BACKCOUNTRY TAX FEEASCO the unedited and uncensored edition

Our original Backcountry Tax blog on the gosmokies site was moderated by some folks who held an opinion in favor of backcountry fees.  As a result the blog operator, Jigsha Desai made several threats to shut us down but we remained in operation because it was the most popular blog post in the history of that site.  We decided to take our conversation to a place where our message wouldn't be suppressed.  This blog is the result.

Therefore, it is our collective opinion that the Backcountry Fee Proposal put out By Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson and backcountry specialist Melissa Cobern is an egregious reach into the pockets of taxpaying citizens. 

A prominent study proves that access fees restrict use of National Park and forest lands. http://www.westernslopenofee.org/pdfuploads/Fee_Policy_White_Paper.pdf

The primary justification of the backcountry fee proposal made by park administration is campsite overcrowding which was proven false.  Click here for details and statistics to prove this fallacy for exactly what it is.  A federal fee grab.

Park management cozies up to the horse lobby but proposes a tax on  backpackers who are the best citizens of the Great Smoky Mountains.  In fact, Ditmanson recently signed off on a new horse concession smack dab in the middle of Cades Cove.

Recreation.gov is touted as a solution for reservation problems in the backcountry office but this Canadian based company is frought with problems.  72 hour reservations are required for the empty Smokies campsites you will be paying for the privilege of using.  Forget spontaneous weekend outings with the family.  Better pull out the wallet, you are going to pay just to talk to them.

This is not about money for any of us.  We love the Smokies and actually get out there and know the lies being spread by the Sugarlands swashbucklers.  It is a matter of deciding what type of National Park you want.  Should boy scout groups and single mothers and twenty somethings be discouraged from nature because of trumped up justifications for more rangers?  We think not.  Help us stop this double taxation now.  One fee will result in another.  We must make a stand.

(picture courtesy Kittzy Benzar, Western Slope No fee coalition)

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Comment by John Quillen on February 18, 2020 at 12:37pm

Thanks Dustin, that did the trick. Here is the article.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park hits record visitation. How many is too many?
Karen Chávez, KnoxvillePublished 5:01 a.m. ET Feb. 18, 2020 | Updated 6:01 a.m. ET Feb. 18, 2020

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Tobias Miller has had his nose to the ground at Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the past 18 years, building, fixing and maintaining the vast network of forest trails that lure people from around the world.

But sometimes, his nose gets too close. That’s when he spots human waste, sometimes hidden under a log, sometimes left out in the open along with a field of what he calls “white flowers,” aka toilet paper.

It’s one of the many impacts that Miller, a supervisory facilities operations specialist who manages the park’s roads and trails, has seen growing along with the record-breaking hordes of visitors.

The Smokies, a half-million acres of rugged, mountainous wilderness on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, had 12.5 million visitors in 2019, a nearly 10% increase from the 11.4 million people who visited in 2018.

More: What's so special about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

The news comes along with the release of President Donald Trump's proposed 2021 budget Feb. 10, which dramatically slashes the Department of Interior budget by 16%, and the National Park Service budget by nearly 18% from $3.4 billion to $2.8 billion, continuing a declining trend.

Behind the scenes: Take a look inside an old Smoky Mountains tunnel as it's being repaired

The upward trend in Smokies visitation has been continuing for at least the past decade. According to park records, there were 9.5 million visitors in 2010, and visitation has increased 30% since then.

That increase can be felt and seen in the traffic jams — sometimes exacerbated by bear or elk sightings — on popular roads like Cades Cove and Newfound Gap, on trails like Laurel Falls near Gatlinburg and Alum Cave heading to Mount LeConte, in campgrounds completely filled in summer, excessive trash, and trail erosion. As well as the unsanitary use of trail-sides as restrooms.

“It’s a challenge on the high-use trails. There was no original design at trailheads for bathroom facilities. Alum Cave (where a vault toilet was recently installed) is great, but in the wintertime when we don’t have staff, it’s not open,” Miller said.

He said, “in a perfect world,” people should be practicing Leave No Trace, a set of seven outdoor ethics principles that include digging a cathole to bury waste at least 200 feet from a water source, trail or campsite and carry toilet paper out in a Ziploc baggie. But most people in the frontcountry, as opposed to remote, backcountry trails, don’t hike with a trowel.

“It’s an occupational trail hazard for trail workers,” Miller said.

It is one of the many issues that park spokewoman Dana Soehn said the park will be trying to address as the crush of visitors continues.

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Monthly visitation records were set during January, March, April, May, June and December. In April, May and September, approximately 1 million people visited each month, which are typically slower times of year. Before 2015, park visitation had not exceeded 1 million visitors per month until the summer and fall months.

Preliminary numbers show that the Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs through Asheville, North Carolina, along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Smokies entrance in Cherokee, had 15 million visitors last year, a 2% increase.

It is neck and neck with Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, which had 15.2 million visitors, as the most visited unit of the National Park Service.

Why do people visit the Smokies?

Students from South Knoxville schools caught salamanders as part of a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. Knoxville

The Great Smokies attracted more visitors than any of the "big name" Western parks in 2019, more than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined.

It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is considered one of the most biodiverse places in the world, home to nearly 20,000 species of plants, fungi and wildlife, according to the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory.

People come to see everything from spring wildflowers, mushrooms and lichen, trout and other aquatic species, as well as the massive elk and black bears.

The Smokies have more than 800 miles of hiking trails, including some of the most rugged and highest-elevation sections of the Appalachian Trail, endless Smoky Mountain views, waterfalls and streams, campgrounds and picnic areas, as well as a peak into pre-park life with historic cabins, mills, barns and even cemeteries.

And, unlike Western national parks, entrance to the Smokies is free.

Soehn said the increase in visitors can attributed to many factors.

One is the opening in November 2018 of 16 more miles of the Foothills Parkway, a scenic drive from Walland to Wears Valley. She said the traffic on Foothills increased from nearly 624,000 visitors in 2017 to 1.5 million in 2019, a 60% increase.

Another interesting number was the increase of people in the park’s interior entrances, she said.

Visitation coming through the Gatlinburg and Townsend entrances was up 4%, while those entering through Oconaluftee in Cherokee, North Carolina, increased by 7%. Taken all together, they account for two-thirds of the park’s total visitation, Soehn said.

“We’ve been on a general trend of increasing visitation across the National Park Service, which is typically aligned with strong economies and good gas prices, if you look at the long history trend data,” she said. “We are still in that period of growth in the Smokies, and had relatively good weather last year and the camping stayed relatively stable across the park.

“We’re one of parks that is relatively easy to access due to our vast network of roads and trails, and we’re close to so many cities in the Eastern U.S.”

Soehn said the times of greatest congestion in the park are between 10 a.m.-4 p.m. in June and July and during foliage season in October. At those times, people can expect a drive on the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road to take between three and five hours.

Cades Cove, and area filled with overlooks, wayside exhibits and historic buildings, gets 2 million visitors a year.

Another area prone to clogging is Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet the highest peak in the Smokies and along the Appalachian Trail.

“It’s not uncommon during July and October for people to come at least a half-mile down the road to find parking on the road shoulder. The parking lot is generally filled by 10 a.m. during peak months,” Soehn said.

That leads to other trouble, including cars sliding down shoulder embankments and needing tow trucks, which causes more traffic backups.

But the iconic curved ramp leading to the summit lookout, the stunning views and the many trails that lead from the summit area are too good for people to pass up.

However, the high traffic volume might have also led to one of the Great Smokies’ most deadly years.

In 2019 there were 16 fatalities in the park, Soehn said. Nine of them were related to vehicle or motorcycle crashes. The only year with more deaths was 1986 with 17.

How many visitors is too many?
The ever-increasing visitation also coincides with the sharply declining budget and a shrinking ranger staff, which if Trump's budget is passed, could lead to further staff cuts, nearly 1,000 across the National Park Service.

Phil Francis, a former Smokies superintendent, who is now retired from the National Park Service and is chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, said the cuts would put extra strain on the already over-worked park staff.

“National parks are already suffering due to decreased annual appropriations in the past decade. Despite high visitation, staffing numbers continue to decline, placing our treasured natural and cultural resources at risk. Without appropriate levels of funding, it is impossible to effectively manage high visitation and ensure the protection of our parks," Francis said.

He called the proposed Department of Interior and National Park Service cuts "ill-informed, irresponsible," but said there is some good news.

"The president’s budget has not been approved by the Congress in many years. We’ll look to the Congress to proved the adequate funding."

The Smokies now has about 259 full-time equivalent positions — 200 year-round employees and about 140 seasonal employees, including those who work in visitor education, resource management, maintenance and law enforcement. This is down 19% over the past decade, when the park had 319 full-time equivalent positions.

So many people in the park is a strain on resources – the Smokies has about 100 search and rescues a year. It is one of the highest in the Southeast, often needing the assistance of hundreds of extra professional and volunteer personnel to assist in the dense, rugged vegetation.

A search and rescue in July 2019 for Kevin Lynch, a missing man with dementia, drew 200 personnel from five states, and they found the man safely four days later. A weeklong search in 2018 did not end well, when a mother of three from Ohio, Sue Clements, was found dead down an embankment near Clingmans Dome.

And the park can’t keep up with the so-called deferred maintenance or backlog of upkeep to the infrastructure, including its Depression-era roads and trails, buildings, wastewater systems and even replacing rangers’ badly outdated handheld radios.

Soehn said the current maintenance backlog is $236 million, of which 80% is associated with the road systems. The park has 238 miles of paved roads and 146 miles of gravel roads.

The remainder of the maintenance needs are varied, including tunnel repair in Cades Cove, repair to 18 buildings including park headquarters and historic structures like churches, mills, barns, cabins, and the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Wastewater and water treatment facilities repairs account for 4% of the backlog, Soehn said.

“It’s a challenge for us to be able to provide services to a growing number of visitors across the park. We benefit by having one of the largest volunteer cadres in the National Park Service,” she said.

Laurel Falls after an overnight snowfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tenn. on Monday, Dec. 2, 2019. 5 to 9 inches of snow were expected at elevations above 3,000 feet, and some of the highest peaks like Mount Le Conte were expecting a foot of snow. US Highway 441 and Newfound Gap Road from Gatlinburg, TN to Cherokee, NC, closed due to snow and ice, as well as Foothills Parkway East and West.Buy Photo
Laurel Falls after an overnight snowfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tenn. on Monday, Dec. 2, 2019. 5 to 9 inches of snow were expected at elevations above 3,000 feet, and some of the highest peaks like Mount Le Conte were expecting a foot of snow. US Highway 441 and Newfound Gap Road from Gatlinburg, TN to Cherokee, NC, closed due to snow and ice, as well as Foothills Parkway East and West. (Photo: Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel)

Last year the park had 3,800 people volunteer their time to provide information to visitors at high-traffic areas like Laurel Falls Trail and Abrams Falls. They give safety information to help prevent waterfall accidents; help at the main elk-viewing areas at Oconaluftee and Cataloochee; assist ranger staff by providing roadside services like flat tires; performing check-in and check-out services at campgrounds; science inventory work; and trash patrol.

The park also relies on funding from Friends of the Smokies, which donated $3 million to the Smokies last year for a wide range of projects. The long needs list includes $650,000 for upgrades to the emergency communication system, $7,500 for search and rescue and swiftwater rescue training, $70,000 to suppress the hemlock wooly adelgid infestation, $4,200 for bear management project, $19,800 for air quality and meteorological monitoring, $68,000 for Parks as Classrooms and $275,000 for the Trails Forever rehabilitation of park trails, among many others.

“We see (the record-high visitation) as an opportunity. The park is free to visit, but it is not free to maintain,” said Friends of the Smokies North Carolina Director Anna Zanetti.

“A $35 membership goes a long way to help protect the park. The park’s needs are going to be increasing as visitation increases,” she said.

Has the park reached its carrying capacity?
A little-known congressional mandate that all national park sites – there are 418 – create plans for carrying capacity, has been largely ignored.

The 1978 National Parks and Recreation Act required park superintendents to "identify visitor carrying capacities for managing public use. Superintendents will also identify ways to monitor for and address unacceptable impacts on park resources and visitor experiences."

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a federal watchdog group, studied the top 100 park units and found that only six parks have developed some sort of carrying capacity plan. The Smokies is not one of them.

“We do not currently have a carrying capacity plan," Smokies Superintendent Cassius Cash said by email. "However, we have recently made the commitment to embark in a broad, high level planning initiative (in 2020) that will be aimed at studying how to best manage high visitation levels that at times exceed the capacity of our infrastructure (roads, parking, restrooms, etc.) and staffing to support it without impacting natural and cultural resources, while providing a quality visitor experience.”

“The planning process is still being developed," Cash added, "but it will definitely rely heavily on public discussion and feedback over the next 12 to 18 months on alternatives for addressing the increasing trend in visitation. We feel this approach will meet the spirit of the statute passed by Congress.”

Visitors seat themselves on a path in the woods during the Elkmont Fireflies viewing event at Elkmont Campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee on Thursday, May 30, 2019. The "Photinus carolinus" firefly is the only species in America that can synchronize their light patterns as part of their annual mating ritual.
Buy Photo
Visitors seat themselves on a path in the woods during the Elkmont Fireflies viewing event at Elkmont Campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee on Thursday, May 30, 2019. The "Photinus carolinus" firefly is the only species in America that can synchronize their light patterns as part of their annual mating ritual. (Photo: Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel)

Jeff Ruch, Pacific Director for PEER, said Everglades in Florida has put limits on certain boats, Muir Woods National Monument in California has capped parking lots and the number of people on popular trails at certain times, and Glacier National Park in Montana is considering a reservation system to increase the use of shuttle vans and limit cars.

“The National Park Service has stopped planning. It’s sort of more boosterism than planning, the way you would for other institutions,” Ruch said.

Soehn said the park is planning to do community outreach in late May and June with facilitated meetings in local communities.

“We need to talk about potential solutions for congestion and management at those iconic locations. At the same time, we are going to try to collect better data at congested spots across the park, so we can better determine how many people are currently able to find a parking space and how many more people we might be able to accommodate if we manage it differently,” Soehn said. “We’re at step 1.”

The Smokies might be looking to other parks that have implemented carrying capacity plans or are trying different methods for managing crowds, like Zion National Park in Utah.

The remote, high-elevation park drew 4.5 million visitors last year, mostly to hike its unique slot canyons and sandstone cliffs. The park also made headlines for the backup of people sometimes waiting hours to get on a hiking trail.

Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh said the park’s visitation has increased 68% since 2010. Staff is now working on a visitor use plan to maximize visitor access while providing a high-quality visitor experience.

The intense usage is seen not just in long lines, he said, but in impacts to the soil and vegetation and facility maintenance.

The park has a $35 entrance fee for a passenger car for seven days, but visitors must ride a shuttle bus for the scenic drive in Zion Canyon, and they are trying out other ideas.

“We’re working with a number of partners – Utah Tourism, county governments and local universities to work on things like a smartphone app to help visitors gauge how busy places are in the park or how much parking is available at any give time. We’re not there yet but we’re trying to refine those.”

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Visitors seat themselves on a path in the woods during the Elkmont Fireflies viewing event at Elkmont Campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee on Thursday, May 30, 2019. The "Photinus carolinus" firefly is the only species in America that can synchronize their light patterns as part of their annual mating ritual.
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Comment by Dustin M on February 18, 2020 at 11:26am

I want to know why Parson Branch has been closed for years now. The NPS says it's hazardous trees, are they waiting for them to decompose? Funny how hazardous those trees got after UTV, Adventure Bike, and Jeep rentals in Townsend started taking off. Trees my arse !

P.S. To copy and paste you have to select 'paste as plain text' in the dialog box. It's the fourth button over in the upper left hand corner ..    not that corner, your civilian left.

Comment by Dustin M on February 18, 2020 at 10:23am

Slippery slope

Comment by Jo Neuspickel on February 18, 2020 at 9:42am

John that is true! We have been in a squirrel jam, a turkey jam, a crow jam and of course the deer and bear! We haven't been to the cove in over 2 years, well we did go last February but it wasn't crowded at all! We have changed our "go to" places to less traveled areas. We have a more enjoyable experience that way but have also seen a lot more history too!

Comment by John Quillen on February 18, 2020 at 9:37am

http://api.ning.com/files/ow6WJwgqPYWo4P-p9xKYlAUzpBwgyd1p*55sl5Lcd...

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Above is a link to the deed restriction, if anyone needs it for their arguments. Below is a screen shot of the opening of the KNS article.

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Comment by John Quillen on February 18, 2020 at 9:33am

Jo, that whole bus around the cove idea was almost implemented in the 90s, but was shut down due to a large uproar by locals in Sevier county who saw the loss of tourism revenue. Our friend Leland was on the front line of that fight. To be honest, I don't hike the backside of the cove anymore because of traffic and wouldn't mind a bus there if it eliminated all the moronory we have to encounter to get to Gregory's Ridge trail. Why people can't pull over when they see a squirrel is beyond me. I get serious road rage just being in that line of cars. It's like they want to make you watch them watch the squirrel/deer/bear instead of the animal.

Comment by Jo Neuspickel on February 18, 2020 at 9:26am

There are some people that are really pushing hard for a fee to enter Cades Cove and having a bus take people around the Cove! Some of them have even said that you can't get out of your car anywhere in the park! It really is crazy! We have had people look at us like we were doing something wrong by parking our car and walking into the woods!

Comment by Dustin M on February 18, 2020 at 9:08am

Jo Jackson +1 

I've also witnessed a lot of ignorant folks on social media cheering the fee on

Comment by Jo Neuspickel on February 18, 2020 at 9:06am

Thanks John! I tried to read it also but I am not a subscriber. I have noticed on Facebook there are a lot of people that say they are for charging a fee for the Smokys. There is always someone that comes back with the reason they can't charge a fee but people still say "that was then, this is now" and want a fee! I have come to the conclusion that people are just crazy!!!!

Comment by John Quillen on February 18, 2020 at 8:46am

I tried to copy and paste it here Dustin, but it won't let me. It's a long article which essentially says the Smokies is overloved, and visitors are defecating on trails and they have a deferred maintenance backlog and other parks charge entrance fees. Very long article. One big PR ad for an entrance fee, if you ask me.

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