Lawsuit challenges Smokies backcountry fee

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.

A couple of years ago I wrote in defense of this fee.

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

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.

Mountains-to-Sea Trail has first round trip bagger

Scot Ward on Clingman's Dome. Photo from The News & Observer, courtesy of Eddie Ward

Scot Ward completed the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in North Carolina. Twice.

The trail runs from the Smokies to Jockey’s Ridge State Park, that little place in the Outer Banks famous for some sort of first flight or something.

Mr. Ward documented his travels in detail in his just published book, “The Thru-Hiker’s Manual for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail of North Carolina.” You can buy the book and learn more about Scot and this seriously awesome accomplishment at his Web site, www.thru-hiker.us.

You can learn more about the trail and how to support it either through donations or trail building days at its official Web site, located here.

And, to get out on the Falls Lake section of the trail, which is in North Raleigh, there’s a trail run scheduled in April.