GATLINBURG -Great Smoky Mountains Superintendent Dale A. Ditmanson has announced that the Park’s proposal to begin collecting for the use of the Park’s backcountry campsites and shelters has been approved by the National Park Service. This approval clears the way for the Park to move forward with developing an on line system to collect fees beginning in 2013 for reserving and use of the Park’s backcountry by overnight hikers and equestrians.
The Park developed the plan in order to improve its trip-planning and reservation services to users and to 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.
The proposal was open for public comment last summer and some 230 written comments and two petitions were received during the comment period. According to Ditmanson, the public comments provided a great deal of constructive input on the concerns Park backcountry users had about the fee plan. “Many commenters were under the misconception that the Smokies is legally prohibited from charging user fees. The Park is prohibited from charging a toll or license fee from motorists crossing Park roads, by language in a 1951 deed under which the ownership of some park roads was transferred from the State of Tennessee to the National Park Service. But, we have long been authorized to collect user fees for specific activities such as front country camping, weddings, and commercial filming.”
“There was also a significant amount of concern about our initial plan to utilize the same computerized federal reservation system, www.recreation.gov that virtually all national parks use to reserve drive-in sites in front country campgrounds. We acknowledge that some of the policies, such as the lead time for making reservations and cancellations, are not a good fit for more spontaneous backcountry users. We will not use that system unless we are convinced that it can provide the level of service we want to offer, and are exploring the alternative of developing a stand-alone software program tailored specifically to the Smokies. The system developed will also need to be practicable for Appalachian Trail thru hikers whose itineraries evolve from day-to-day.”
“Concern was also raised about the range of fee amounts that were under consideration and that the resulting revenues may be diverted to other programs. We have decided to focus our plans around the lowest and simplest of the fees under study: $4 per night per person. Most importantly, 100% of the revenue from this program will be invested in improving back-country services through extended hours of the back-country office, trip-planning assistance, on-line reservations, and protection of park resources through increased ranger staff. ”
Now that the proposal has been approved, Park managers plan to provide periodic updates as plans for the reservation system evolve.