Angie Newsome/Carolina Public Press

Part two of a two-part series. For more, read New Smokies fee prompts modern echo of historic culture clash.

Critics considering legal action to stop new Great Smoky Mountains National Park fee

Angie Newsome/Carolina Public Press
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which includes Cataloochee, pictured here, began charging a $4 per-person, per-day fee for backcountry camping on Wednesday. The controversial move holds historic and cultural significance for many park users and Western North Carolinians. Angie Newsome/Carolina Public Press

The backcountry user fee that went into effect on Wednesday in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is only a quarter or two more than a gallon of gas — a price affordable by most, if not all backcountry users. Some view the fee as a way to help preserve or enhance the park’s current use and future. According to a press release on the changes, the park said the $4 per-person, per-day fee for backcountry camping “will be used to provide increased customer service for backcountry trip planning, reservations, permits and the backcountry experience.”

But it still doesn’t have the support of everyone. In fact, some — such as the group Southern Forest Watch, which has said it plans to go to court over the issue — call it an unlawful tax and see it as a foot in the door for mangers to introduce other fees throughout the park.

Knoxville backpacker and Smokies backcountry user John Quillen established Southern Forest Watch in direct response to the fee proposal. He’s a frequent user of the park and remembers when he fell in love with the Smokies. He was 7 years old and on a visit with a neighbor to Mount LeCont, the park’s third-highest peak, which is located in Tennessee just west of the North Carolina state line, and the setting of a lodge established in 1925. Since then, he’s hiked every trail in the park and has slept in nearly every backcountry site. Now 46, he spends about 60 nights per year in the backcountry and views backpacking and fishing as a traditional use of the park.

And while Quillen is a recreational user of the park, his opposition to the fee may be fueled by a much more nuanced outlook in the Southern Appalachians, one that is rooted in the forest’s traditional use as a common resource with limited restrictions. In fact, their protest may be wound in a tangle of decades of past politics, economics and history that altered land-use practices and access to forests in the Southern Appalachians.

On one hand, efforts to create the national park protected thousands of acres of endangered forest and created the nation’s most visited national park loved by more than 9 million visitors last year. On the other, it forever changed the lives of people throughout the region — a change that is, for some, still felt today.

Critics, supporters issue opinions

A 1951 photo of Le Conte Lodge, located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A trip to Mount LeCont inspired fee critic John Quillen's love of the Smokies. Quillen's group, Southern Forest Watch, plans to file a lawsuit to stop the new backcountry user fee. Click to view full-size image.
A 1951 photo of LeConte Lodge, located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The only way to reach the lodge is by hiking there. A trip to Mount LeCont inspired John Quillen’s love of the Smokies. Quillen’s group, Southern Forest Watch, plans to file a lawsuit to stop the new fee. Click to view full-size image.

“We know for a fact that a user fee will restrict the public,” Quillen said, citing a study on the impact of users fees in the western United States by the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition. Quillen argued that “out-of-state” groups, such as profit-seeking guiding businesses that depend on access to backcountry sites, have spearheaded the effort to establish the fees.

According to the park’s website, there are numerous organizations authorized as commercial hiking or backcountry guide services. Some of those services are based based in North Carolina and Tennessee.

One — Flat Rock, N.C.-based Adventure Treks — provides outdoor adventure programs for teenagers to destinations throughout North America, and they support the user fee as long as the funds are used to improve the backcountry experience, according to Executive Director John Dockendorf. Adventure Treks is an authorized commercial user of the park, although Dockendorf estimates they average only eight backcountry nights in the park each year.

The North Carolina-based Nantahala Outdoor Center also supports the fee. “We support the (National) Park Service’s policies and recommendations in Great Smoky Mountains National Park<” Charles Conner, NOC’s media director, said in an email. “Managing the country’s most-visited national park is difficult, and we think they do the job well and fairly.”

Still, Quillen said that the focused fee focuses on charging a minority of the park’s users. “Our primary opposition is that a fee will displace us; there’s no consideration for locals whatsoever. It is a local-exclusive management policy,” said Quillen, who is also concerned that the backcountry charge will lead to a variety of other user fees. “Nine-million people come to the park, but only 70,000 use the backcountry. The park needs to be protected from cars, not from backpackers.”

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, based in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. and with an office in Asheville, has also taken a position on the fee. A 71-mile section of the Appalachian Trail bisects the park, and thru hikers will be impacted by the fee. Javier Folgar, the director of marketing and communications, said in an email that “the Conservancy is opposed to the fees and formally expressed our position during the public comment period. The Conservancy would like the hiking community to have the information they will need concerning the new fees and permit system before they reach the park.”

Park managers counter that no other fees are planned and point out that the park is authorized to collect fees for specific activities such as front-country camping, special-use permits for weddings and other special events such as renting picnic shelters or commercial filming. With the exception of there being new a fee, nothing else will change for Appalachian Trail thru hikers, who will continue to be required to obtain a backcountry permit.

The park’s Backcountry Specialist Melissa Cobern said that the park conducted two open house events and received over 200 written comments and two petitions during the comment period. The park went on to approve the fee in March 2012. According to Coburn, 100 percent of the revenue generated will be used to support the backcountry permit and reservation program. The park website also says that the park considered other possibilities for charging selected sites or shelters, but believes that “including all sites offers the best opportunity for improving customer service and the backcountry experience.”

Quillen said his review of the public comments were “18-to-1 in opposition of the fee.” However, Cobern said that the park’s analysis of public comments is “in terms of substance, and not simply by a tally of who likes or dislikes the idea. While there were a number of commenters who (liked and disliked the fee), there were others who provided specific suggestions for our consideration that might improve the proposal.”

A history of ‘symbolic’ opposition

A postcard, circa 1930-1945, of fishermen in the Smokies.
A postcard, circa 1930-1945, showing men fishing in the Little River in the Smokies.

Yet it doesn’t surprise environmental historian Kathryn Newfont, an associate professor of history and faculty chair of the Ramsey Center for Regional Studies at Mars Hill College, that there is organized opposition to a user fee. In the Southern Appalachians, Newfont said, use of the “commons” — a resource that is essentially open to all, unlike a private resource that may prevent access — traditionally came without a cost.

“A fee is seen as restricting access,” she said. “If something is seen as threatening access, you get resistance from commons users. It’s symbolic, since there is still a sense in Western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee of being betrayed.”

One example can be found in a 2010 letter from Swain County Board of Commissioners to park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson opposing the fee.

“Swain County has years of history associated with land that is now the GSMNP and TVA reservoir area of the county,” the letter, which is signed by Chairman Phil Carson, reads. “People should have the opportunity to teach their children about this rich history without having to pay. Swain County and its citizens have given enough.”

In “Blue Ridge Commons: Environmental Activism and Forest History in North Carolina,” Newfont writes about several past forest-related conflicts that demonstrated the effective voice of commons users. In the late 1970s, WNC residents disapproved of President Jimmy Carter’s administration’s intent to expand wilderness designations on public land. That put them at odds with wilderness-based environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club. “We tend to look at protecting forests through a traditional wilderness lens colored by Appalachian stereotypes,” she said. “That view tends to dismiss mountain people and give the impression that mountain people hate wilderness.”

Their argument, what Newfont calls “commons environmentalism,” was that people had a commons relationship with the forest. Their defense was from a harvest relationship, that is, using the forest for traditional, cultural and economic reasons. That is very different, Newfont said, than a recreational, wilderness-inspired relationship.

In this case, wilderness designation was seen as a threat to access to the forest, thus restricting traditional uses of the forest for cultural, traditional and economics purposes. Newfont also wrote about the Asheville-based WNC Alliance’s successful commons defense of clear-cut logging practices in North Carolina national forests in the 1980s. Local residents viewed clear-cutting policies to have a lack of regard for the continuity of their livelihoods. This time however, their opposition to clear cutting dovetailed with wilderness-based conservationists’ resistance to clear cutting – albeit for other reasons.

Bob Gale, WNCA’s ecologist and public lands director, said his organization doesn’t have a position on the backcountry fee, but takes the discussion of the fee seriously. “The concerns with the fee are important to us,” Gale said. “How we fund our national parks and forests is an important conversation. It’s a discussion that needs to continue.”

And while the $4 backcountry user fee may have an impact on backpackers and anglers, that impact may be overshadowed by the repercussion of future resource issues — such as mineral extraction, logging, recreational conflicts or ridge-top development — that require land managers to enact policies and make rules that may have far greater implications.

Future threats to open spaces and wilderness are why Newfont said she wants lovers of forests to understand how the lives of longtime residents of the Southern Appalachians are woven into the landscape. While the commons are less important economically, the cultural importance is still high, and traditional uses of the land – ginseng root harvesting, for instance – continue. By appreciating the livelihoods, history and tradition that motivate residents to defend access to the forest may help land managers craft future policies that pay heightened attention to a multiuse commons-based ethic.

“I think it’s important to understand how fortunate we are to have so much forest land and public ownership in the Southern Appalachians,” said Newfont who regards a WNC Alliance founder Esther Cunningham — who passed away in 2011 at the age of 93 — as one of North Carolina’s most effective forest advocates. “By mobilizing commons users, they achieved far greater forest protection than would otherwise have been possible. I’d like people to see what commons-inspired woods protectors like Cunningham have accomplished. I believe they have something to teach us.”

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Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at

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  1. Rather than celebrate A.) the largest volunteer force (many in the backcountry) of any national park, B.) the most “profitable” publishing partner of any national park, and C.) the greatest fund-raising Friends group of any national park, this Superintendent has instead consistently belly-ached about his handicapped lot of not being able to charge an entrance fee. His half-empty outlook isn’t just a pessimistic trait, it’s a complete disregard for the passion, pride and contributions of the surrounding communities. People around here take a tremendous amount of satisfaction in their gifts of time, talent, sweat and money, all given to ensure the park has what it needs and remains free of fees, thus reflecting the original gift – the sacrifice of those who gave up their very homes.

    The Superintendent could have requested funds from Friends of the Smokies or the Great Smoky Mountains Association to pay for his new backcountry reservation system; he could have provided the public the opportunity to voluntarily donate (ever heard of Paypal?) when utilizing the new system. (This would have needed to be directed to Friends of the Smokies where it could have been held in a “backcountry trust” awaiting a request for backcountry funding from the Park.) He did neither, which by now isn’t a surprise seeing as how he plowed forward despite 95% of the public comments expressing opposition to his new system. Now, as quoted above, we learn from Backcountry Specialist Melissa Cobern that the park didn’t concern itself with people’s opinions, focusing instead on “substance.” I can’t help but wonder if a strongly worded “no” was viewed as more or less substantive.

    The arrogance is incredible but nothing new. In fact, that would make a nice follow-up, multi-piece story from author Jack Igelman: “The history of condescension to local communities by Park Administration.”

    Now a park established as “forever free” is disgracefully charging for the privilege of loading one’s essentials into a backpack and heading off into the woods. To boot, the Appalachian Trail, truly one of the great all-volunteer achievements in outdoor recreation, has, for the first time ever along any portion of its 2,186 mile length, been reduced to a commercial transaction. As you can see in the Park’s press release quoted in the opening paragraph, the public is viewed not as descendents, not as tax-paying owners, not even as visitors, but as “customers.” What’s next then from a Park Superintendent who, oblivious to his overflowing support system, projects – at best – half-empty thoughts?

  2. At our meeting with the Park hierarchy we specifically asked if funds from the backcountry tax would be designated for backcountry use. Supt. Ditmanson instantly replied “no”, and said they would go into the general fund. Have they changed their plan or is someone lying? Again.

  3. Jack:

    We’ve been fighting this war with the “ruling elite” at the Park Service (and our US Senators too boot) for almost 2 years now, and struggling with a proper description of our cause.
    This article describes the struggle perfectly.
    Thank you.

  4. In recent press releases NPS said the fee would go towards supporting extra back-country rangers. But now they say “100 percent of the revenue generated will be used to support the backcountry permit and reservation program”. Which is it? Seems like NPS changes their story at every opportunity.