Jack Igelman/Carolina Public Press
A new user fee began in February, and a Great Smoky Mountain National Park spokesperson said the transition has been smooth. Meanwhile, a court case challenging the fee’s legality continues, and four county commissions in NC and Tennessee have stated opposition to the change. Jack Igelman/Carolina Public Press

In addition to an extra pair of socks, a sleeping bag and bug spray, backcountry users in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park must now add another item to their checklist: money to pay a fee.

The user fee went into effect on Feb. 13, and, according to Great Smoky spokeswoman Dana Soehn, the transition has been smooth. The $4 per-night, per-person fee will impact roughly 30,000 backcountry users who collectively spend an estimated 75,000 nights in backcountry sites every year, according to the park.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised that so many people know about the fee,” Soehn said. “Our main goal this year is to educate people about the new procedure. So far the word is out there, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Backcountry users can access an online reservation website to identify and reserve available backcountry campsites or by phoning the park’s backcountry information office based at the park’s Sugarlands Visitor Center.  According to park officials, the revenue generated by the user fee will be used to fund the reservation system and six staff members that include two seasonal backcountry rangers and four full-time backcountry information officers.

The park has spread the word about the fee at park visitor centers, through press releases, on their website and through social media with various partners, such as the Friends of the Smokies and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. While the ATC opposed the implementation of the fee, Soehn said Appalachian Trail thru hikers have been overwhelmingly compliant with the new system.

John Quillen, the founder of Southern Forest Watch, an organization that is opposed to the fee, said he has received feedback from people having difficulty navigating the online reservation site.

“Some folks had no idea there was a backcountry fee,” he said. “The message is not as widespread as the park would lead you to believe.”

Soehn said that the park has not experienced any major problems with its software system, although the National Park Service’s primary server has experienced some downtime, which impacted access to the reservation system.

“What I hear from rangers (about the reservation system and fee) in the field is overwhelmingly positive. I’m guessing there has to be some negative feedback, but it is certainly the minority,” Soehn said, adding that the park plans to review responses to the fee in November.

Quillen’s organization has continued to mount a campaign to overturn the fee, an effort that has been echoed by some lawmakers in North Carolina and in Tennessee. Thus far, three county commissions in Tennessee — in Knox, Blount and Bradley counties — and Swain County, in Western North Carolina, have passed resolutions condemning the fee. Quillen also said that he anticipates that the Tennessee House of Representatives a will consider whether to oppose the fee when it convenes in January, 2014.

An informal group of backpackers from Ohio and Kentucky have also initiated an online petition calling on the Smokies to repeal the fee. It has garnered about 120 signatures so far.

“Public comment received by the National Park Service was 95 percent in opposition to the fee,” the online petition says. “We no longer have confidence that Superintendent Dale Ditmanson can effectively and efficiently manage the day to day operations of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the best interest of the citizens who use this most beloved of national parks.”

In addition, Southern Forest Watch filed a lawsuit on March 2 in U.S. District Court in Knoxville, Tenn., alleging that the park’s backcountry fee is unlawful. The U.S. Attorney General’s office, which represents the National Park Service and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, was granted a 60-day extension to organize a defense. The extension expires July 5, at which point the Attorney General’s office will file a response or a motion to dismiss the complaint.

Soehn said that the park will not comment about the lawsuit throughout the legal process.

Read more

New Smokies fee prompts modern echo of historic culture clash

Smokies enacts $4 fee amid tangle of politics, history, criticism

Group files suit to stop Smokies backcountry fee

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the name of Southern Forest Watch.

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Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jack@igelman.com.

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  1. As a person who loves The Great Smokies, I would like to add that the park, unlike almost every other national park, charges no entrance fee at all. Yellowstone, Yosemite, and others charge a fee just to enter the park. I believe those parks are able to use those funds to offset the enormous costs to maintain the park and its facilities. According to the Smokies Charter, no fee can every be charged to enter the park, which eliminates a source of potential revenue. I know from firsthand experience the funding issues the rangers face every year, regardless of whose in office. And every year the budget grows a little tighter.

    A $4 fee is a small price to pay as that money would go towards trail and backcountry site maintenance. It is not an ‘entrance fee’ as you do not require it for a day hike. The Smokies are being, in the words of many, ‘loved to death’. Millions of visitors come every year to enjoy the mountains. The impact of such multitudes requires considerable resources to ensure the roads, trails, and campsites will be there today, next year, and decades hence. Shouldn’t we be willing to put up a small amount to help maintain this jewel of the southeast? Or are our local citizens too short-sited to understand the bigger picture?

  2. Lee,
    According to the public comments and general concensus on the issue, you are definitely in the minority. The rest of us believe that we shouldn’t be double taxed for land our forbears ceded to the federal government on the promise this very thing would not happen. If you are so happy about paying the NPS more money, then why don’t you donate some or volunteer for the NPS like the rest?

  3. Family of 5 to sleep one night on the ground, filter thier water, hang food in the tree and have no other ammenties cost $20. A different family of 5-8, with a RV, access to bath houses, picnic tables, trash pick up, hot water, fresh water, and a nearby store selling ice cream, cost $20. Not its not fair. Its a tax on a selected set of park users, the stewards of the backcounty and no one else. The ones who are in favor of the fee are not ones who are affected by it. In my experiences in the backcountry the people I encounter are or were unaware of the new fee, were and are furstrated with the online process, and have negative accounts with the whole process. However the park admins, who want to paint a pretty pic will tell you the fee is met with postive ffeedback because it is what they are paid to do. But one doesn’t have to beleive everything the park, of the government tells you. If the tax to sleep on a 5×6 piece of ground is allowed, then it opens the bag for a tax to day hike, horseback ride, drive the Cades Cove loop, and enve take pictures. Just stand up and let the park know that this isn’t right, even if they want you to believe it is. Find out the facts at http://www.southernforestwatch.org.

  4. Typical National Park Service policy: put on blinders and earphones, make up a few lies and half truths, ram through whatever it is you want opposition or no, then create the illusion there is positive feedback to try to get people to accept and conform. Not buying it. Id like to know where all this “positive feedback” is coming from because I don’t know a single person who has anything positive to say about the whole thing. In fact 18 to 1 against in the public comment period is proof enough that they cant pull the wool over my eyes.

  5. If the campers/Hikers can afford the tents, sleeping bags, bug spray, and all the other stuff that they need for the backwoods, they can afford $4.00 more per night…if not, then they should be home anyways.

    I’m one of those backwoods campers/hikers, and I think it’s a good thing.

    Lee Goins

  6. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking process used to implement the $4 fee on backcountry camping we believe was severely flawed because it allowed the National Park Service to make those changes even though they misrepresented their proposal and then selectively ignored the majority of public comments (>800 comments against the backcountry fee and 45 comments for the backcountry fee either emailed to the Park or mailed through the postal service. This information was obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request by Southern Forest Watch from the Park Service). The Park Service basically just went through the required legal steps to advertise the change and solicit public input. They held two early evening meetings during the same week (Tuesday and Thursday) and did not document any of the verbal comments made to Park personnel by those attending the meetings. The Park Service was never obligated to accept any of our advice. Once they announced their decision, we, the public, apparently had no legal recourse.

    We do wish Southern Forest Watch the best of luck with their lawsuit challenging this fee.

    Seeing the blatant disregard for public opinion by the NPS, we feel that what we really need is a complete revamping of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking process. We’d like to see that process replaced with one that is more transparent and accountable to the public and gives us some path to appeal any rulemaking that appears to be based upon misrepresentations and/or bias against all logic–not to mention actions that are clearly at odds with the majority of public opinions.

    Al Smith and Janice Henderson