I recently wrote in the Swain County newspaper about a singularly misguided proposal by Great Smoky Mountains National Park leadership to transfer their archives and artifacts to Townsend, Tenn. A Swain County site makes more sense, and full marks to county commissioners for becoming actively involved in this issue.
Beyond that, any resident in Swain County who gives a fig for the future or cares about our rich role in the Park’s past should speak out as well. The comment period remains open, and I’d strongly encourage readers to make their feelings known to the Park (www.nps.gov/grsm) and Swain native Rep. Heath Shuler (www.shuler.house.gov).
Incidentally, although I have asked specific questions and offered comments on the issue to Park officials, the only response I have had came in a testy conversation with a spokesman, Bob Miller. When I pointed out, repeatedly, inconsistencies between the comments period cited in his press release and what appeared on the Park’s web site (the latter was changed multiple times, with one comment period closing almost as soon as it opened), he said: “We’ll change it on the web site.”
What I could not get him to understand was that saying one thing in a printed press release and subsequently changing the rules of the game was confusing, and in my view disingenuous.
As if that situation wasn’t vexatious enough, close on the heels of the archives/artifacts proposal comes another which is, if anything, more convoluted and ill-conceived. A recent press release proposes changes in regulations governing backcountry camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Park leadership tells us that backcountry “site capacities are frequently exceeded.” In addition, according to their statement, “once backpackers obtain their reservations and arrive at their campsite, they often find the area filled by people without permits.” In the same release they also complain of lack of staff to patrol the backcountry.
Staff issues are matters for Park management, but they are missing in action in the backcountry. Personally I haven’t seen a ranger in the backcountry for decades, and I’ve only been checked while fishing once in the last quarter century.
The release raises questions. “How, other than hearsay, do officials know capacities are exceeded?” “If there are significant problems, why aren’t they addressing the situation with patrols?” “Does hard statistical evidence support changes?” “If problems exist to such a significant degree, hasn’t the Park been guilty of neglect?”
No doubt Park answers will plead budgetary constraints and more urgent frontcountry needs. There is validity to both, notwithstanding troubling examples of Park employee “do nothingness” alongside stellar work by others.
Or to view matters another way, if plans involve demands on Park staff, let’s handle matters proportionally. Look at the ceaseless “circlers” in Cades Cove, asphalt-bound flocks of buzzards filling the air with exhaust fumes.
Closer to home, what about the unending tube brigade parading up Deep Creek? They degrade banks between trail and stream; leave a noxious, never-ending legacy of litter in their wake; and channel the creek with habitat harming “engineering” projects.
Yet it seems such folks, like those breaking dog walking regulations, picking flowers, and much more, are studiously ignored while Park officials focus their fiscal laser beam on the tiny minority — probably less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all Park visitors — who camp in the backcountry. If they are serious about making folks pay as they go or want a fair distribution of what a friend has nicely styled “ranger impact,” let’s bring some balance to the user equation.
Perhaps more to the point, it seems logical to believe that active backcountry patrolling, along with meaningful fines for angling violations, ginseng poaching, illegal camping, and the like, would accomplish two things. It would provide money to justify the manhours involved and would dramatically curtail such activities.
Interestingly, another recent Park press release says that there has been a steady decline in Park visitation over the past several years. Logically, if that is the case, backcountry usage should also be down. The most recent statistics I could find, from a detailed 2008 study out of the University of Tennessee, bear that out and make Park statements seem ludicrous. According to the study, with the notable exception of the shelters along the Appalachian Trail, campsite usage is anything but heavy.
Take Deep Creek as one example. None of the seven streamside campsites had heavy usage. Only Poke Patch and Bumgardner Branch, the most easily reached of the lot, averaged more than one camper a night for the year (375 and 526 campers, respectively).
Indeed, if you look at campsites from Cataloochee to Twentymile Creek, only two other than Appalachian Trail shelters — Lost Cove on Eagle Creek and Proctor on Hazel Creek — totaled more than a thousand camper nights. That scarcely sounds like overcrowding, when most campsites are suitable for anywhere from 8 to 20 campers per night. Some accommodate appreciably larger numbers.
Additional evidence suggesting misrepresentation of the backcountry situation comes from conversations with hikers and campers as well as my personal observations. My brother, who has hiked thousands of Park miles in recent years, says he has encountered precisely one ranger more than a mile from a trailhead. He also notes, in sharp contradiction to what Park management would have us believe, that he seldom sees backpackers and that most of the campsites he walks by are empty or sparsely populated.
Even easily accessible sites seldom have more than a couple of tents except on weekends and perhaps during peak months (May and October). Take the storied Bryson Place, for example, where you might think crowded conditions often exist. Not so. The 2008 study showed 158 camper nights for the entire year.
A key part of the proposal is that Park management wants to charge a user fee. Putting aside all the considerations addressed above for a moment, I would simply remind Park officials, from Superintendent Dale Ditmanson down, that charging a backcountry fee would break a solemn pledge made at the Park’s founding. Namely, that there would be no access fees for the Smokies. Also, I suspect this is a “foot in the door” kind of thing that could lead to other user and even entrance fees.
As the poet of the Yukon, Robert Service, once wrote, “A promise made is a debt unpaid.” Sadly, Park officials have often broken promises, and here we seem to have a case of where a promise made bids fair to turn into a situation where the Park must be paid. That’s how I see this proposal – as a money grab.
If I believed that there was overcrowding, if I believed that the current reservation system didn’t work, if I believed the fees collected would be used exclusively for backcountry-related matters such as maintenance and a meaningful ranger presence, and if I believed it would stop here, I would tolerate a modest fee. Alas, I think the likelihood of such monies being used exclusively for their proclaimed purposes about the same as thistle seeds being unaffected by dust devils dancing across fields in August.
Even as I urge readers to be heard, I’ll close by confessing cynicism. Past experience suggests that these comment periods and informational sessions are often mere façades, not serious factors in ultimate decisions. Nonetheless, I think anyone who cares should make their voice heard. Sufficient, strident opposition just might have an impact.
(Jim Casada is a writer, an editor and a retired professor from Bryson City. His most recent book is Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: An Insiders Guide to a Pursuit of Passion.)
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