Entrance Fees for the Smoky Mountains?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A two-day conference on Sustainable Tourism in Great Smoky Mountains National Park concluded yesterday (see story). The conference included politicians, policymakers and journalists on the local, regional and national level.

The major headline coming out of the conference was that there are some who are advocating for the implementation of an entrance fee to the Park. The argument for the fee is that the Park is over-crowded and has too much traffic creating too much smog and pollution.

Keith Bellows, editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler, essentially argues that the Smokies are being loved to death. "The most visited national park, up to 10 million people, offers free entry," he said. "You're going to have to kiss that goodbye."

The supposition here is that if the Park were to begin charging an entrance fee, less people would visit the park, thus reducing over-crowding and pollution. But how much would you have to charge in order to discourage enough people to stay away from the Park in order to make an impact on these issues?

Suppose the Park charges the same weekly entrance fee that Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon charge - $25. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, a $25 fee would be enough to discourage 10% of all visitors from making the trek to the Smokies. That’s only a million people a year. The Smoky Mountains would still attract more than double the number of visitors the Grand Canyon receives (4.4 million), which is the second most heavily visited national park.

Even with an entrance fee, over-crowding would still be a problem.

Furthermore, aren’t these our parks anyway? Shouldn’t they be free to use? To paraphrase Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, also in attendance, isn’t this why we pay taxes?

The solution isn’t in levying additional taxes to keep people out of the Park. There are other things the Park Service should do:

First, the Park should stop encouraging visitors to auto-tour. Right now, the Park sells auto-touring booklets at the visitor centers and makes them available for download on their web site.

Another solution is to promote and encourage people to go to the lesser visited areas of the Park.

Finally, we should limit parking in some of the over-crowded areas of the Park and begin providing shuttle buses along Newfound Gap Road, Roaring Fork Motor Trail and Cades Cove. A small fee to use these buses could be used to pay for the program. Similar solutions have been implemented in places like Rocky Mountain National Park, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite.

I know that the Park still has some funding issues for capital improvement projects. The $1.5 million federal spending increase for the Smokies, announced by U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne on Monday, will provide a tremendous boost for the Park in this area.

The Smoky Mountains National Park was founded with the help of generous philanthropic donations. The Rockefeller’s donated half of the $10 million in funds needed to establish the Park. Where are the contemporary philanthropists, sympathetic to the national park causes, today? Ehh, ehh, Mr. Gates, Mr. Turner, Mr. Buffett, anyone?

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