Public comment came full force to discuss the proposed changes, which suggest a fee for overnight camping in the Park’s backcountry.
According to the Park’s proposal, a minimal fee is being evaluated to cover the costs of increasing ranger presence on the Park’s 800 miles of trails.
According to David Lippy, president of the Nantahala Hiking Club, the club participated in the public comment period and have addressed their concerns to the board.
“Members of the Nantahala Hiking Club have provided feedback to the park service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in regards to the proposed policy,” said Lippy. “Right now, we’re waiting to see how the park service responds to the comments submitted and are hopeful that the final policy will have adequate provisions for AT and other backcountry hikers.”
Park management solicited public comment over the internet during August and held two public meetings to obtain further input from the public. Residents of both North Carolina and Tennessee attended the meetings and submitted comments online.
“We received a lot of thoughtful consideration on how the proposal could work—people were pretty open minded about the situation,” said Park representative Nancy Gray.
The Park’s current policy requires that all individuals who plan to stay overnight in the backcountry obtain a permit and make a reservation either by phone or in person at the park’s Backcountry Information Center located in the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg. If they intend to stay in one of the park’s 15 shelters and most popular campsites, the current reservation requirements are in place to ensure that the number of campers on a given night do not exceed the carrying capacity of the site. The less sought-after sites in the park do not require that a reservation be filed, but users are still required to self-register at one of 15 permit stations when they arrive in the park.
The public was invited to comment on three differed proposal prices for overnight backpacking:
— $10 reservation fee + $5 per person (flat fee)
— $10 reservation fee + $2.25 per person per night
— $4 per person per night
According to the proposal, the fee was suggested to increase the services being offered to park visitors. The park cites that because of limited staffing attributed to the lack of funding, the Backcountry Information Center is only able to be open for three hours a day and is not readily available for phone reservations. The phone line is often busy or is unstaffed, which makes the reservation process excessively time-consuming and often frustrating for individuals attempting to comply with current reservation regulations. If backpackers are able to obtain a reservation, when they arrive, their campsites are often filled by individuals without permits. The difficult process leads to camp site capacities being frequently exceeded, which according to the park’s proposal, results in food storage violations, increased wildlife encounters and the need to close campsites to protect visitors and wildlife. The lack of appropriate staff in the backcountry severely limits the park’s ability to resolve these issues and increase visitor satisfaction.
In response to these concerns, managers are evaluating the implementation of a computerized reservation system which would take reservations both online and via a call center for all its backcountry sites 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in addition to evaluating the possibility of a camping fee. The reservations would be made by a contractor at www.recreation.gov which is the site currently used to book frontcountry campsites. The park would also expand the operations of the Backcountry Information Center to provide quality trip planning advice to help users develop a customized itinerary that best fits their available time and ability.
If a fee is approved, the park anticipates being able to hire additional park rangers to exclusively patrol the backcountry and improve compliance with park regulations and respond more quickly to visitor emergencies.
Gray explained that additional rangers would also be utilized to supplement what the park already has in regards to efforts to educate visitors on the park’s wildlife and history.
Lippy believed that addition rangers would not only provide the Park's visitors with crucial educational information, they would also help to fix the reservation problems. “Two new rangers would definitely help at the more popular shelters,” said Lippy. “It’s not unusual for the shelters to be over capacity due to people showing up who do not have reservations and during the AT thru hiker season when dozens of thru hikers are on the trail every day. Two spaces in each shelter are set aside for thru hikers, but there are always more than two thru hikers at the shelters.”
Reasons for opposition
According to Gray, several of the individuals who attended the public meetings were not opposed to paying a small fee to use the park for overnight backpacking, but instead sought assurance that if they paid a fee, it would be used the way it was proposed and not be allocated differently. “People had questions about how the money would be used,” said Gray. “After we explained that the monies collected through the fee would only be used how we outlined in the proposal, I think they were in favor of the fee.”
Gray explained that those in favor of the fee agreed the park is in dire need of extra personnel. “Having more rangers resonated with people—it could be effective in the large backcountry,” noted Gray.
Western Carolina University graduate and avid outdoorsman Derek Whaley believes that regardless of the amount of the fee or how it is appropriated, it puts a burden on those who stay in the Park. “Ninetyfive percent of times I have camped in the Park have been spur of the moment plans,” noted Whaley. “If you take away that excitement and accesibility, I am certain a lot of campers will find a different venue for their trips.” Whaley explained that throughout college he and friends made weekly trips to portions of the Park to camp including random weekend adventures hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Seventy-two miles of the Appalachian Trail stretch through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and there are 12 trail shelters along the A.T. in the park, all of which currently require reservations. The new fee policy might mean less flexibility for thru-hikers who are now granted some latitude in terms of bypassing shelters that are full.
As a thru hiker on the A.T., Lippy agrees it will help the majority of the Park’s visitors, but would cause problems for him and others on the A.T. “Making reservations 72 hours in advance is definitely an advantage for vacationing hikers who have a definitive schedule, but could be a problem for thru hikers who have a hard time predicting their schedule,” explained Lippy. “Weather and injuries can change a thru hikers progress quickly.”
The enormous appeal of the A.T. is the freedom and adventure it offers to visitors. Some hikers spend months at a time traveling on the trails, and although they have an initial plan mapped out, it is almost impossible to accurately anticipate one’s arrival at various shelters to the extent that would be needed if the new fee is adopted. Now, hikers are permitted to skip reservations if they feel they are able to make it to the next stop and are also able to make emergency stops if needed due to fatigue or weather conditions. Under the proposed fee, hikers would not be allowed that leeway and would have to abide by the strict guidelines of the reservation and fees.
“Our concerns are in how any change will affect AT hikers,” said Lippy. “During peak thru hiker season two or three dozen hikers may enter the park in one day, so how to handle this large influx within the reservation system provides a challenge. Also, thru hikers are often on a small budget, so there is concern about keeping the fees affordable for hikers that may take 7-10 days to travel thru the park.”
During the evaluation period, Park officials are looking at what the current proposal would mean to A.T visitors and according to Gray, plan to tweak the plans to be more accommodating of the “free spirit” of the hikers. “One of the things we are working on after going to the public to get their comments is the issue with A.T. users,” said Gray. “The current plan has leeway and flexibility for those hikers and I assume some flexibility would be put in the proposal.”
The public comment period brought to attention the concern that the current plan is restricting and forces visitors to make reservations 72 hours in advance. “People want to be spontaneous,” said Gray. “We are looking at the rules and regulations to try to allow that attitude to continue.”
“I hope they can figure something out to work with locals, especially the college students who frequently use the Park weekend after weekend,” said Whaley. “A lot of things can change is a 72 hour period, and keeping and even making reservations within those constraints seems frivolous.”
According to Gray, although public comment revealed that some people were in favor of the fee and some wanted more information, there was a great deal of comment that showed people are just 100 percent against any fee for any reason. Gray believes those who are in complete opposition of the fee are confusing the backpacking fee with an entrance fee. “It is important to understand that this is not an entrance fee, it is a user fee,” said Gray. Gray explained there are several user fees already in place in the park and the proposal is another user fee not an entrance fee.
Lippy believes that user fees are essential in the successful operation of the Park, and reflects the policies of other Parks in the country. “I think that any fee should be a use fee for the campsites used,” said Lippy. “This is not unreasonable and is consistent with use of developed campsites that RV’ers and tenters use.
A fee is also consistent with many other national parks along with forest service and state park facilities that thru hikers use along the AT. I don't believe that an entrance fee is appropriate, but a fee for use of facilities that must be maintained is not unreasonable depending on how it is implemented.”
When the park was initially acquired by the government, it was done so to ensure the preservation and protection of the park. It was also agreed that there would never be an entrance fee imposed on the public to visit the park. Gray noted that the only legislation or regulatory mandate was written in 1951 in a deed that was transferred to the park from state of Tennessee. The deed states that no toll or license will ever be imposed on the public highways that service the park. Gray said that to the best of the park’s knowledge, there are no regulations on user fees, and that the new proposal in no way violates the mandate established in 1951.
Park officials will spend the next several weeks analyzing submitted responses before a decision about the fee is made. According to Gray, a decision should come before the end of the year.