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 Erik Gerhardt on June 2, 2022 at 12:16pm

Nice job, John.

It's difficult when there are so many misrepresentations (to be kind) widely circulated and commonly reinforced to even know where to begin when limited to a mere 600 words for a rebuttal. 

Did KNS indicate when it would appear in print?

Comment by John Quillen on May 31, 2022 at 10:46am

I'm grateful to Joel Christopher at KNS for printing the SFW position on this parking fee and increase in backcountry camping fee. Of course, the usual GSMA and Sugarlands trolls are out in force in the comments there. But, the KNS is THE only E. TN publication to even allow dissent.

Comment by John Quillen on May 11, 2022 at 8:11pm

If Mark's rated an "Amen", then yours, Erik, warrants a passing of the plate. Those words are golden and I will be borrowing liberally from them over the next months. Particularly important is the Maunday Thursday sham meeting. Like many others, I was in church. Which is where some of these lying, Ca$h grubbing bureacrats are unable to enter for fear of lightning strikes. Having sat across from Ditmanson and watching him lie to us back in 2012, I find Ca$h much more noxious. He is too busy to answer emails or follow the law on FOIA requests, which he has been sitting on from us for well over the deadlines. We even got a letter from the NPS lawyer encouraging us to file an appeal so they can drag their asses even more. Why are they doing this? Because they can. In Myer's words, "They are Kings, not bound by the law". What they do not want to answer is why Scott Mountain trail remains closed. We know the answer, they are just hesitant to put it on paper and fork over the private email conversations between them and the abutting land owners. It's another Blackberry Farm v 2.0.

I appreciate the due diligence you put into your comments. It is not wasted here.

Comment by Erik Gerhardt on May 11, 2022 at 8:09pm

Question 1:

What parking tag duration (e.g., daily, weekly, annual, or other) would work best for you?

None of them work. The NPS proposal is illegal. Under FLREA parking fees are permissible – with accompanying features such as a restroom, picnic table, information board, etc., -- as a Standard Amenity Fee, but the NPS doesn't have authority to charge for such a basic Standard Amenity: that is reserved for other federal bureaus.

There is no mention of parking under the NPS' authority to charge Expanded Amenity Fees, and rightly so, as a simple parking space falls far short of the examples given for all federal agencies wishing to charge for an Expanded Amenity. Logically, these expanded amenities include frontcountry campgrounds, elaborate boat launches, boat rentals, dump stations, special tours, and the like.


Question 2:

Please comment on what you consider to be an appropriate fee amount for each tag duration you listed in question #1.

No fee is appropriate. Again, anyone with a lick of common sense and/or an ounce of integrity, upon reviewing FLREA (and legislative history pertaining to NPS fees), would surely come to the conclusion that parking fees as proposed in the Great Smokies (or any other national park) are impermissible. Just because some NPS unit somewhere (according to the 4/14/22 virtual program put on by GSM Administration on these issues) has utilized Expanded Amenity to charge for parking, doesn’t mean it isn’t misapplied and entirely illegal in that/those instance(s). Across the board, it appears the NPS pays as much attention to legality as it does public comments.

And so while the NPS plays fast and loose with FLREA, there are, presumably, limits on how far its self-righteousness extends. From the NPS Manual on Fees:

“There are limited circumstances where it is appropriate for a park to charge a parking fee as an expanded amenity fee. An example might be a park in an urban area that has metered or dispersed parking spaces. In this situation, local commuters could purchase a recreation pass and occupy parking spaces needed by park visitors. Another example is a contract for a concession-operated parking area that does not require the concessioner to honor passes.”

Obviously, GSMNP couldn’t be farther removed from these examples/scenarios.

Moreover, the proposed parking fees at GSM are also illegal because they provide no benefit to the park owner/visitor (FLREA (b)(1)); NPS personnel readily admit there will be no limitation on visitors to the park and that, as a result, parking availability cannot be guaranteed. The park owner/visitor gets nothing in return for his forfeited funds; it’s simply a money grab by the Administration at GSM. (Meanwhile, LeConte Lodge gets reserved spaces!)

Furthermore the proposed parking fee for every parking space in the park also violates FLREA (d)(4) by limiting the use of recreation opportunities only to areas designated for collection of “recreation fees” (defined as entrance, standard amenity recreation, expanded amenity recreation, or special recreation permit fees). For this reason, arguably among others, your backcountry fee is also illegal.


Question 3:

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

What I’d like, since park owners are told this isn’t an entrance fee and that assurances of “forever free access” given during the formative years of the park are fictitious, is a public statement on all media platforms/outlets as to whether or not at any time Park Administration has propositioned politicians (both U.S. and state (TN/NC)) to lift the original land grant restriction and/or the stipulation in the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965. I firmly believe this specific recommendation would greatly help inform public sentiment on whether or not to support not only the predetermined parking tag program but the Administration in general at GSM.

Going on the assumption that these fees are a done deal, I would also specifically recommend that you pay special attention to (b)(2) under 6802 Recreation fee authority, as well as (c):

“(b)(2) The Secretary shall consider the aggregate effect of recreation fees on recreation users and recreation service providers.”

“(c) The Secretary shall establish the minimum number of recreation fees and shall avoid the collection of multiple or layered recreation fees for similar uses, activities, or programs.”

Both your parking fee and your backcountry fee are illegal. There’s no reason to compound them.

A final specific recommendation I’d like GSM Administration to consider is being forthright with the American public – both in the matters above and in what follows. I quote from your FAQ regarding these fees (could just as easily paste Superintendent Cash’s rehearsed answers from the 4/14/22 virtual meeting):

“Question –

Will there be a discount for interagency pass holders?”

“Answer –

America the Beautiful passes explicitly apply to entrance fees. The passes don’t entitle pass holders to expanded amenity fee discounts for things like camping and parking, but parks may propose including them if feasible.”


Now let’s consult RM-22A, the NPS’ own reference manual for all things fee related:

“For visitors with passes, parking fees have proved to be particularly confusing. For this reason, since the purpose of parking is to gain access to the park’s primary resource, the park must honor entrance passes in lieu of the parking fee.”

It’s difficult to believe that in preparing for this roll out, someone didn’t consult the NPS Fee Manual.


Question 4:

What feedback do you have on the backcountry fee changes?

A 100 percent increase?!!

I watched the virtual meeting and found the information given on backcountry fees a complete misrepresentation. Dana Soehn detailed how even with the 100% increase in the backpackers’ tax GSM would charge less than select other parks. She compared GSM to Yosemite with a graph showing the Smokies at $8 for a single night and Yosemite at $15. However, Yosemite doesn’t charge per night on advanced reservations for its Wilderness Permits (per trip instead), so one could spend a week in the Yosemite Wilderness for that same $15 – and additional people in the camping group would be $5 each. Meanwhile GSM would cost $40 for EACH PERSON. Also conveniently omitted by Soehn was the opportunity to secure a walk-up Wilderness Permit at NO CHARGE in Yosemite – just as God intended.

Yellowstone, Guadalupe Mountains, and Everglades were other parks that were graphically shown to cost more for 1 person spending 1 night in the backcountry. However, all of those parks are less expensive than GSM’s proposal once you reach 4 nights (a legitimate backpacking trip), and it should be pointed out that at Wilderness Campsites in the Everglades there are docks, camping platforms above the water, and porta potties.

Bryce Canyon was another comparison that hardly was on the up and up. First off, Bryce (as well as Olympic NP and others) doesn’t charge backcountry camping fees for those under 16. And, like Yosemite’s reservation system, the fee is per trip, not per night – and 2 people can share a permit. With 1 person (16 and up) on a permit, you’re coming out ahead at Bryce, as compared to GSM, on your second night out. Two people out for 14 nights is still that same $15 that Soehn represented as being nearly double the cost in the Smokies. And yet 14 nights in GSM for 2 people would run $160.

Arches NP was presented as being comparable to GSM at $7, but that’s a per trip fee that’s good for up to 7 nights. So for 7 nights Arches is $7, where again, GSM is proposing $40 for that type of outing.

Glacier NP was another that at $7 per person, per night was promoted as being in line with GSM’s proposal. Soehn never mentioned that half the year backcountry permits are FREE at Glacier.

And then there’s Olympic NP where those under 16 aren’t charged and an annual Wilderness Pass is available for $45. For a regular backpacker the Olympic Wilderness Pass pays off on his/her sixth night out. Strangely, former GSM Superintendent Dale Ditmanson claimed such passes in the Smokies weren’t permissible – surely he knew of Olympic and other parks that have offered such passes for years – while repeatedly jumping from one disproven justification to another when imposing the backcountry fee in 2013.

Again, reading the FAQ and listening to the identical information on the virtual meeting of 4/14/22 the described backcountry office presence and assistance existed before the initiation of a backpackers’ tax in 2013. There is no additional benefit; GSM Administration took the vast majority of backcountry campsites – which were little-used, unrationed, and self-registration – and required payment in order to pack one’s essentials into the woods and sleep on the ground. Just as bad is the situation with the Appalachian Trail. The park maintains nothing along the A.T. – NOTHING. Great Smoky Mountain Hiking Club maintains the trail, the shelters, the privies, and the bear cables. The Richard Haiman Foundation funded the remodeling of ALL the shelters in the park. Friends of the Smokies finances the A.T. Ridgerunner program. So why should the park charge A.T. hikers, backpacking one of the greatest volunteer accomplishments – not just in its creation, but its annual upkeep – in American history, when it makes no investment. Again, there’s no benefit provided by the agency that’s imposing the fee. As for GSM Administration’s weak, unaccountable laundry list of items to address with its additional backpacker tax monies . . . No more signage in the backcountry! This mindset perfectly exemplifies Sugarlands’ approach to Wilderness, and it’s reflected in the fact that not a single acre under its “management” is protected as Wilderness.

Like many other parks, I believe the backcountry fees at GSM are in violation of FLREA. There is no benefit commensurate with the fees, and there are no opportunities to avoid areas designated for collection of recreation fees. As a former official volunteer who logged over 2,000 hours in the backcountry and who was proud to contribute to a no-fee park, I’m vehemently opposed to the existence of these fees, much less GSM Administration’s intention to increase them 100%.

I would recommend making the bold move of removing the fees. The backcountry constitutes a miniscule portion of the park’s budget, yet should be prioritized as a fundamental responsibility – which, of course, it hasn’t. The complete immersion of backpacking fosters the greatest connection to our country (in the sense that Aldo Leopold described). It is experience, but it is mindset as well. As it currently stands, before honking horns, barking dogs, and screaming masses can compromise the start of a wilderness outing, the NPS has already ruined any premise or pretense of wilderness by extorting from the rightful citizen owners a tax to enter overnight into their so-called wild lands.

Short of removing the fees entirely, GSM Administration should abandon charges on the A.T. where it makes no investment; return the lightly used majority of backcountry campsites to the former self-registration system; allow minors (with an adult) to camp at all backcountry sites free of charge; allow for free walk-up permits to any available backcountry campsites beginning the day before a trip; for “rationed sites” reserved in advance, implement a sliding scale for non-commercial group permits where individual charges give way to a group charge (2 persons equal 1 ½ individual fees, 3 persons equal 2 individual fees, 4 or more equal 3 individual fees); cap nightly fees at 3 nights, after which at no additional cost a standard trip fee is met; make available an annual GSM backcountry pass (say $45 like Olympic NP); and do not compound a fee on backpackers with an additional parking charge. Again from FLREA:

“(b)(2) The Secretary shall consider the aggregate effect of recreation fees on recreation users and recreation service providers.”

“(c) The Secretary shall establish the minimum number of recreation fees and shall avoid the collection of multiple or layered recreation fees for similar uses, activities, or programs.”


Question 5:

What feedback do you have on the frontcountry fee changes?

I can pitch a tent in a cramped backyard anywhere in sprawling suburbia USA and be farther removed from the neighbors than in practically any NPS frontcountry campground. They were horribly designed originally, and like so many things, because they’re commonplace, most people long ago quit questioning their aesthetic or their value.

At least with some campgrounds there is the redeeming quality of having only a few sites, some even walk-in sites. It’s the folks that prefer those less populated campgrounds that are being hit the hardest by the forthcoming fee increases. That GSM Administration will hike fees at Abrams Creek, Balsam Mountain, and Big Creek by 71.5% is outrageous. Cosby Campground and its Group Site are also seeing that ridiculous escalation.

How crazy is it that with the upcoming bump in fees, 6 people and 4 horses can occupy a drive-in site at a Horse Camp for $18 LESS than Park Administration is going to charge 6 backpackers who load the few provisions they require on their back and strike off under their own power to commune with, and mimic, thrifty nature.

You can’t make this stuff up.



This all dates back to at least 2013. Just a year earlier $75 million in stimulus money fell from the sky and into the lap of Park Administration at GSM. Never was there any mention to the media of a need for a new backcountry reservation system or a deficiency in the backcountry office. Propped up by lies, it seemed obvious the end goal was more far reaching than just a backpackers’ tax. And now with an additional $1.3 BILLION flowing annually to the NPS as a result of the Great American Outdoors Act, the taxpayers are told again that the NPS is barely hanging on. They’ve even come up with a new way to calculate deferred maintenance, and as result, it’s jumped $9 billion since 2019 (now $21.8 billion for the entirety of the NPS). Government 101 (with a lot more zeroes on the end!). 

Superintendent Cash at the end of the 4/14/22 virtual meeting lamented not having the concession and entrance fee monies that he says so greatly benefit Yosemite and Yellowstone, adding, “we feel that our visitors deserve just as much of a service as a visitor at Yosemite or Yellowstone . . .”

I wanted to ask him – but, of course, I couldn’t – if he had ever been to either of those parks. Had we actually had the opportunity to converse and he stated that he had, in fact, visited them, I would then have liked to ask Superintendent Cash to look directly in the camera – not down at his notes, not off to the side – and share with the viewing public whether he honestly found services to be better in those parks than in the Smokies.

I don’t know about the Superintendent, but in my experience GSM isn’t lacking by comparison to those 2 parks. That’s both a credit to the boots-on-the-ground staff at GSM and an indictment of Yosemite and Yellowstone – over paved, over developed and, no matter how the money flows, over budget.  According to a recent article on GSM has a total of $236 million in deferred maintenance (some 80% related to roads). Despite their coveted fee revenue, Yosemite’s number is said to be $555 million (more than 2.3 times that of GSM) and Yellowstone’s $640 million (more than 2.7 times that of GSM).  

It’s never enough.

And yet with such a volatile issue as initiating the equivalent of an entrance fee, GSM Administration didn’t see fit to hold even a single in-person meeting. Consider that for the Northshore Road proposals in the early 2000s multiple meetings took place in both North Carolina and Tennessee. So why not now for a fee program the likes of which many, if not the vast majority of locals never thought would be allowed?

The virtual meeting was terribly lacking, an embarrassment for the NPS. At the top of the hour Superintendent Cash stated, “One of the things that my staff and I decided that if this proposal goes forward, we want to make sure that we get it right. And we feel that talking with you and having the discussions and really laying the proposals out to you ensures that we do that.”  

Obviously, there was no true “discussion.” For the next hour (5 PM EDT on Maundy Thursday: how’s that for an inconvenient, inconsiderate time?) the various fee implementations and increases were superficially covered, while assertions and comparisons that couldn’t be challenged by a mute viewing audience were passed off as irrefutable facts. The question and answer session was nothing more than a reading of the FAQ on the GSM website.   

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.

Seeing as how GSM Administration is pushing park visitor numbers and backcountry user numbers to justify its additional fees, that certainly would have opened the door to questions by anyone who has looked in detail at the guesstimated or manufactured IRMA data for GSMNP or anyone perplexed by the use of a paltry 12% reduction to account for repeated comings and goings by park visitors. 

Comparing 2011 to 2021, 44% of the increased traffic, according to the park’s own numbers, is attributable to Foothills Parkway West – a ribbon of road detached from the contiguous bulk of the park – and Cherokee Orchard Road which loops a short distance into the park out of Gatlinburg.

Last year the Foothills Parkway, both east and west, and Cherokee Orchard Road accounted for more than 22% of the autos entering the park – or more than 3 million visitors/commuters.

 GSM Administration claims that it can’t currently place concrete barriers, install a guard rail, or simply use “Boyd’s boulders” to prevent excessive roadside parking in the few places where that issue has proven consistently problematic. Such a response is reminiscent of their tactics 10 years ago when they purposefully cut the hours of those who staffed the backcountry office and refused all other offers for help. The problem – even manufactured – could, and can, only be cured with a fee.

But just how concerned GSM Administration is regarding “resource” damage should be taken with a grain of salt when, with its blessing, LeConte Lodge mars what should be – what once was – one of the truly magnificent mountains in the East with its nightly load of more than 70 persons. Had LeConte Lodge never existed and its construction were proposed today, conservationists from far and wide would be galvanized in opposition. But instead, desensitized and unalarmed, the NPS looks the other way and longs for more and bigger concession fees.

A final point to mention related to these assorted fees (mainly parking and backcountry) is the potential impact on those who have little to no disposable income. That would have been me as a broke college student years ago. Without the Smokies being fee-free I’m not sure I would have ever gotten into backpacking. Certainly, I wouldn’t have developed obsessions for the peaks, streams, flora, fauna, and human history of the Smokies. I would have never served 7 plus years as a backcountry volunteer in both the Adopt-A-Trail and Adopt-A-Campsite program. I believe my life would have been notably different without all of those solo backpacking excursions. And so I find it easy to say the Smokies enriched my life. But it’s also easy to recall my stewardship in those mountains which continues to this day, though only unofficially and only on far less satisfying day hikes. Knowing the means and methods employed in 2013 to usher in fees, I’ll never pay to sleep on the ground in the backcountry of the Smokies – for me that would be participating in sacrilege. But through the years it’s been a win-win for both me and the Great Smokies. I don’t want anyone to miss out on the opportunity, especially not due to cost (there’s no such thing as negligible), to forge the type of enduring passionate connection with the majesty of Creation which backpacking, more than any pursuit, nurtures.

You can’t just say, “we’ve set aside 7 days in a calendar year for those who might feel the pinch of fees; plan to visit the park then.”

There exists a real chance to inspire disciples, but too often, resorting to marketing slogans like “Park It Forward” and failing to hold any legitimate public meetings, the NPS opts for customers instead. Does the NPS not realize it’s actually incentivizing people to not leave their cars? It blatantly flies in the face of the NPS purpose.

Whether from NPS personnel or those doing their bidding, to compare what is supposed to be a nature preserve to a college campus, the atrocity that is Gatlinburg, Biltmore Estate, or a Disney theme park, is all the evidence needed to see how misguided this agency has become. A government that charges admission for the right of its citizens to experience wild nature is woefully lost and, in every sense, thoroughly impoverished.

Comment by Erik Gerhardt on May 7, 2022 at 1:04am

And the congregation said . . . AMEN!

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.

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