Sunday, February 24, 2013

Blount County Commission Condemns Backcountry Camping Fees

On February 13th Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials implemented the highly controversial backcountry camping fee plan. In response, the Blount County Commission passed a resolution condemning the fees during its meeting this past Thursday. The Commission is also asking the Tennessee General Assembly "to carefully investigate this matter and to join in formally opposing the imposition of the backcountry camping fee for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park". They're also asking the counties that surround the park to join in this resolution as well.

Because "a significant portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is situated in Blount County", Commissioners Tab Burkhalter and Tonya Burchfield offered this resolution (Resolution No. 13-02-008):
A RESOLUTION TO OPPOSE THE BACKCOUNTRY CAMPING FEE FOR THE GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK, TO OPPOSE THE IMPOSITION OF ANY FEE FOR THE USE OF THE GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK THAT IS NOT DIRECTLY ASSOCIATED WITH THE USE OF AMENITIES OR A COMMERCIAL PURPOSE AND TO DEMAND IMMEDIATE REPEAL OF THE BACKCOUNTRY CAMPING FEE AND ASKING ALL COUNTIES TO JOIN IN PASSING THIS RESOLUTION AND FORWARDING IT TO THEIR STATE DELEGATES
The resolution offers several reasons as to why the commissioners oppose the fees, and then ends with the following statements:
NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, by the Board of Commissioners of Blount County, Tennessee, meeting in regular session on this, the 21st day of February, 2013, that this body formally opposes the imposition of the backcountry camping fee for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park set to take effect on February 13, 2013; that this body further opposes the imposition of any fee for the use of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that is not directly associated with the use of amenities or a commercial purpose; and that this body demands an immediate repeal of the backcountry camping fee imposed upon the use of backcountry campsites and shelters in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park;

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Board of Commissioners of Blount County, Tennessee does hereby ask our delegates to the Tennessee General Assembly to carefully investigate this matter and to join in formally opposing the imposition of the backcountry camping fee for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park set to take effect on February 13, 2013; that our delegates further formally oppose the imposition of any fee for the use of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that is not directly associated with the use of amenities or a commercial purpose; and that our delegates demand an immediate repeal of the backcountry camping fee imposed upon the use of backcountry campsites and shelters in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park;

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Board of Commissioners of Blount County, Tennessee hereby directs the office of the County Mayor to provide a copy of this resolution to all Tennessee counties and to encourage their legislative bodies to join in passing this resolution and forwarding it to their state delegations;

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that this Resolution shall take effect from and after its passage the public welfare requiring it.

Duly authorized and approved on this 21st day of February, 2013.
Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson, who attended the commission meeting on Thursday, stated: “The fact is, we began the civic engagement process almost two years ago. What is completely overlooked in the resolution is the fee is generally improving customer service.”

You can read all the reasons the Blount County Commissioners oppose the fees, as well as several supporting documents, by clicking on the February 21st meeting minutes document. This is an 805-page PDF document (12.75 mg). The portion concerning the fees begins on page 276.


Jeff
Hiking in the Smokies

25 comments:

Tabb Adams said...

I think the fee is a good idea, how is this any different than a front country camping fee. I grew up in Sevier County and know the struggles that the park service goes through to maintain the park. I also believe that it will help with over crowding and over use of the the back country shelters and camp sites.

Neil Norman said...

Brace yourself for a backlash here, Tabb. Maybe it won't happen, but brace yourself. Opponents of the fee have been terribly effective at representing their voice as the majority by patrolling the web for sites and articles related to the backcountry fees, however distantly, and bombing the comment sections. They mobilize the voice of their vocal minority through social media - the main group and its founders constantly post articles on Facebook and invite (incite?) followers to check the links and comment accordingly. You've violated three of their typical lines of argument with your short statement of support for the fee: 1. precedents for camping fees; 2. maintenance of backcountry sites v. convenience of permit registration; and, most damningly, 3. your local connection to the park. In the interest of being descriptive and at the inadvertant risk of seeming disrespectful, let me suggest that you can expect a general, "don't tread on me" reply that vilifies the federal government, the NPS, and especially the park administrator who was hired and not elected. That bit gets personal and nasty. Expect a diatribe about how a backcountry fee is actually somehow an illegal entrance fee and that the park ranger it frees from desk work by introducing an online registration system will not add anything to the park maintenance. In fact, you're likely to hear that everything in the park is just fine the way it is , particularly since it is so underused (one of them inevitably went hiking the other day when the weather was beautiful and camped in an empty backcountry site or witnessed). You might also be attacked for having not shown up at the public NPS with them two years ago to voice an opinion (theirs). The dissent is all fairly rote and rehearsed at this point, but still somehow no less vehement. I'm with you, Tabb. I hope I'm wrong about the backlash, but maybe we can look forward to some new, bitter material.

Anonymous said...

Neil,
The public comments are 18-1 against the fee. I think that is really all the refutation your diatribe requires. The public had something shoved down their throat and this is the result.

Anonymous said...

Neil.

What about the Park Service using disinformation and actual deceit in public pronouncements to drum up support for this backpacker tax....er uh... fee?

Do you have no problem with that dishonesty?

Anonymous said...

You too Tab.

Internal department of interior memoranda quietly state there will be NO excess funds for anything other than paying for the registration system.

They lied about that.

Does that make any difference to you?

Anonymous said...

You too Tab.

Internal department of interior memoranda quietly state there will be NO excess funds for anything other than paying for the registration system.

They lied about that.

Does that make any difference to you?

Anonymous said...

You too Tab.

Internal department of interior memoranda quietly state there will be NO excess funds for anything other than paying for the registration system.

They lied about that.

Does that make any difference to you?

Mike Thorpe said...

Back vs Front Country Camping...some information of interest: "I've been thinking about the fee versus front country RV camping. A 25 foot RV pulls into Cosby Campground with half a dozen people and stays 5 nights. Fee is $14/night or $70 for the 5 nights. That's $2.33 per person per night. Then there's a party of 6 backpackers doing a 5 night loop. Fee is $120.

The frontcountry is charged on a per SITE basis, while the backcountry is being charged on a per PERSON basis. The backcountry fee fails the smell test right there." Keeping in mind that Front Country sites also have showers, restrooms, etc...

Neil Norman said...

See, Tabb? Anonymity is the new bit this time. I'm embarrassed to have forgotten the relative stat.

I'm easy to lie to, I guess, Anonymous. For instance, I actually believed that watchdog groups were watching the southern forests that their name and mission stated, instead of just the Smokies. I guess I feel lied to when fees are popping up for 4 or 5 neighboring parks/national forests under similar auspices to those proposed in the Smokies, and the "watchdogs" remain silent. I wonder what else is being misrepresented, and it makes a huge difference.

If you prefer public anonymity, you are most welcome to continue our conversation on email rather than a public forum. It makes a difference to me to know who I'm talking to.

The Smoky Mountain Hiker said...

First of all, Mike brings up an extremely important point - one that I hadn't thought of. That backpackers are potentially being charged proportionately higher than RV campers, is problematic in my view.

2) Anon - I don't think the 18-1 public comments argument holds any water. It's like going to Moveon.org, or the NRA, to ask what the presidents approval rating is, and then using that data to extrapolate for the rest of the country. In other words, only backpackers who care about backpacking in the Smokies would respond to the NPS request to comment. Don't take this as being flippant, but for non-backpackers, this was essentially a non-issue for them, and therefore didn't care to respond.

3) Anon - do you have a link to the "NO excess funds for anything other than paying for the registration system" memo? If true, yes, it does make a difference.

4) I have heard reports over the years that certain campsites and shelters are chronically overcrowded. Don't you think an online system will help to alleviate that problem?

5) Neil brings up a good point on many of the national forests, state parks and national parks - all across the country - that are raising fees on a variety of camping and park services/amenities. What is Southern Forest Watch's viewpoint on this trend?

Moreover, how can you expect the non-backpacking, tax paying public to subsidize your recreational activities? I'm not picking on backpackers, because really this statement goes towards all recreational users and activities. Given the extreme financial problems that are country faces, recreational users should be expected to pay the full cost, equal to the amount of services they use, on all public lands.

If they're not already doing this, park managers around the country should be matching costs against the fees paid for individual services, just like any business.

Jeff



JD said...

There is overcrowding in the shelters along the AT from time to time. The backcountry is quite the opposite, which is another reason why this fee is suspect. Do you realize that the GSMNP will be the only place along the Appalachian Trail where thru-hikers will be charged a fee? That is embarrassing to say the least. Many who regularly use the backcountry campsites are volunteer trail maintainers. I am one of those volunteers. It is a slap in the face by the NPS to impose a fee on those who care deeply about the park and devote time to helping maintain it. I would encourage you to read the actual documents in Ditmanson's own words to see behind this fee. This fee was a test to see if more fees could be imposed in the future. Mark my words, if this fee stands, more are to come.

JD said...

By the way, here is the link to the Blount County Commission minutes. This is an 805 page document. Comments pertaining to the fee begin on page 276. You will also find some of the documents obtained through the FOIA. http://www.blounttn.org/comm/cc130221.pdf

Neil Norman said...

JD, I completely agree that instituting this fee establishes a precedent that will enable the NPS to not only levy new fees in the future, but also to raise the fees they've established. I'm no fan of the likelihood, but until it gets cost prohibitive for a student like myself, I'll go along with it.

I have to confess that I've not yet had the chance to volunteer in the park, but I appreciate and regularly take advantage of volunteers' conscientious stewardship. You pose an interesting question of fairness, that volunteers should not have to pay a fee to camp in the park they have served free of charge. Has there been any talk of rewarding volunteers with a lesser fee or of remitting the fee altogether, particularly since concessions are being made for AT thru-hikers?

Tim Fell said...

Neil Norman says:

"Opponents of the fee have been terribly effective at representing their voice as the majority by patrolling the web for sites and articles related to the backcountry fees, however distantly, and bombing the comment sections. They mobilize the voice of their vocal minority through social media - the main group and its founders constantly post articles on Facebook and invite (incite?) followers to check the links and comment accordingly."

Isn't that's how it's done these days, isn't that precisely what you're doing--expressing you opinion on social media? But I guess it's OK so long as we agree with your opinion?

~~~~

Neil Norman says:

"...maintenance of backcountry sites v. convenience of permit registration..."

So, tell me who it is that maintains the trails and backcountry campsites as it is right now, and who will be doing it in now that the fees have been implemented? The same people who've been doing it all along--Volunteers.

~~~~

Neil Norman says:

"...and that the park ranger it frees from desk work by introducing an online registration system will not add anything to the park maintenance."

You're correct about the "park ranger" not contibuting anything to backcountry maintenence, because the Backcountry Reservation Office has always been staffed by Volunteers, so no "park ranger" will be freed up for any additional maintenance duties.

~~~~

Neil Norman says:

"I guess I feel lied to when fees are popping up for 4 or 5 neighboring parks/national forests under similar auspices to those proposed in the Smokies, and the "watchdogs" remain silent. I wonder what else is being misrepresented, and it makes a huge difference."

It would make a huge difference in representing your position if you could detail some of these other similar fees that are being proposed.

Tim Fell said...

Neil Norman says:

"I have to confess that I've not yet had the chance to volunteer in the park, but I appreciate and regularly take advantage of volunteers' conscientious stewardship."

Looks to me like you're not paying your "fair share". Then you criticize others who do Volunteer in the park and are challenging this fee.

Neil Norman said...

Hi Tim - I agree that social media is an ideal tool for sharing opinions with like-minded individuals and, after the "Arab Spring," a effective means for mobilizing public opinion. I was just criticizing is the misrepresentation of widespread opposition that a few like-minded individuals generate when they mobilize through these media. While blanketing an article/web post with a set opinion can be effective as a representation of its purported popularity, it seems a bit cunning.

Please don't mistake the question I posed about volunteers as slighting them. Like I said, I appreciate all they do and will continue to enjoy the park through their efforts. I was only wondering whether the the NPS had discussed remitting or reducing fees for volunteers. Seems like a great way to bring in more volunteers to make up the deficits they're projecting.

If you interested in other fees that are being proposed in nearby parks and forests, earlier posts on this blog are a great primer. Again, these proposals are in their initial stages; presumably, they are as subject to evolve as much as the NPS proposals for camping fees in the Smokies did. If the Southern Forest Watch is committed to its mission, these fees (and their potential for change) deserve as much attention as the Smokies camping fee.

http://hikinginthesmokys.blogspot.com/2013/02/proposed-fee-change-for-koomer-ridge.html

http://hikinginthesmokys.blogspot.com/2013/01/public-meeting-scheduled-to-seek-public.html

http://hikinginthesmokys.blogspot.com/2013/01/new-or-increased-recreation-fees.html

Tim Fell said...

Neil Norman says:

"I was only wondering whether the the NPS had discussed remitting or reducing fees for volunteers."

I'll quote Ditmanson when we asked him the same question:

"No".

Nor was he interested in a "Maximum fee" or a "Annual Pass".

Additionally, it appears that discounts available through the "Golden Passport" will not honored under the new Backcountry Fee, yet these discounts are honored in the Frontcountry campsites.

You use words like "cunning", "villify", "incite", "vehement" and "bitter" to characterize out efforts to oppose this fee. You don't think much of our legal and responsible efforts to oppose the fee, and try to frame the argument to cast our efforts into a negative light. Very Alinsky of you.

I do appreciate the links to other proposed fees, I'll have to examine those.

Neil Norman said...

A volunteer fee remittance might be worth revisiting, given the sequestering shortfalls that the NPS anticipates. FYI, there are brief mentions of new fees elsewhere in the Knoxville News Sentinel and, I think, the Asheville Citizen-Times.

If my responses here seem preemptively snarky (they are) or my characterizations seem harsh (they are), it's because I have seen opponents of the fee fly into a bitter rage against anyone who disagrees with it, particularly in the newspaper comment sections. The attacks are vicious, and they're conduct unbecoming anyone who wants to persuade another side. There are civil ways to handle disagreement, but the opponents of the fee feel slighted because their opinions haven't been considered by the NPS as carefully as they deserve. As a consequence, they respond in an angrily dismissive manner to anyone, even interested members of the public with no NPS affiliations, who voices a contrary opinion.

What happened to civil discourse between interested participants, even when they champion different perspectives, who can respect each other beyond those perspectives at the end of the day? At this point, the angry, condescending approach of the fee's opponents has been so divisive and become so predictable that nothing short of a preemptive attack makes sense, not if a person would like to disagree.

I teach composition courses which have a focus on rhetoric (forgive my smartphone autotext grammar/spelling), and I have seriously considered using the Southern Forest Watch's website in class. I can think of no better example of public discourse surrounding a sincerely worthy cause - I checked it out because many of the arguments against the fee made sense - ruined by ineffective rhetoric. This fight would have been easier with a more conscientious approach.

Tim Fell said...

Neil, all the examples you cited are "Developed" recreation areas that offer amenities.

Koomer Ridge, a front country campground that offers showers, restrooms, electricity, and trash pickup.

Cumberland Gap National Park, same as for Koomer Ridge.

Sliding Rock Recreation Area, is asking for a 100% fee increase to $2/day to pay for an expanded lifeguard staff at the swimming pool.

Increased fees at 3 National Forest Shooting Ranges in the State of NC. With today's political climate, don't you think those evil, bloodthirsty, Rednecks should pay a little to more to practice with their weapons of war? I'd sure hate for you stand in the way of current public opinion on that one, you'll get steamrolled.

Seriously, a shooting range requires a certain amount of maintenance, grass to be mowed, trash cans to empty, possibly even restroom facilities to be maintained.

What amenities does the GSMNP offer to backcountry campers? What amenities does the GSMNP offer that haven't been paid for by Volunteer organizations.

None.

The food hanger cables were paid for by Friends of The Great Smoky Mountains. The AT shelters, their recent renovations, and the accompanying privies were all paid for and maintained by the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club.

Why are the amenities important?

Because that's what Ditmanson is basing the need and legal standing for implementing this fee.

First, the Park does not pay for what few amenities that are present in the backcountry.

Second, and most importantly, and exemplified by the campground renovations at Cumberland Gap; is that you can raise the fees if you expand the amenities. They're expanding all kinds of amenities at that campground--50 amp plug-ins? Won't find that in the backcountry.

I'm not a Lawyer, but the way I understand it, the Feds can't charge or increase fees on public lands without a change or expansion in amenities provided.

Ditmanson wants to claim that the fee will add the amenity of adding a cumbersome and restrictive online reservation system--which by the way doesn't have a mobile app for tablets or phones--which is unnecssary.

Ditmanson's backcountry fee may very well violate Federal Statutes, that will be for a court to decide.

Neil Norman said...

Geez, Tim - "evil, bloodthirsty Rednecks?" No "mobile app for smartphones or tablets?" Way to represent. All of the sudden, your argument seems less about hikers and more about class and people who could afford the fee. As a broke, student camper, I'm not sure you're representing my interests, and if this is your stance, I'm positive you and the people you represent aren't representing my voice at all.

Look, I'm no wordologist, but as I understand it, amenities are conveniences, whether they're in the front country or back, the house or apartment. As you represent it here, the raging, scandalous tiff between the fees' opponents and its administrators boils down to question of definition. Ok then. You can howl that its all about higher principles, political and otherwise, but it's ultimately a question of what you mean by amenities covered under the law and what the NPS means. I guess there's nothing to do but wait on the lawyers.

Tim Fell said...

Neil, I'm one of the "evil, bloodthirsty, Rednecks". As I write, sometimes I drift into sarcasm. The sudden introduction of the subject of "shooting ranges" led to a background of guttural screams I hear every day.

I notice you're using a smartphone to post today. How much do you rely on that smartphone? I hope you have a desktop to make your reservations from, because you won't be able to make a reservation on your smartphone. How's that for a convenient, user-friendly system?

What about folks who don't have a computer, as hard as it may seem to believe, there's still a few out there. Discriminating against those who aren't technically hip--like a desktop is the latest thing.

I would think as a budget conscious student, then you could identify with me. I make a modest living, and am paid mostly with blue skies and sunshine. My survival depends not on how much I make, but how much I save.

As much as I backpack, the Backcountry fee could add up in a hurry. February alone would have cost me $36 in backcountry fees had I chosen to visit the GSMNP.

$432/year to backpack the Smokies?

I'll say that Ditmanson's fee discriminates against lower income individuals. Combine that with the ever increasing price of travel to the park, and I'm being priced out of my favorite recreation.

Take a non-profit organization such as a Scout Troop. 8 guys/gals on 6 day/5 night adventure, $160. Sorry, no exceptions.

If you want to call a bear cable, paid for by Volunteers, and 20 sq ft of forest floor an amenity; than I guess I'll have a hard time influencing your opinion.

Put the shoe on the other foot, If I remember correctly, you pay $28 for your fish lisc. You buy a Trout Stamp in TN to fish certain waters, but for that $20, you get fish that wouldn't be there otherwise. I buy a Sportsman's lisc, so I can't remember what a basic fish lisc is. Then the Park demands you pay $4/day to fish. Since the Park doesn't stock fish, what do you get for your $4/day? That's how some of us in the backpacking community feel.

It does look like this will come down to "what the meaning of the word 'is' is".

John Quillen said...

Neil,
I appreciate that you have focused so much of your attention on the SFW and our fight. As president of Southern Forest Watch one of the hats I wear is the web guy until we get our professional web guy back on it. I think that you mentioned wanting to see a document that mentions where there will be no increase in overall annual revenue as a result of this fee from the NPS. All you ever had to do was ask or email me. I will gladly forward you a copy of the actual document that says the fee goes to fund a reservation system only.
I'm pretty accessible although very busy. I hope you will understand our sentiment, but if not I think it is accurately captured in this article that explains our protest from an historical perspective. http://www.carolinapublicpress.org/13716/smokies-enacts-4-fee-amid-tangle-of-politics-history-criticism
I dont know if you have ties to this area, my experience suggests you do not else you would not blindly accept these federal actions with long reaching implications. Your statement are suggestive of someone who hasn't researched the genesis of this park in relation to all others. Either way, we welcome any respectful discourse. You can reach me at john@southernhighlanders.com

Neil Norman said...

Tim: I appreciate your sentiments, and I agree this feature will prove more the financial hardship for the people who backpack most.

Hi John. I've only ever had the chance to educate myself about the park's origins from what I've read, which tended toward a neutral view, except for a cache of letters that residents wrote before their homes were turned into a national park. I often hear opinions about the park or fee discounted when they come from people who aren't locals from either side of the line, but I've never heard why. Maybe it's the Blount county move to fight the fee, the sense I've gotten is that fee opposition is largely a Tennessee movement. Is this the case , or is it balanced between the states?

Thank you for the link to Southern Forest Watch purpose and practices on this blog. It is hands down the most civil discussion of the fee and the move against it that I've seen - in fact, it was the original reason I checked out the Southern Forest Watch's website. Thanks, again, John

Tim Fell said...

Neil, I greatly appreciate the opportunity for a frank discussion yesterday.

I hope our enthusiasm for our "cause" has not soured you on its merits.

You would make an intelligent, articulate and valuable ally.

I'm sure our trails will cross one day,

Tim

John Quillen said...

Neil,
Ditto what Tim said. Our passion is often confused with ardor but I can assure you the SFW members and allies are some of the finest people you would ever meet. We would benefit from having you join our cause. Once you peel back the layers of this onion it begins to reak more and more. We have been peeling for two years now.