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.

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. 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 Mark Cooke on May 6, 2022 at 6:52pm

FYI, the comment period for the new GSMNP fees have been extended to Wednesday, May 11th.

If anyone was on the fence about letting them know how you feel, I encourage you to do so. It's like Erik says, its good to vent.

Here is what I had to say about it:

Submitted on 05/06/2022

Question 1: What parking tag duration would work best for you?

Let’s start out with putting items in perspective. This whole comment section and scheme is nothing more than a way to put money in the coffers. A proper title would be “Pay it Forward”. Please follow me as I will get to where this approach should have been administered.

It is my understanding that all National Parks have funding problems and this is not the first Superintendent to have to address what and how the Park is able to function with the hand that has been dealt.

This public comment section starts off guiding you to answer what has already been pre-decided. A very poor leadership approach if you truly want real “comments & feedback”.

Answer: None

Question 2: Please comment on what you consider to be an appropriated fee amount for each tag duration you listed in #1.

The age old NPS problem, where do we get more money? In an article published May 25th, 2016 in the Smoky Mountain News, Superintendent Cash was quoted “I believe that our best ideas in taking care of the Park will come from working together”

I would like to think he still honors that thought but the way this whole process has been rolled out it appears that the public has been given lip service again. Why would you not ask the public first what ideas they may have, instead of telling them what they are going to get. It is another roll-out that appears to be all but implemented, and this is just the prelude of what we are going to be handed.

Superintendents as a whole have not been transparent to the taxpayers and has led up to this Parks “Crossroads” dilemma. This is nothing new, it is all in the presentation. Superintendent Cash has not shared what he has tried to do with his boss and other Federal & State connections to get them to assist. He just plays on the public emotions about “sacrifices”, “visitor numbers”, “strain”, and “the place that gives”, etc.

This question cannot be properly entertained without the proper knowledge of all Park numbers. Don’t try to make me feel good about any pre-determined direction without the real facts about your cash flow.

Question 3: What specific recommendations would you like the park to consider regarding the parking tag program?

I would suggest to re-group the thinking process, tell the public why you have the real issues in funding, and why you cannot seem to shake up the politicians to assist you. Give them the numbers, non-emotional data, tell them about the phone calls, the pleading, how hard your staff has worked to remedy the Park’s issues. Throwing cash around may never work without a plan. Show specific plans and promise to stick with them. Then ask the public to give their ideas about what they think can be done. Then sit down with your staff both local and otherwise and see if the public provided insights that may be doable. This type of input is free, and it sure makes them feel like part of the solution.

Basing your premise on visitation numbers has many flaws. The counting methods, ability to keep counting equipment working, and the absurdity of the number of people in your typical car and bus count is ludicrous. Examples from the IRMA GSMNP data: (A) The number of buses at Sugarlands Visitor Center times 45 persons per bus. (B) If any of the lanes of the Federal Hwy Admin traffic counters 1,3,4,6,10,14,17 are operable for 14 days or more in a month, use the current monthly Average Daily Traffic (ADT) to ESTIMATE vehicle counts for the missing days and add it to the monthly daily traffic total. If any of the lanes are operative for less than 14 days in a month, use the appropriate value to Table 2 to ESTIMATE vehicle counts for the missing days and add it to the monthly daily traffic total. Did you catch that, it’s an estimate either way.

If that is not funny enough, Person Per Vehicle (PPV) for June – September is 2.8 and October – May is 2.5, while buses stay the same at 45/bus. It’s hard to believe but there are four pages of this counting method idiocy.

Let me give one more personal example of the absurdity of the GSMNP’s Counting and Reporting. So my wife and I go for a two week visit to the Park, (14 days). We choose to stay outside the park in a hotel/cabin. During this visit we choose to do short hikes each day. So every day we go into the Park in the morning, come back out of the Park and go back in later in the day to visit a pull-off, quite walkway, Visitor Center, etc. Now we have been counted 4 times, 2 entering & 2 exiting. There are just two of us but our totals will add up to 11.2 visitor counts. Now that will be reduced by 12% (counting rules) to eliminate duplicate reporting so now my wife and I have become a 9.856 visitor figure for that day. We should have been just a 2.8 (counting rules) but we have become a 9.856. Now that becomes a 7.056 person (visitor) error. If I do that for my remaining days on my visit what should have been 39.2 will become 98.784, when in fact there are just two of us and we are really just a count of 28 for 14 days. Are you laughing yet? The Park has a real mess here and calling numbers with bad data only makes for more bad analysis. To add more insult to this method is all of the counters that go inoperable (this information of inoperable is recorded in the IRMA stats) and then more guesstimates take over and further pollute your data. But the general public knows nothing about this insanity so life goes on. But the Tourism groups sure use this information having no clue to how its collected.

No one doubts that there is an increase in visitors but stats can help and hurt just depending on how one wants to use them.

Question 4: What feedback do you have on the backcountry fee changes?

Superintendent Cash said the Park has seen a 57% increase in visitation over the last 10 years. The backcountry figures in the last 10 years have only increased 19% but this Administration wants to increase the tax fees by 100%. The backcountry campers at end of year 2021 was documented by the NPS at 107,581. If you want a fairer analysis of the backcountry data it would be more representative to evaluate the increase in backcountry numbers from 2015 when the new permit system was in full swing to the end of 2021. That is 97,629 vs 107,581, a 10% increase.

So last year by the NPS visitor numbers it was stated to be 14,161,548 and 107,581 backcountry campers. The backpackers are 7/10ths of 1%  (0.0076) of the visitor totals but Superintendent Cash wants to raise the tax fee by 100%. Why on earth is the backpacking community being hammered on the doubling of the nightly fee?  I did not agree with the first tax in 2013 and now you want to double it? How do you justify the increase? Here is what was stated how the funds may be spent.  Maintenance of safety, navigational signage, amenities like fire rings, hitch racks, and cable systems for food storage, increased presence of backcountry rangers, backcountry planning tools, continued maintenance, and improvements of the Permit System.

So with a maintained backcountry camper rate at the 2021 figure of 107,581 that will generate an additional $430,324.00. To my knowledge it has not been routinely published how these funds are actually spent, no transparency. This is the same old song and dance we heard back in 2013 and how the first $4/night would take care of these stated issues, including a brand new computerized permit system.  Now you still don’t have enough money, and just for the record a fire ring is not an amenity, rocks serve the purpose just fine. The cable systems were paid for and installed by outside friends donating to the Park. You cannot take credit for that. It was also stated the backcountry staff removed more than 13,300 pounds of trash & gear from the backcountry since 2013. That appears to be an indicator of the class of backpackers the permit system is bringing in. There was no mention of the “Leave No Trace” method anywhere to add “education” into the system. From what I have personally experienced there are a few backpackers that feel with a tax fee they are entitled to leave items they do not want to carry out. Ten to twenty years ago these type of backpackers were few and far between, now it’s just part of the backcountry experience.

The majority of the public this campaign is emotionally geared to has no idea about all the volunteers and monies injected into this Park. I would bet that less than 1% of last years visitors including park employees even know about how the Richard Haiman Foundation and how it has given to this Park. Just one example, it provided the funding while the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club volunteers provided labor to completely remodel all 15 shelters in the Park.

The countless hours of human capital and millions of funds given to support the backcountry seems to go unnoticed at times but they are the true heroes of this Park. And then we hear this Park always needs more.

I think the whole tax fee structure is wrong and this Administration doubling the price is an abomination.

Question 5: What feedback do you have on the frontcountry fee changes?

A very similar bit of statistical methods are here as well, a very small part of the camping community being blistered with increased costs because Park Management cannot be creative enough to hold costs down. It is bad enough to see a 25% increase but the NPS sure knows how to really make it hurt for Cosby, Abrams Creek, Balsam Mountain, and Big Creek Campgrounds, a 71% increase. Absolutely a disgrace.

And that increased fee for Look Rock was a nice plug. That campground has been shut down for years and has hurt the “experience” for that end of the Park and just think of all the revenues the Park has missed.  A real “beloved place”, huh. That was a very deliberate closure for Blount County and anyone who has been around for a while knows exactly why.


So, whoever has read down to this point I appreciate you still being with me, and with that I am going to share some other approaches to raising money.

How about getting deeply involved in the 7 counties that surround the Park and promoting a real Cash Project. You could call it the “Cash Roll Up”. Here’s how it works, get as many of the local businesses as you can to ask their customer at the end of a transaction to Roll Up to the nearest dollar. 90% of those proceeds go to the GSMNP while 10% goes to the business owner for their handling of the donation. Cash flows, everybody is happy, and you don’t have to carry the extra coinage around it your pocket. If you are laughing about this let me share a story that is still going on doing this to provide donations to an organization.

There is a company named MidwayUSA in Missouri that asks it customers to do the round-up method to assist an organization of choice. It is totally optional and should be. Well, they have raised over $20 million doing this over the last 29 years and this company had sales in 2021 of only $185 million. I use the word “only” because it is not near the revenue engine that surrounds the GSMNP.

In 2017 Pigeon Forge had revenues of 1.3 billion. You take all 7 counties that surround the Park and do the math and now you are above 2 billion per year. If this raised only ½ of 1% that is 10 million per year. To incentivize get the State of TN and NC to offer a small tax break to sweeten the pot. According to the NPS visitation figures this can only increase.

Per the Park it Forward stats relating it says:  “the Park serves as the economic engine for the region. For every dollar of Federal Funding invested in the Smokies, $50 is returned to local economies”. So using the Smokies as the backdrop why not capture some of those revenues.

One other way to make millions per year is have the local NPS get into the fuel business. Put up NPS gas stations and electric charging stations everywhere so that all the profits go back into this Park. Wow, if you do the math this Park could also supply Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone with all their funding woes as well. Talk about leaving a legacy for changing the way a Park thinks.

How about asking about adding a box on the Federal 1040 form to donate to the NPS. Distribute the funds to all the parks.

If none of these seem doable then here are some other approaches.

How about increasing everything that is sold in the Park Visitor Center at the same rate that is being proposed. How about outsourcing all the mowing, maintenance, car services, just to name a few like the paving and garbage collection is done. How about selling all the NPS vehicles that sit around most of the time. During April 2022 I counted 12 vehicles (some very new and expensive) just sitting at the Twin Creeks area – what an overhead, not to mention the initial cost. What about having campground hosts being totally responsible for cleaning and supplying the bare bones needs, after all they are getting free camping – increase the number of hosts per camping area to minimize those costs back to the hosts. Quit trying to build your staff larger thinking you will get more Federal Funding while empire building. How about 20% reduction in salary for anyone making over $80k/year to be automatically put into the general fund. How about going to a ratio of 80% volunteers on the NPS staff.

Don’t forget to increase the same percentages to all your concessionaires, photography & wedding permits, and any others. That would only be fair and equitable.

How about being fiscally responsible and transparent. Show the public why the Fed’s and the State are not cooperating with the honest wishes for the Park. Discuss your efforts and failures, publish in the local news outlets.

 It is pretty amazing how past Superintendents ever got by, as I am sure they had similar disparities of funds with respect to the visitation numbers. Personally I detest a person who complains why they cannot get something done because their arsenal is not fully loaded, thank goodness our fighting Patriots never had that mindset. Fleecing people in what is supposed to be the Peoples Park is not good leadership, and history will continue to show who made a difference by truly working together “with the people”. People that really care for this Park are the ones you want to be close to, the passionate and resourceful variation.

I challenge you Superintendent Cash to change course, regroup and be the new NPS change on how to do the unprecedented.

Comment ID: 2220536 – 119753/3349

Comment by John Quillen on May 3, 2022 at 6:35pm

100% Erik.  I think "fee fatigue" has so many people throwing up their hands, they won't even bother to comment. But, we intend to FOIA the results, so all your thoughts will be critical when we present them to the media, who will probably find someone else to present talking points for the NPS, like Lamar did.  By the way, the NPS is sitting on multiple FOIA requests that Southern Forest Watch has submitted and they are well over deadline on responding to them, after trying to charge us an arm and a leg to get the information.  It's good to be kings and queens with no oversight.

Comment by Erik Gerhardt on May 3, 2022 at 6:19pm

Should anyone want to share their thoughts on the latest proposal for a 100% increase in the backpacker's tax, escalated frontcountry campground fees, and parking fees for every "designated" parking space in the park, the comment period is open through Saturday (5/7/22). Their clock is on Mountain Time, so the NPS will supposedly accept submissions up till 2 A.M. Sunday (5/8) morning. 

While the virtual meeting made it plainly evident that the NPS couldn't care less about public input, I would encourage folks to submit comments. They shouldn't get a free pass to proceed with their plans due to the public adopting a defeatist mentality. Besides, venting lowers blood pressure.

Comment by Andrew Sisson on April 26, 2022 at 6:25pm

Your comments were successfully submitted at
April 26, 2022 04:24 PM Mountain Time
Park: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Project: Proposed Smokies Fee Program Changes for 2023
Document: Proposed Smokies Fee Program Changes for 2023
Name: Andrew J Sisson
Address: 2537 Zachary Woods DR NW
City: Marietta
State: GA
Postal Code: 30064
Organization:AMAV Studio
Keep My
Topic Question 1: None. I do not agree with parking tags at all.
Comments: Topic Question 2: No fee is acceptable to me to park in the GSMNP.
Comments: Topic Question 3: No fee for parking. I am a veteran and have an annual
America the Beautiful pass which is free and I use that to park at my nearest park,
Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield. I would expect to use the same pass and
pay no fee.
Comments: Topic Question 4: No fees. I do NOT agree with the backcountry fee
increase. I also did NOT agree with the initial backcountry fee that was implemented
10 years ago.
Comments: Topic Question 5: I do NOT agree with additional increase in the
frontcountry fees.
Comments: I attended the on-line seminar held by the GSMNP and Superintendent
Cash in the middle of April. I posted many comments and expressed my opposition
to the additional fees and new fees. 10 years ago Superintendent Ditmanson and the
GSMNP asked for feedback and I gave it then in opposition. I personally know many
others who share my same view opposing these fees. Our National Parks are meant
for all the people to recreate in and enjoy. They are NOT a 'college campus' in
relation to park fees. They are not amusement parks, or resorts. I am displeased with
the rational the GSMNP is using to persuade the general public on justification for
higher fees and more fees. I seem to remember a stat that most of the visitors to the
GSMNP never get more than a few feet away from their vehicles while visiting this
park and possibly all of the National Parks. Why do these visitors get to visit this
park and pay nothing, while hard working Americans are being forced to pay high
fees to enjoy the park which we have also contributed to with our hard earned tax
Comment ID: 2197430-119753/2118

Comment by John Quillen on April 26, 2022 at 3:06pm

Public comment period is extended to May 1. Please make your voices known so we can FOIA the results.

Comment by John Quillen on April 18, 2022 at 9:49am

Also, no concession for locals, unless you are a Cherokee, then they get a "pass'.

Comment by Erik Gerhardt on April 17, 2022 at 12:50am

The NPS certainly has utilized COVID to – even more than usual – do as it pleases. That so-called meeting was nothing but a PR stunt. If you’ve read the press releases and the park website FAQ you already knew how they'd answer every “question” they addressed. Absolutely no new insight nor clarification on the assertions/comparisons being made by park administrators.

When experience teaches that public comments will have no bearing on the NPS decision, it’s especially frustrating and disgraceful that unelected bureaucrats can levy taxes without having to face the public that pays their salaries.

There should be multiple, in-person meetings as there were for the North Shore Road issue.  

Comment by John Quillen on April 14, 2022 at 10:26am

Thieves is right.  This afternoon they are doing a virtual meeting if anyone wants to log on and comment. We have a person, Seth, who is going on to make his concerns know, provided they give him an opportunity. Here is a link for those of you who may want to join.

Comment by Mike Thorpe on April 11, 2022 at 5:03pm

Bunch of thieves, so glad you guys continue to expose and resist their efforts 

Comment by Jo Neuspickel on April 8, 2022 at 7:49am

From what I have read they will not be enforcing this! They also know that it will NOT help with the parking problems that already exist! To me it is just another way to get money from those of us that visit the park! I have read sooo many people say that they are good with this fee and they know it will help with the parking problems through out the park. How is it going to help if they are not going to enforce it??????? Smoke and mirrors to me!! 

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