Are backpackers boycotting the Smokies? Based on the number of backcountry overnight stays for 2013, I think you can say something definitely is going on.
Two weeks ago I reported that visitation in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was down 6.7% in 2013. Earlier this week, one of the commentors on that posting asked about backcountry overnight stays in light of the new backcountry fees that were implemented back in February. If not familiar with this decision, suffice it to say that it's been an extremely controversial topic within the backpacking community since the fees were first proposed back in 2011.
In light of this controversy, I thought Tom's question was a valid one. Essentially: have the fees had an impact on backcountry overnight stays in the Smokies? It appears the answer to that question is yes. In 2013 there were only 62,863 backcountry overnight stays - a whopping 25.4% decline from the prior year. When compared to 2011, those same numbers are down 30.5%!
However, as with all statistics, you need to take into account a few caveats:
* The park was shutdown for 2 weeks during October due to the Federal Government shutdown. No doubt this impacted the numbers. For the sake of argument, since overall park visitation was down 6.7% in 2013, I think we can safely assume that backcountry overnight stays were also down by 6.7% - mainly due to the government shutdown. Roughly speaking, that would've added about 5012 additional backcountry nights, meaning, if there wasn't a government shutdown, total backcountry overnight stays would've been around 67,875 (I used the average for the 2000-2010 time frame as my baseline).
* There was a sharp increase in backcountry overnight stays in 2011 and 2012 when compared to the prior decade. Was this in response to the proposed fees? In other words, were backpackers getting out into the park while it was still free? I think it's very possible that some of that may have been going on.
Taking those two caveats into account, it's still obvious that backcountry overnight stays were negatively impacted in 2013. If we look at the trends (below) for the years prior to 2011, the average number of backcountry overnight stays was roughly 74,800. If we adjust the 2013 figures for the government shutdown, and use the 67,875 number instead, you could argue that backcountry overnight stays were off about 9.3% when compared to the long term trend. Moreover, that number is still the lowest figure over the last 13 years. It will be quite interesting to see what happens over the course of 2014.
Hiking in the Smokies