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Opponents of backcountry use fees in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are wrong

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I can understand the frustration of having to pay for something that was once free. But normally that’s reserved for things like coffee refills or extra hot sauce on a taco.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the system’s busiest. It’s perpetually jammed with day-trippers detouring off of I-40 along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina—a very legitimate and enjoyable way to visit a national park. However, the deluge of traffic means that Rangers and park officials have to deploy more resources for costly road maintenance, traffic flow concerns, smog studies and the bevy of other problems that arise when too many Americans are in one place at the same time.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park does not charge an entrance fee. And lest we forget, the entire parks system is intrinsically under-funded. So there’s that.

Earlier this year, park officials introduced the idea of a fee for backcountry use similar to many of the system’s most populous natural wonders, like Zion and the Grand Canyon. The fees being proposed are nominal and are broken into a general reservation cost and a fee per person, or maybe a fee per night. Plus, sites could be reserved online (a tremendous convenience) and be accessed by a 24-hour call center. Yes, the park gets that busy.

The Knoxville News-Sentinel reports that 2010 estimates suggest 79,480 people slept under the park’s backcountry stars. That’s down from a peak of over 100,000 in 1996. It’s still a football stadium of people using trails, fire rings, bear boxes and hopefully (?) Leave No Trace principles. I’m not sure if that number also includes Appalachian Trail hikers, who would also have to pay to camp. (I assume that aspect of the fee plan will become the most troublesome for the park. You can read more about that on National Parks Traveler.com.)

A gentleman hiker from Tennessee, let’s call him John Quillen, because that’s his name, is not so happy about the proposal. He’s been raising a fuss since the plan’s inception.

I encourage Mr. Quillen to consider all the additional tasks the two backcountry Rangers proposed as part of the fee plan would handle besides pestering campers for their permit numbers, such as bear activity monitoring (one bruin per square mile), site maintenance and finding hikers bewildered by rhododendron, among many other duties above, beyond, across from, underneath and out of reach of their job description. These are things that would improve Quillen’s enjoyment of the park and, if it’s any consolation to him, they would still be significantly under-paid.

Mr. Quillen filed a Freedom of Information Act request to view the public comments made about the fee plan. Having once worked in a position responsible for accepting and managing citizen interest in a North Carolina public institution, I can attest firmly that more often than not, these documents do nothing to aid one’s stance against something. In short, there’s never a smoking gun. Area 51 won’t be uncovered in the paperwork, I assure you. Yet, people demand them, as is their right, with a “well, I’ll show you” demeanor and a reminder of who works for who. (Every time I heard the “I pay your salary” line in conjunction with the most haughty of these requests, I simply suggested that it would be best for them to hold off on paying me this month, because they won’t be getting their board meeting minutes or budget summaries anytime soon.)

I never complain about paying $15 to camp in the desolate landscapes of the Grand Canyon. And I wouldn’t complain about paying double that to sleep in the rich, ink-blackened forested tunnels of the Great Smokies. How could you?

The incredibly diverse woods and wildlife of the Smoky Mountains are tucked between towns like Cherokee, NC and Gatlinburg, TN, two of the most egregious testaments to tourist traps on the eastern seaboard. How could you put a price on the value of escaping for a weekend to their most inimical environments?

We’re lucky our national parks continue to exist as they do. The fight to keep them pure in their purpose and accesible for us to enjoy is waged every day. If I need to pay a few bucks to keep that fight in our corner, show me where to sign. I hope Mr. Quillan is willing to join me for a few rounds.

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