Editorial: Fee for the asking

New backcountry charges in national park not unreasonable
Feb. 18, 2013 @ 12:49 AM


People have long felt the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was a half-million acres of free space to enjoy. For the most part, they were right. There is no admission charged, and almost all of the activities you can be part of, from hikes to drives to Clingmans Dome to the waterfalls to the historic buildings, are free.

So when you go from freebies to fees, it is jarring, especially to those who have enjoyed the lack of charges for the things they like to do. Starting on Feb. 13, the park began charging for the use of backcountry campsites and shelters. The fees are hardly a jolt to the wallet. The cost is a $4 per person, per night for camping. The National Park Service says the fee will be used to “provide increased customer service for backcountry trip planning, reservations, permits and the backcountry experience.”

There has been an understandable backlash and protest against the new fees. When you have been enjoying the benefits of a national park without a fee, and suddenly you have to pay for the same thing, it is unsettling and disappointing. However, when taking a long view of this, the new fees seem hardly worth the fuss.

Unlike many national parks that can charge an admission fee, the Smokies cannot. Without the support of two organizations — Great Smoky Mountains Association and Friends of the Smokies — many things we take for granted wouldn’t be available, from improved facilities to education initiatives to enhanced hiking trails. A nominal fee to pay for the privilege of camping out in the backcountry is not outrageous.

Of course, if this new fee is the first of many the park will try to impose in the years to come, then we might rightly feel snookered. The backcountry fee could be the pebble that starts a chain of fees rolling down Mount LeConte, and then users of the park will be nickle-and-dimed into a rage.

There is no indication of this, but no fees will ever be added without lots of notice and a chance to oppose. Such opposition may do no good once the powers have decided what they’ll do, but at least there will be no surprises.

In the meantime, all you backcountry campers can just fork over the $4 and continue to enjoy our park. 

As reported last March, the National Park Service approved the park’s proposal to begin collecting fees for use of the backcountry campsites and shelters.

A park-specific reservation and permit system, to which users will have 24/7 access, will allow backcountry campers to make reservations and obtain permits online from anywhere Internet access is available.

Reservations may be made at any time up to 30 days in advance, allowing maximum flexibility for those making last minute plans.

Backcountry users will no longer be required to call the office to obtain reservations. Reservation and permit requests will also be accepted in person at the office, which is located at the Sugarlands Visitor Center.

Backcountry Office hours will be expanded with additional staff available to provide trip planning assistance both over the phone and in person. In addition, the park will expand its backcountry Ranger presence to better protect park resources through enforcement of food storage and other regulations and improved visitor education regarding Leave-No-Trace principles.