To the Editor:
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park plans to begin charging fees for backcountry camping and implement a new reservation and permitting process soon. For the past 80 years, backpacking and backcountry camping has been free in the Park. The proposed fee of $4 per person per night is set to be implemented by Park Service officials in early 2013. This fee goes against the spirit of the Park, which is one of the only national parks that does not charge an entrance fee, living up to its nickname “the people’s park.”
According to the National Park Service GSMNP website: “The reasons for free entry to the national park date back at least to the 1930s. The land that is today Great Smoky Mountains National Park was once privately owned. The states of Tennessee and North Carolina, as well as local communities, paid to construct Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441). When the state of Tennessee transferred ownership of Newfound Gap Road to the federal government, it stipulated that ‘no toll or license fee shall ever be imposed …’ to travel the road.”
Currently the only fee charged in the Park is for overnight camping at campgrounds. These have improvements such as roads, parking places, running water, flush toilets, garbage removal, firepits and some even have amenities for horses and riders. By contrast, backcountry camping is free. Backcountry sites offer bear cables to keep food out of the reach of bears. And out of approximately 113 backcountry campsites, 15 have shelters. Backcountry campers pack out all their own trash and often trash left by others they find along the trail.
The reason for the proposed fee is to cover the expense of managing the new reservation system, which will be necessary for implementing the new fee. The Park Service maintains that the new system would be more convenient and offer improved customer service, since it could be accessed online instead of calling the Park during normal business hours. However, the new system would require a three-day advance reservations for all campsites, while currently only the most popular backcountry sites require reservations. This would limit spontaneity and prohibit a change in plans once on the trail. Currently, backpackers avoiding the most popular campsites can drive to the trailhead, fill out a form, leave it in a dropbox and hit the trail. The fee will also cover the salaries of two additional backcountry rangers who will enforce the new system.
During the public comment period last year, the ratio of opposition to support of the proposed fee was 20 to 1. The Park Service initially tried to hide the public comments until a coalition of concerned hikers — Southern Forest Watch — filed a Freedom of Information Act Request. This group is currently trying to block the fee implementation through a lawsuit filed last month. Through this lawsuit, SFW hopes to maintain the original spirit of “the People’s Park” by keeping its access free to everyone who wants to enjoy the splendor of our public land.
For more information, and to join the network of concerned citizens, check out the group’s website: www.southernforestwatch.org.
Julie Van Leuven