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 Recreation.gov, 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.
Southernforestwatch.org 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 Recreation.gov, the firm that would handle the reservation system. They state:
Recreation.gov seems to have some political clout. Owned by Active.com, 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, Recreation.gov, 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 Recreation.gov 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?