Backcountry Tax: Charging Backpackers to Camp is Against the Spirit of the Smokies

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park plans to charge backpackers $4 per person per night to camp in the backcountry, starting next year. Local hikers have fought this idea since it was first suggested, and this month they sent a letter to Superintendent Dale Ditmanson stating their intent to challenge the decision in court.

A great charm of the Smokies is that you can visit for free, as per the agreement that established the park in the 1930s. When deeding the road through Newfound Gap to the federal government, Tennessee legislators stipulated no toll could ever be charged for entrance.

This gives the Smokies an egalitarian, democratic feel, like it really is our land and not the holding of a bureaucracy. When most people hear about the proposed backcountry tax, they immediately take offense. “Isn’t that illegal? They can’t do that!”

Park Service bureaucrats think they can. Initially the reasoning was to pay for fees charged by a company that does online reservations for national parks. Rather than phoning park offices during business hours, campers could go online at their convenience to reserve a spot. This improved customer service would be worth the fee, management thought.

Backpackers did not buy it. For starters, the existing system is actually more convenient in some ways. Only the most popular backcountry sites require reservations, shelters along the Appalachian Trail, for example. Backpackers who avoid those sites can drive to a trailhead, fill out a form, drop it in a lockbox and be on their way.

The online system would require reservations three days in advance at every campsite. No longer could you shift plans to avoid an approaching storm or adjust your route to aim for peak fall colors or spring wildflowers. If a treefall or bear activity forced closure of a trail or campsite, you would have to either head home or cross your fingers on not encountering a ranger.

So the Park Service changed their story. They said the fees would be used to hire additional backcountry rangers for better security and trail and campsite maintenance. Acknowledging the shortcomings of the online reservation system, they said they would create better software.

They held a public comment period last year and got almost 20 requests to reject the fee for every comment in support. Most support came from concessionaires who felt their business would be more competitive if it were no longer possible to camp for free. After attempting to keep these results secret, NPS released the comments when non-profit watchdog Southern Forest Watch issued a formal FOIA request.

The same group now plans to sue GSMNP to stop the backcountry tax. In addition to legal arguments, the group says private interests have too much sway with park management. They point to the rerouting of Ace Gap Trail away from the home of former Gov. Don Sundquist. Townsend residents say there was actually a land swap between Sundquist and the park, and Southern Forest Watch says they will prove this during discovery.

They have also documented incursions into the park by Blackberry Farms, a private resort once owned in part by Sen. Lamar Alexander, who sold his interest in 1989. Their private trail system links to park trails, and at one junction they have erected signs on federal land. ATVs from Blackberry Farms have also been photographed at backcountry campsite #2. Although ATVs are not allowed in the park, the drivers said they were helping rangers search for a lost hiker.

Of all the people who use the park, backcountry campers should be management’s best friends. They are often first to alert rangers to problems. They pack out garbage left by more casual users. They do not damage trails like horses do, and they volunteer for trail and campsite work sessions. People willing to strap all they need onto their back are simply a cut above average, more friendly and thoughtful.

If a backcountry tax is implemented, it will degrade both the experience and the spirit of the Smokies.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this column said Sen. Lamar Alexander still owned part of Blackberry Farms; he actually sold his interest in the resort in 1989, according to his Senate office.

© 2012 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 10

smokieshiker writes:

Kudos to the first print journalist in Knoxville to cover this story. It's amazing that national media has picked this up and Rikki is the only print guy with the nuts to cover it. We've got some bad seeds in the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent's office. They've lied cheated and stolen to push this money grubbing tax. We gave the federal government this land and now they are lying to charge us for use of it. Lamar's fingerprints are all over this thing and now his blackberry enterprise will have to curtail their clandestine activities on this half million acres they consider their own private playground. Kicking backpackers out of the park would suit blackberry. Great work Metro Pulse. Maybe the news sentinel will come around.

Myers writes:

In their own words:
"There will be no increase in overall annual revenue as the result of this proposed increase as this will simply be a new fee to cover the recreation.gov service fees"
So, when they say the funds generated from this backpacker tax can be used to improve services, etc, you can know they are being disingenuous.
Thanks Metropulse!

TJ writes:

What a mess the GSMNP appears to be in. For the sake of us backpackers I hope this tax, er fee, gets thrown out. Ditmanson may get thrown out first if any of the other shenanigans proves true. This is going to be interesting to follow.

malabarista writes:

excellent article. The point about this proposal making backpacking more difficult by limiting your ability to change your schedule is a great one. But there are a lot of other reasons this is a bad idea:

1) there is no way it will generate as much money as they claim. There is much more money to be made ticketing the idiots who stop in the middle of the Cades Cove loop road and block traffic.

2) this will pose an unfair burden on youth groups that want to camp in the backcountry, like scouts.

3) this whole idea is completely unworkable for AT hikers. GSMNP will be the only part of the 2000 mile AT that you have to pay for, and if you're a thru-hiker, you don't know when and where you'll stay in advance. You only guess.

Hopefully the fee opponents methods don't get in the way of their message that this is a bad idea.

Myers writes:

in response to malabarista:

excellent article. The point about this proposal making backpacking more difficult by limiting your ability to change your schedule is a great one. But there are a lot of other reasons this is a bad idea:

1) there is no way it will generate as much money as they claim. There is much more money to be made ticketing the idiots who stop in the middle of the Cades Cove loop road and block traffic.

2) this will pose an unfair burden on youth groups that want to camp in the backcountry, like scouts.

3) this whole idea is completely unworkable for AT hikers. GSMNP will be the only part of the 2000 mile AT that you have to pay for, and if you're a thru-hiker, you don't know when and where you'll stay in advance. You only guess.

Hopefully the fee opponents methods don't get in the way of their message that this is a bad idea.

Mala.

What methods?

If you have a better idea, do tell.

smokieshiker writes:

It seems to me as if the methods taken to this point have certainly achieved the goal of public awareness. The Smokies Managers did a great job of suppressing this fee implementation so I too, am curious, malabarista, what are you talking about.
A couple that spends two nights in the backcountry will end up spending almost as much as someone who pulls into a car campground with sewer service, toilets etc. All the National Park service has to do is collect fees from the taxpayers.
This land was given to the NPS and a bunch of bureaucrats who have no roots here, in collusion with guide services that also stand to profit from this ponzi scheme are burdening the future generations of park users. That 4 dollar fee will be 40$ in short time. It is a foot in the door for fees. They already started charging to see fireflies after they got the go ahead for this backcountry tax.

Rikki writes:

I don't think anyone has criminal intentions, as some commenters seem to suggest. It's certainly understandable that chronically underfunded GSMNP would seek new revenue sources. I think they picked a bad option and have been quite bumbling in pursuing it, but none of that is criminal.

I would be fine with charging a fee for horses since they do such much damage to trails, especially when the ground is saturated. Footing is far less stable on trails where horses are allowed than on footpaths.

I would also be fine with charging people to drive the Cades Cove loop, especially if the option of free buses were available. I would even consider manned toll booths in a strategic spot or two where people could either make donation or say, "Sorry, not today" and drive on.

There are better options for boosting Park revenues.

Myers writes:

in response to Rikki:

I don't think anyone has criminal intentions, as some commenters seem to suggest. It's certainly understandable that chronically underfunded GSMNP would seek new revenue sources. I think they picked a bad option and have been quite bumbling in pursuing it, but none of that is criminal.

I would be fine with charging a fee for horses since they do such much damage to trails, especially when the ground is saturated. Footing is far less stable on trails where horses are allowed than on footpaths.

I would also be fine with charging people to drive the Cades Cove loop, especially if the option of free buses were available. I would even consider manned toll booths in a strategic spot or two where people could either make donation or say, "Sorry, not today" and drive on.

There are better options for boosting Park revenues.

Thanks Rikki.

I think you see eye to eye with Southern Forest Watch.

The point is this tax will not, cannot, and was never intended to be a "new source of revenue".

Their public pronouncements were a ruse.

It is totally about control. Period.

Rikki writes:

'This new source of revenue we want to extract from backpackers? It's not really a new source of revenue, we've just never done it before.'

I have no problem with GSMNP finding new revenue sources. But I would like the federal government to fully fund national parks so rangers and administrators do not have to turn on the people who most value the land and its culture and the duties and authority of NPS. I would also like them to be honest about what they are doing.

The NPS funding crisis is not a product of backcountry expenses. It is a product of sloganeering politicians in D.C., and backpackers, scout troops and even visitors from Kentucky should not be asked to foot the bill.

Create a new tax bracket at $1M/yr. Fat cats at that level could sneeze up $280k without asking for a tissue. People who use backcountry sites that are never full, but would share and make room and make friends if they were, they should not be asked to do what giddy millionaires with historically low tax rates could do with barely a burp of discomfort.

smokieshiker writes:

My intention with the illegal insinuation is that the NPS violated their own rule making policies and are violating the federal lands recreation enhancement act. They cheated in that they didn't follow proper protocols via the public participation guidelines outlined by the DOI. Some may call it "fudging". They will, in my opinion only, be stealing if they charge backpackers to the exclusion of all other high impact user groups, as Rikki mentioned. I don't think they have criminal intent, just manipulative playing with the numbers to shove this tax down our throats. They are unelected bureaucrats who are forcing us to pay to use federal land and have absolutely no oversight by the general public or congress. The abuses by the NPS are rampant and well documented. Look into the Case of the Indian Trader or Ranger Danno scandals. You will see a bureau that has taken a lot of good will and operates with impunity.
The wealthy, such as equestrians and the blackberry farm crowd, don't backpack. They just tromp through this public land on the backs of us common taxpayers.

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