Friday, July 29, 2011

Confirmed: Smokies considers online backcountry camping permits, with fees

Earlier in the day I posted some information stating that the Great Smoky Mountains is considering a move to make all backcountry camping permits (for all sites) go through, an online and call-in reservation service. The proposal will now cost backpackers between $2.25 and $10.00 to make a reservation for a backcountry campsite (depending on which proposal is ultimately adopted).

Although it wasn't officially confirmed as of this morning, the park issued a press release this afternoon, confirming park plans on this:

Managers at Great Smoky Mountains National Park are considering some changes in the process by which backpackers make reservations for overnight camping at the Park’s nearly 100 backcountry sites and shelters. The proposed changes, which would update the reservation procedure as well as increasing Ranger presence on the Park’s 800 miles of trails, would be covered by a minimal user fee. No fees are being contemplated for day hiking.

The Park currently requires that all those planning to stay overnight in the backcountry obtain a permit and those wishing to stay in the Park’s 15 shelters and most popular campsites make a reservation either by phone or in person at the Park’s Backcountry Information Center located in the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg. The reservations ensure that the number of campers on a given night do not exceed the carrying capacity of the site. Many other less sought-after sites do not require that a reservation be filed, but users are still required to self-register at one of 15 permit stations when they arrive in the Park.

Due to limited staffing, the Backcountry Information Center is open only three hours a day and the phone line is often busy or is unstaffed, which makes the process excessively time-consuming and often frustrating. Once backpackers do obtain their reservations and arrive at their campsites, they often find the area filled by individuals without permits. In addition site capacities are frequently exceeded, which results in food storage violations, increased wildlife encounters and the need to close campsites to protect visitors and wildlife. Lack of staff in the backcountry severely limits the Park’s ability to resolve these issues.

In response to these concerns, managers are evaluating the implementation of a computerized reservation system which would take reservations both online and via a call center for all its backcountry sites 24 hours a day 7 days a week. The reservations would be made by a contractor at: which is the site currently used to book frontcountry campsites. The Park would also expand the operations of the Backcountry Information Center to provide quality trip planning advice to help users develop a customized itinerary that best fits their available time and ability.

In addition, the Park would hire additional Rangers who would exclusively patrol the backcountry to improve compliance with Park regulations as well as helping to curb plant and wildlife poaching and respond more quickly to visitor emergencies.

Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson said, “We feel that the proposed changes offer better customer service to backpackers, as well as reducing impacts to Park resources. In order to implement these changes we are considering several fee structures that would cover both the reservation contractor’s fee and the cost of field Rangers and staff at the Backcountry Information Center.”

The Park plans to solicit public input on the new plan both on-line and through two public meetings. Details of the proposal may be found here.

Comments may be emailed or mailed to: Superintendent, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. Informational open houses are scheduled for Tuesday, August 16 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Old Oconaluftee Visitor Center at 1194 Newfound Gap Road in Cherokee, and Thursday, August 18 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Park Headquarters Lobby at 107 Headquarters Road in Gatlinburg. Comments should be submitted by August 26.



Steven said...

I wouldn't mind paying a fee to go online and make reservations, (as long as it's reasonable) but I'd like to see some sort of "yearly pass" option available for people that visit the backcountry frequently. Either that, or perhaps some sort of discount option for GSMA or Friends' members.

Jim Casada said...

All other considerations aside, charging a fee such as this for Park use would violate a 1937 agreement which said the GSMNP would never charge access fees. This was a small way of thanking the residents on N. C. and Tenn. for their contributions to the establishment of the Park. Beyond that, this might make some sense IF all the monies raised would be devoted exclusively to backcountry matters. That will never happen.
Jim Casada