Are Backpackers Boycotting the Smokies?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

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


Jonathon said...

Is it possible people still visited, just deliberately didn't get a back country permit so they wouldn't have to pay? Are there numbers on amounts of citations rangers wrote to unregistered back country hikers? I saw AT hikers with dogs because they didn't agree with that rule too!

Anonymous said...

If you remember,we had record amounts of rain last year. Perhaps the weather had a more to do with it than fees. I know we changed our plans more than once due to the weather .

Randy Taylor said...

Rain doesn't keep real backpackers away, plus if you lose the majority of your fee for canceling, you'll be more likely to press on during inclement weather, perhaps putting hikers in danger when they should abort. The fee and system has definitely affected my decisions.

The Smoky Mountain Hiker said...

Jonathon - I agree, there were probably quite a few "pirate" backpackers this year that didn't register. However, there very well could've been "pirate" backpackers in prior years as well - people who didn't realize they were supposed to register their overnight stays with the park. As far as I know, none of that information (citations) is available to the public, so I have no way of measuring that data.

Anon - I think you bring up a good point about the rain this year. That likely did have an impact. How much? We will never know. And to Randy's point, some/many backpackers would probably press on regardless of the weather.

As I learned from a statistics major several years ago, one data point does not make a trend. I think we'll have a much better handle on the impact of the backcountry fees in another year or two.

Joey Bridges said...

we haven't been back to OUR PARK since ditmanson forced this illegal double taxation feeasco on us.
citico, countless trails on the plateau, pisgah, AT, linville gorge, roane mt. and an infinite amount of other awesome places now get our attention.
and.....our discretionary spending in the surrounding businesses.

Anonymous said...

Since October is one of the busiest months of the year it should count as higher than just 6%. And although the government was only shut down for 16 days, as a hotel manager that sees a large hiker clientele, I can say that the shutdown had a month long implication. Because of the uncertainty, many people cancelled their October trips altogether. Our October business was down over 20%. The year before we saw a similar downturn because of the collapse of the road, although it did not impact us as bad since it was in late winter.


Tom said...

I bet rain did shorten a lot of peoples backcountry plans...but for most/many I bet they had still already paid the fee, and thus would have been counted in the numbers shown on the graph. e.g., last June I paid for 8 "reservations" for a wkd trip for my family of 4. Rained like hell so we bailed out after 1 night. But the smokies data still says we were there for 2 nights. Have to figure some people cancelled due to rain altogether but only after making the reservation and thus being counted. No matter the weather, you're counted as a backcountry user once you've made the reservation, not whether you actually made it out there.

The Smoky Mountain Hiker said...

Tom - great point and observation. Moreover, I'm sure there were many caveats for all the prior years, but are unable to quantify them at this point.

Anonymous said...

"we haven't been back to OUR PARK since ditmanson forced this illegal double taxation feeasco on us."

That's funny Joey---you're listed on one of the Highlanders trip.

So, either there's another Joey Bridges or you're a flat out liar.

And let me guess. You'll make some excuse why the rest of your croney friends still go backpacking in the Park.

Anonymous said...

The Park fully refunded our trip during the shutdown.

Anonymous said...

It's comical to see comments From "Anonymous" attacking people, yet won't post there name. Your obviously your one who follows the highlanders closely....hmmm who could you be?
Frank w

John Quillen said...

Anonymity is the refuge of cowards. Sounds like someone who didn't get invited to the Highlander trips. Middle school.

joey bridges said...

like i said, we haven't been back since the weekend before the tax went into place.

i think "anonymous" is a bit jealous because i actually have a hiking partner.
and all he could do the night we met, was sniff after her as we left park headquarters.

Brian Knudsen said...

I can tell you right now, That i had planned to hike a 5-7 day section of the AT that included the Smokies. That plan has been changed to begin just north of the National Park due to the regulations. Our start date may have to fluctuate by a day or so to accommodate work schedules. And that section thru the Park isn't all that easy to determine where you may end up in the evening.
I don't want to have to waste daylight if we arrive early to a shelter, Or risk running afoul of the law if we fall short of our daily mileage.
It's not about the money.
It's about needless control and denying hikers the ability to enjoy the hike across the Smokies with the ease needed to fully enjoy the experience.

The Smoky Mountain Hiker said...

***** Alright guys, lets keep it civil or I'm going to remove comments*****

John Quillen said...

I have found that over on our blog we don't have these problems created by anonymous posters since a real name is mandatory. I would suggest that you consider disallowing comments by folks who are unwilling to provide a real name. Since they are irrelevant to begin with. Especially since we all know who this anonymous is anyway.

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