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