Monday, January 28, 2013

Some thoughts on the New Backcountry Camping Fees in the Smokies

While visiting the ATC website a few days ago, I found out about Great Smoky Mountains National Park's plan to charge a daily fee for backcountry camping. Considering how many times I've visited the park, I'm a bit embarrassed this was the first time I had heard of this situation. It's $4/day/person, will be starting on February 13, and will be used to fund an online reservation system and pay for backcountry improvements.

Naturally, this hasn't been enacted without controversy*. The best argument those who oppose it have is based upon the history of the park. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, unlike most of the other large western parks, came from the federal government purchasing (some would argue seizing) privately owned land in the 1920s and 30s. Although a lot of it was just forest land that was being cleared by lumber companies, many of the landowners were small farming, some of which had been on the land for over a century. Part of the multitude of agreements that created the park was that the NPS could not charge an entrance fee or toll to enter the park. This was primarily because Newfound Gap Road (US 441) was a major thoroughfare across the Appalachians in the days before Interstate 40. It's a unique situation for a park as large as GSMNP, compared to other parks such as Yosemite and Yellowstone, which charge $20 - $25 entrance fees. As such, many people enjoy the fact that they've been able to go hit the backcountry in the Smokies, and enjoy it without the usual fees and such they might encounter at state parks, national forests, or the parks out west.

As for me, although I'd rather not pay anything than something, I'm not against the fees. Provided they are used to improve the reservation process and the backcountry experience, particularly along the A.T., then it is a worthwhile fee. The per night fee is not too high, and it costs $20 for a seven day permit, which is even less. It appears the only change that will affect thru-hikers is that they'll have to pay the $20 fee, and still follow the usual AT in the GSMNP rules. I doubt this is just a first step towards charging general admission fees. For one thing, it would violate Tennessee state law. For another, the outrage would be swift and terrible. Like it or not, the car drivers are much more crucial to the area's economy than thru-hikers or even just your typical backcountry campers. Frontcountry campsites already charge fees, so it doesn't seem out of order to charge for backcountry sites.

It has always been a tenuous battle between accessibility and experience in our parks. Ideally, we'd be able to hike, camp, and see the sites in any of our national parks without paying fees. The scenery would be untrammeled, the wildlife ecologically balanced and free from horrible invasive species, and there wouldn't be any trash covered campsites or trampled and degraded trails. Unfortunately, we'll never reach that ideal. However, we can always aspire to that, and to do that we have to be willing to pay the price. Perhaps this fee is unjustified, a cash grab by an overreaching government. Perhaps it's an absolutely necessary fee to give much needed help to a beloved, yet beleaguered, national treasure. I've shared my thoughts, how about yours?

*Perhaps this site is making a good argument against the fee. I can't really tell, because it is one of the worst designs out there. Normally, if you want someone to support your cause, the best way to do is NOT put white text, particularly an awful script font, on a colored background.

No comments :

Post a Comment