Thursday, May 26, 2016

Smokies Proposes Frontcountry Camping Fee Increase

Great Smoky Mountains National Park invites the public to comment through June 27th on a proposal to increase fees at frontcountry campgrounds and picnic pavilions along with proposed changes to the management of three campgrounds by adding them to the national reservation system through The park is also hosting open houses at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center Administration Building near Cherokee, NC on Monday, June 20th, and at Park Headquarters near Gatlinburg, Tennessee on Thursday, June 23rd where the public can drop by for more information about the proposal. Both open houses will be held from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

The park operates nine open campgrounds, seven group campgrounds, and five horse campgrounds. Additionally, the park maintains six picnic pavilions which are available for reservation through The current fees have not been increased since 2006 or earlier at any facility aside from Cataloochee Campground which had an increase in camping fees in 2011 when it was added to the reservation system. Since the park has not annually increased fees over these last 10 years, managers are now proposing to increase the camping and picnic pavilion fees up to 25% to meet the rising costs of operations, reduce a backlog of maintenance requirements on park facilities, and initiate needed improvements. Unlike most large national parks, the Smokies does not charge an entrance fee and therefore has limited means for maintaining levels of service the public has come to expect and enjoy.

“In recent years, the park has compensated for budget imbalances due to inflation by reducing visitor services, delaying maintenance repairs, and in some cases, reducing the length of time facilities are open which particularly affects visitors during the shoulder seasons,” said Park Superintendent Cassius Cash. “While we recognize that fee increases are often unpopular, we are committed to maintaining this ‘crown jewel’ of the National Park Service where visitors can create lasting memories through camping and picnicking in the Smokies.”

In addition to proposing fee increases, the park is also proposing to add Abrams Creek, Balsam Mountain and Big Creek campgrounds to the National Recreation Reservation System. As proposed, all sites would require advanced reservation and payment prior to arrival in the park through either online or by phone. By placing these three geographically remote campgrounds on the reservation system, the park can reduce campground operation costs by eliminating the need for staff time for the collection of fees. The reservation system also provides a more efficient process for visitors to secure an overnight stay without traveling to the remote locations to check for vacancies.

By law, the park maintains 100 percent of the camping and pavilion fees to reinvest in facility maintenance, including routine maintenance and infrastructure improvements, and provide services that benefit park visitors. In 2015, park revenue from camping and pavilion fees totaled approximately $ 1.6 million. The 25% proposed fee increase is expected to generate approximately $400,000. In recent years, recreation fee money has been used to support a variety of projects including operating costs such as daily maintenance and utility costs along with rehabilitation projects such as the replacement of picnic tables and grills.

The National Park Service (NPS) is a not-for-profit agency and NPS policy maintains that fees for services like camping and pavilions are set so as not to create unfair competition with private sector facilities in the area or put them at a disadvantage. The park completed a 2016 comparability study with campgrounds in the surrounding communities and the study revealed that, while park camping fees in the park have remained largely constant since 2006, campgrounds in the surrounding communities have continued to rise. Even with a proposed 25% fee increase, park campgrounds would remain among the least expensive in the area.

The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Interagency Senior or Access Pass holders receive a 50% discount in camping fees for frontcountry individual and horse campsites. There is no plan to increase the price of these national passes, which is $10 for lifetime Senior Pass and the Access pass is free. Passes are available at Smokemont, Elkmont, and Cades Cove campgrounds and park visitor centers.

Following the comment period, feedback will be used to determine how or if a fee increase will be implemented. An informational document with additional details about the proposal may be found at Click on “Proposal to Increase Fees at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”

Public comments will be accepted May 26 through June 27, 2016 through the following venues:

Written comments may be submitted electronically as follows:

Online: Via the National Park Service’s Planning, Environmental and Public Comment (PEPC) website at Click on “Proposal to Increase Fees at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”

Written comments will also be accepted by mail or e-mail addressed as follows:

Mail: Superintendent, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Attn: Proposal to Increase Fees, 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, TN 37738


The park will host two informational open houses where the general public, partners, cooperators, and stakeholder representatives are invited to drop by to learn more about the proposal and submit written comments.

• June 20, 2016: Oconaluftee Visitor Center Administration Building from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at 1194 Newfound Gap Road, Cherokee, NC 28719.

• June 23, 2016: Park Headquarters Lobby from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, TN 37738.

Note that comments submitted anonymously will not be accepted. Before including your address, phone number, e-mail address or other personal identifying information in your comment, you should be aware that your entire comment (including your personal identifying information) is subject to the Freedom of Information Act and may be made publicly available. While you may request in your comment to withhold your personal identifying from public review, the park cannot guarantee that they will legally be able to do so.


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Forest Service Gears Up for Significant 2016 Wildfire Season

Last week Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell met with Forest Service Regional Foresters to discuss preparations for anticipated significant wildland fire potential in 2016. The briefing comes as the 2016 fire season has begun with five times more acres already burned than this time last year, following 2015's record-setting fire season.

"The 2016 wildfire season is off to a worrisome start. Southern California, the Great Basin in Nevada, portions of the southwest, and even Florida and Hawaii are particularly vulnerable this year. In California, more than 40 million trees have died, becoming dry fuel for wildfire," said Vilsack. "Congress must take action now to ensure that we, and, ultimately the firefighters we ask so much of, have the resources to do the restoration and wildfire prevention work necessary to keep our forests healthy."

Forest Service Chief Tidwell underscored the Forest Service's commitment to ensuring the protection of firefighters' lives. Last year, seven members of the Forest Service firefighting team were lost in the line of duty, and 4,500 homes were damaged or destroyed. This year the Forest Service is able to mobilize 10,000 firefighters, 900 engines, 300 helicopters, 21 airtankers, 2 water scoopers and over 30 aerial supervision fixed-wing aircraft. Together with federal, state and local partners, the agency is positioned to respond wherever needed.

In recent years fire seasons are, on average, 78 days longer than they were in 1970 and, on average, the number of acres burned each year has doubled since 1980. As a result, the Forest Service's firefighting budget is regularly exhausted before the end of the wildfire season, forcing the Forest Service to abandon critical restoration and capital improvement projects in order to suppress extreme fires.

The cost of the Forest Service's wildfire suppression reached a record $243 million in a one-week period during the height of suppression activity in August 2015. With a record 52 percent of the Forest Service's budget dedicated to fire suppression activities, compared to just 16 percent in 1995, the Forest Service's firefighting budget was exhausted in 2015, forcing USDA to transfer funds away from forest restoration projects that would help reduce the risk of future fires, in order to cover the high cost of battling blazes.

Last December Vilsack told members of Congress that he will not authorize transfers from restoration and resilience funding this fire season. Instead, Vilsack has directed the Forest Service to use funds as they were intended. For example, restoration work through programs like the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program and implementation of the National Cohesive Strategy, are reducing the size and severity of wildfires. USDA, the U.S. Department of the Interior and other partners are working with at-risk communities to promote community and homeowner involvement in mitigating wildfire risk, reducing hazardous fuels and accomplishing treatments that increase forest health and resilience.

Even a so-called normal year is far worse than it used to be. On average, wildfires burn twice as much land area each year as they did 40 years ago and the threat continues to increase.

Over the last two years, $237 million has been permanently shifted from the Forest Service non-fire budget forcing the department to abandon critical restoration and capital improvement projects in order to suppress extreme fires. This loss in funds to firefighting took place before a single fire broke out in 2016.

For the first time in its 111-year history, over half of the Forest Service's 2015 budget was designated to fight wildfires, compared to just 16 percent in 1995. 2015 was the most expensive fire season in the department's history, costing more than $2.6 billion on fire alone.


Monday, May 23, 2016

Celebrate National Trails Day at Big South Fork on Saturday June 4th

As part of a National Trails Day celebration, the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area will host a day of trail clean-up on Saturday, June 4th. Participants should meet at the Bandy Creek Visitor Center by 8:30 a.m. (ET).

Now in its 24th consecutive year, National Trails Day challenges the public to explore nearby trails, and engage in outdoor recreation activities like hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, or mountain biking, to learn new outdoor skills and to support volunteer efforts.

Last year, activities at thousands of sites attracted more than 140,000 Americans to participate in the National Trails Day festivities. Participants hiked, biked, paddled and volunteered at more than 2,000 events in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Canada.

National Trails Day 2016 is also part of Great Outdoors Month, a month-long effort in June to get Americans outside. Great Outdoors Month is coordinated through a coalition of recreation and environmental organizations. Bolstered by proclamations issued by the President and all 50 state governors, Great Outdoors Month celebrates everything great about America’s abundant outdoor recreation resources while highlighting Americans’ passion for the outdoors and calling for a rededication to conservation efforts and volunteerism.

Volunteers that plan to work on trails at Big South Fork will need to bring plenty of water, snacks and gloves. Be sure to wear sturdy, comfortable shoes. The park will provide all tools and personal protective equipment.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Mystery Solved!

Have you ever been out hiking in the forest and heard a quick thump-thump-thump-thump noise? Over the years I've heard this noise on at least three different occasions, but could never explain what it was. I believe in all three incidences I was hiking along the Appalachian Trail. At first the deep sound appeared to be coming from within, as if my heart was suddenly beating very loudly. However, after a two or three seconds you realize that it's not coming from your heart, but somewhere nearby. In each incident I just assumed that it was a large bird flying overhead, but never saw any evidence of this.

Fortunately, I recently came across a discussion in Reddit which solved the mystery for me. The explanation given to the forum questioner was that it was the "drumming" of a Ruffed Grouse. A male Ruffed Grouse performs his "drumming" on a fallen log in order to announce his territory and his desire for a mate.

Here's a pretty good video that demonstrates this fairly unusual phenomenon:


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Study: Camping Tents Could Be Toxic

Campers and backpackers may want to keep track of this story as it develops. Duke University, in conjunction with REI, has conducted a study on flame retardant treatments in camping tents, which was recently published in the latest edition of Environmental Science and Technology. Although there are no clear-cut conclusions at this point, there is concern within the outdoor industry that campers and backpackers may be exposing themselves to the adverse health effects of flame retardant chemicals, including the possibility of thyroid cancer.

The study found that skin and inhalation exposure levels to flame retardant chemicals were significantly higher for volunteers while they set-up and occupied their tents.

Currently, flame retardant chemicals are applied to tents in order to prevent or slow the spread of fire on potentially flammable materials. These are used to meet regulatory flammability requirements. Apparently there are many other consumer products that potentially could be exposing us to harmful chemicals as well.

So what can campers and backpackers do while researchers dig deeper into this issue? In a recent blog posting, REI made these recommendations for reducing your exposure to flame retardants while camping:

• Wash your hands after setting up a tent or wear gloves when setting it up.

• Use the venting systems.

• Leave the rain fly off the tent when possible, to increase ventilation.

• Avoid using heat sources inside your tent, including cooking stoves, lanterns or candles.

Long term, all of us probably need to pay closer attention to any new developments on this issue, and take action as new data becomes available.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Point Lookout Trail in Pisgah National Forest Closing for Repairs

The Pisgah National Forest will temporarily close the Point Lookout Trail on the Grandfather Ranger District for repairs starting May 31, 2016. Repairs to the paved walking and biking trail are expected to take 90 days, and the trail is anticipated to reopen by September 1st.

The Point Lookout Trail connects Mill Creek Road in Ridgecrest to Old U.S. 70 in Old Fort along the historic motor route into the mountains. The trail was briefly closed last fall after heavy rains caused a landslide that damaged the trail and covered it with large rocks. Repair work this summer will fix damage caused by last year's slide, as well as construct retaining walls to prevent future slides. The U.S. Forest Service urges the public to heed trail closures and avoid the area. Heavy machinery used on the trail will prohibit passage during construction. Mill Creek Road may be used as an alternate route.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

Hiker Bitten by Bear - Spence Field Backcountry Shelter Closed

Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials closed the Spence Field Backcountry Shelter after 49-year-old Bradley Veeder of Las Vegas, NV was bitten by a bear while sleeping in his tent near the shelter, which is located near the intersection of the Bote Mountain Trail and the Appalachian Trail. On Tuesday, May 10th at approximately 11:16 p.m., the park was notified through Graham County 911 services that Veeder, an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, was bitten by a bear on his lower leg through his tent. The bear was scared from the area before Veeder or other backpackers saw it.

All backcountry campers gathered in the backcountry shelter for the remainder of the night. The bear did return later to the area where it tore through Veeder’s vacant tent along with another vacant tent. The bear was not seen by any of the backpackers in the area. Park wildlife staff are currently stationed onsite to monitor the area for bear activity.

On May 11, Veeder was transported out of the backcountry by horseback and taken to Blount Memorial Hospital by Rural Metro Ambulances Service at approximately 3:45 p.m.

Park officials urge everyone to exercise caution while hiking, camping, and picnicking to ensure their personal safety and to protect bears. Black bears in the park are wild and unpredictable. Though rare, attacks on humans do occur, causing injuries or death.

Bears should never be fed and all food waste should be properly disposed to discourage bears from approaching people. Feeding, touching, disturbing, and willfully approaching wildlife within 50 yards (150 feet), or any distance that disturbs or displaces wildlife, are illegal in the park. If approached by a bear, visitors should slowly back away to put distance between the animal and themselves, creating space for the animal to pass. If the bear continues to approach, rangers recommend that you stand your ground together as a group and do not run. Hikers should make themselves look large and throw rocks or sticks at the bear. If attacked by a black bear, rangers strongly recommend fighting back with any object available and remember that the bear may view you as prey.

Hikers are always encouraged hike in groups, closely control children, and carry bear spray. Taking these precautions become especially important when a notably aggressive bear is identified by park officials in an area.

For more information on what to do if you encounter a bear while hiking, please visit the park website. To report a bear incident, please call 865-436-1230.