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.