts in blood that you’ll spend more than what’s on your mailer. Every other gear retailer sounds the sale alarm come early spring to coincide with REI’s annual give-back. Backcountry.com, Moosejaw.com, Altrec.com and Campmor all hop on the 20% off bandwagon. Like Super 8 does with the dry cereal and weak coffee.
So quit bitching people, REI is more than worthy of our business. And if you’re lucky enough to have nearby a local outfitter with tons of beta on what’s out back, then awesome, there’s a lot to be said for those guys. And by all means, give them your business. I do, every chance I get.
Just remember though, no one’s out to get you. They just want to get you outdoors.