Firestorm building on Smokies Backcountry Fees

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A firestorm seems to have erupted over a backcountry fee system Great Smoky Mountains officials proposed back in July.

The controversy has been brewing ever since Great Smoky Mountains managers announced that they were considering a move to make all backcountry camping permits (for all sites) go through, an online and call-in reservation service. The proposal would cost backpackers between $2.25 and $10.00 to make a reservation for a backcountry campsite (depending on which of three proposals is ultimately adopted).

Since then, John Quillen, a self-employed drug counselor and avid backpacker from Knoxville, and Johnny Molloy, a local hiking book author, have taken up the crusade to fight the proposal.

First of all, I completely empathize with the position Quillen, Molloy and others have carved out. However, I must say, that I am on the fence about the whole issue. But I must also point out that several of the arguments the opposition presents on their website has a few holes in them. states that the backcountry fee proposal is effectively an entrance fee and it targets backpackers. That simply isn't true. Just like any other visitor, backpackers are allowed to enter the park for free. As the proposal stipulates, they may have to pay a fee to use overnight facilities in the park in the future, just like front country campers currently have to. The website also laments as to why tax dollars aren't being used to pay for these services. But I would argue that tax payer dollars should never be used to subsidize any recreational activities. There are, afterall, costs involved with maintaining those campsites. As mentioned, the park already charges a fee to camp in the front country, and it effectively charges a fee to rent a bike or a horse in Cades Cove. I do, however, agree that this "is a foot in the door for other entrance fees". As with any other governmental agency, this fee could become the impetus for other fees - the proverbial slippery slope.

One of the reasons the Smokies wants to implement a fee system is due to overcrowding at some sites. The Southernforestwatch website points out that the number of backcountry users peaked in the mid-1990s, and has seen a significant drop since then. Therefore, as the website points-out, there is no need for a comprehensive reservation system. Moreover, the website thinks that the park is misleading the public on this issue. Southernforestwatch states:

Take, for example, a printout from the Park’s own figures for a typical recent year. It shows a total of 72,907 camper nights for 108 campsites. That comes out to 675 campers per site for a full year, or less than two people per night. That’s hardly overcrowded, and the figures would show that the Park is misleading the public in even worse fashion if you remove Mt. Leconte and Appalachian Trail shelters. Over half of backcountry campsites averaged less than ONE CAMPER PER NIGHT.

However, as we all know, statistics can be misleading. Is it possible that most of those bag nights are concentrated in a small group of campsites, thus overcrowding those sites as the park states? I don't know, and simply looking at those statistics certainly doesn't answer that question.

Secondly, the Park states that there is overcrowding of backcountry campsites by non-permitted campers. If this is true, those people aren't being counted in the official statistics cited above.

The Southernforestwatch website also misrepresents the role of, the firm that would handle the reservation system. They state: seems to have some political clout. Owned by, a CANADIAN company, they are more than ready to outsource Smokies backcountry camping reservations through concession. What do they know about our mountains? Apparently, according to Ditmanson, a considerable amount. Enough to entrust them with all reservations and "trip planning" whatever that entails.

Actually,, who currently handles reservations for front country camping in the Smokies, wouldn't handle any of the trip planning advice. As a 7/29/11 Press Release states, "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."

Southernforestwatch also misrepresents the issue of stimulus tax dollars. "Last year conferred another 64 million EXTRA stimulus tax dollars to build roads and fix horse trails, now he (Superintendent Dale Ditmanson) wants to take more of our money to increase his staff." Unfortunately, those tax dollars were earmarked towards specific projects. They were never meant to go into the general budget. This is not an issue Southernforestwatch should be taking up with Superintendent Ditmanson. If they have a problem with this stipulation they need to address it with the President and Congress.

The problem with the proposal:

The park wants to "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." But with more than 800 miles of trails, and more than 100 backcountry campsites and shelters, how many rangers would the park have to hire to effectively manage the backcountry? To me it seems quixotic.

Southernforestwatch states that the Smokies "backcountry office is only manned a few hours per day" and is "turning away volunteers in droves". If this is true, this is a big problem. If the issue of making a reservation, and receiving trip planning advice can be accomplished through willing volunteers, then the Park, at a minimum, is guilty of mis-management.

Why not implement an online (only) reservation system that could handle the majority of the current phone call load. This would then free up time for the current staff at the Backcountry Information Center, already working three hours a day, to help with trip planning advice. I'll emphasize "online only". Using the call center services to make a reservation at would drive up expenses, thus increasing costs for backpackers. Why not minimize these fees by employing an online only system, in addition to the three hours of phone service at the Backcountry Information Center. Why not give a system like this a test for a year or two to see if this solves the problem?



Mike said...

In 15+ years of heavily using the current backcountry reservation system, I have only ever once been requested to show my permit. It happened 1/2 mile from my car on the last day of a 5 day trip. The ranger who requested it was leading a group of teenagers at the time.

The first question that has to be asked is what the new system would be designed to fix. Are there too many unregistered hikers filling in the reservation campsites/shelters? If that is the case, more than 2 extra rangers in the backcountry are going to be needed to insure compliance (as you pointed out).

If it is to make the reservation process easier, then I am all on board for that, as long as those collected fees pay for more than just the administrative cost of having collect the fees and assign the reservations.

I haven't been able to get a live body to answer the backcountry reservation telephone in 3 or 4 years now and just stumbled on the fact that you could call the backcountry information number and make reservations through them.

In short, I have no problem paying in to any of the proposed fee structures as long as that money goes into improving backcountry campsites, paying rangers to police the campsites for those who don't have reservations and pay for an improved reservation system that I could reliably contact.

I have always been pleasantly surprised that I don't have to pay a dime to the NPS to tour the park and sleep in the backcountry.

John Quillen said...

I wish to rebut some of your assertions about SouthernForestWatch. First, There is a misconception perpetuated here that the fees will go toward "the good of the park". The only thing fees will go toward are the salaries of two rangers and the institution of, the canadian company. Just getting them on the phone will cost you ten bucks for the privilege.
Second, You are correct in that the stimulus monies are earmarked for specific projects, usually shovel ready ones. But where do you think the direction for those earmarks originated? Who let congress know, for instance, that GSMNP needed a quarter million to repair horse damaged trails and put up toilets at Alum Cave? Yes, Ditmanson.
Second,the "costs" involved in maintaining campsites is mythology. All campsite work is done by volunteers under the direction of the volunteer coordinator. It doesn't cost the park a dime. Fixing dayhiking trails like Forney Ridge? A bunch.
Last, although I appreciate you giving ear to this important subject, it is an entrance fee and let me give you an example. Want to hike from Eagle Creek into Tennessee? Can you do that it a day? Well congrats, you're in good shape. But guess what, most people can't. Therefore, they must pay to use a campsite, an empty one at that.
Last, there is a culture of folks who think that backpackers cost the park something. We call them "non backpackers". Backpacking is probably the sole activity in the smokies that requires no facilities, stalls, toilets, tube rental stands or paved roads to do. Should you have to pay when the fire department puts out your house fire if you pay a tax to them already? That's another line of discussion.
John Quillen

Bill said...

I think most readers will find the fee proposal is effectively an entrance fee which obviously targets backpackers. In case some are not aware, it's tough to say overnight without a backpack w/t food & gear. Since there are many loops and trails that the average hiker can't do without an overnight stay, it is an entrance fee to the backcountry being imposed on backpackers.

What new "facilities" will backcountry users benefit from as a result of this proposed fee? Bear cables are about the only current improvement and they are installed by volunteers. Are backcountry users going to get paved tent sites, hot showers, bike rentals or utility hook-ups, like in the front country campgrounds? I have heard of none.

Comparing campgrounds such as Elkmont with backcountry camp site's is not a fair comparison. They are not the same! When you camp in the backcountry you carry a backpack with all your own gear including food, shelter and clothing for the duration of your stay. You sleep on the ground and drink out of the creek. You are on your own, just the way you like it. Since many keep making this comparison, it's important that the reader understands the differences.

You say you "would argue that tax payer dollars should never be used to subsidize any recreational activity". Get real! Do you think that front country camp sites and activities such as horse rentals are profit items? Just going to the park is a recreational activity for many, even if they don't get out of the car. So, by paving roads the tax payer is supporting recreational activity. Are you suggesting that the federal government stop all funding for the GSMNP and replace revenue loss with usage fees?

The costs to maintain backcountry campsites is nominal. This work is almost all done by very caring volunteers, many of the same people that would love to work in the information center and other areas of the park but are turned away. So they turn away volunteers and then ask for fees to fill those positions???

Trail maintenance is much more expensive and time consuming than campsite upkeep. General trail maintenance benefits day hikers and day horse riders the most but they are not going to be required to pay a fee under the current proposal. Why not? The reason is that most trail maintenance, like campsite maintenance, is done by volunteers and no one should have to pay. We have plenty of caring people who love the park and there is no shortage of volunteers in the Volunteer State!

If you use the park you know that overcrowding is most prevalent at LeConte and Chimneys trails and at Cades Cove. Two or three shelters also have some periodic overcrowding and those are already frequently patrolled by the current park staff including Ridge Runners. Why not let those profiting from LeConte and other park related "for profit" services such as "A Walk in the Woods" pay to improve the most used trails, shelters and parking areas. Let those who make money off the park pay some too.

I would like to know if any study of overcrowding was done by the park service before deciding who they should charge fees? I suspect that no formal study was performed since it would likely not support the proposal at hand.

However, I agree with one thing you agree with....this is a foot in the door!!! Stop it now or we will all be paying each time we enter the park regardless of what we plan to do!

joey bridges said...

this whole thing stinks to high heaven.

one of the points i keep bringing up (that keeps getting deleted) is that if,
the backcountry sites are so overcrowded (they're not) and so full of problem areas. then why is ditmanson not getting his present staff of rangers out from behind the wheels of those new crown victoria police cruisers, put the radar guns down, and take care of the issues they claim exist ???
why is he waiting until this absurd double taxation proposal is slipped in under the radar, and from behind closed doors, in order to hire two additional rangers to patrol and end these supposed problems ???

i've literally scoured the entire park this spring/summer/fall season,
x-c backpacking from one end of the park to the other numerous times.
i'm so close to having hiked every trail and stayed in every site as a result.
with the exception of the peak leaf peeping weekend along fourney creek.
most of the time i've had the entire backcountry to myself, or the partner i hike with.
i've seen campsites with fire rings that haven't been used in quite some time.
i've seen trails that are geting very overgrown due to lack of use.

and one thing else ive seen.............
lots of new GM suv's, new ford crown victoria patrol cars, new john deere tractors. new pavement covering good pavement, new bridge repairs on horse trails.

i've seen rangers drive past me, as i emerge from trails and into car camping areas, and look at me like i was scum.
i've heard their radio chatter when in the elkmont permit station, where they're riding around running license tags looking for warrants.(they discovered two cars with paper out on the owners while i was standing there)
these are no longer park rangers like we used to have.

they've blown through their allotment of stimulus funds, and now they're thirsting for more at the expense of a group that's relatively small and unorganized. (so they think!!!)

once the door for user fees has been opened.............................

The Smoky Mountain Hiker said...

Thank you all for providing thoughtful and insightful comments.

Let me clarify a few things:

1) No doubt it was GSMNP management that provided the list of projects to be funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) or the 2009 stimulus. My point is that Superintendent Ditmanson / Smokies management, were "handcuffed" into the types of project funding they could ask for from the Feds. The projects covered by ARRA were supposed to be "shovel ready" (even though President Obama admitted those jobs weren't as shovel ready as he thought they would be). ARRA stipulated that stimulus funds were to go towards infrastructure, education, renewable energy, and housing type projects. In other words, that money was never intended, nor would it have been approved, for a backcountry permit system. Here's some more info:

Here are the projects covered by ARRA according to Smokies press releases and other docs:

Here is some more info on the trail improvements:

Yes, 22 miles of "horse" trails were rehabilitated: "The second project will rehabilitate 22 miles of horse trails, including Panther Creek, Lead Cove, Finley Cane, Miry Ridge, West Prong, Schoolhouse Gap, and Snake Den Ridge. The project will involve replacing damaged water bars, trail regrading, removal of encroaching brush, turnpiking of wet areas, boulder removal, hazardous tree removal, and repairing treadway damage."

Although the park calls them horse trails, they are still used by day hikers and backpackers as well.

2) Charging backpacking fees is an entrance fee - I'll chalk that one up to semantics and leave it there.

3) I relalize that volunteers perform most, if not all maintenance issues with backcountry campsites. Also, I believe the Ridge-Runner program is 100% volunteer as well. However, there are still costs involved with the reservation system (ranger salaries and office expenses). I don't know the answer to this, but who pays for the materials such as bear cables, or improvements (actual materials - not the volunteer work) to backcountry shelters?

4) Lastly, if both John and Bill are correct, that there are willing volunteers ready to help out with reservations, and assisting with trip planning, then by all means the park should be pursuing this avenue. I think this should be the main thrust for the Southernforestwatch opposition to the fee plan.

joey bridges said...

this entire proposal is based on the fact that they say the backcountry campsites are overcrowded and create problem areas for others who wish to use them.
all of these other issues are not pertinent to the situation.
they've been used as defection after we've proven that there's no need for this plan based on their original reasons for it.
it has nothing to do with getting money for trail work. it's about paying for a website in order to have all backcountry site go on a reservation only system. and hiring two new rangers to patrol the ghost town that is the backcountry in order to force us into compliance with the fee and reservation of each and every campsite.
empty campsites won't fully fund the salaries of two law enforcement officers, and website host.
the math just doesn't add up.

Seth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Seth said...

Ridge Runners are employees of the ATC and are paid for 8 hours of work per day for their time even thought they are on the clock 24 hours when they are in the field said...

This thing isn't over yet ... no big lady singing tributes to the National Park Service or to Dale or Fritz or the Friends who bought a cabin for ATC to use ... I think we will soon have DATA from the comment period and can all analyze the comments. I for one hope our efforts to stop this ridiculous proposal are more effective than the Western Slope Alliance when they butted up against similar BS years ago. The old saying "you can't fight city hall" comes to mind, but if we don't fight we should just curl up & ... So I hope we will soon be able to fine tune our objective when the stats are revealed. Thanks for letting me post a comment. LPF

Lee said...

I can take you to at least 4 campsites where the grass/weeds inside the fire rings are about 7 inches high.
Before my daughter was born (3 years ago) I use to hike and camp in the back-country for 1-3 weeks at a time, there would be days before I would see another person. Now I horseback ride back there1-2 days each season, I have seen one ranger this past fall, and he damn near hit me and my horse as he sped past us.
I agree, some trails are getting out of hand, I try and cut back some of the smaller limbs...but there is only so much a man can do on horseback.

I would be for taking a week each spring and groups of people maintaining sections of trails/campsites ourselves.
You would be surprised at how much work 5-7 men along with 1 ranger can get done in a days time, add this to several groups and I do believe the trails/campsites would start looking new by the 2 or 3rd year.