Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Backpackers unite – against the GSMNP Backcountry office proposal!

the Backcountry Office for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park has created a proposal that would result in substantial fees to backpackers that wish to camp in the Smokies. they claim that this will improve service, but from proposal review it will simply result in an astronomical increase in Backcountry Office income so they can do, basically, nothing different except provide 'backpacking planning assistance' for roughly 2 dozen people that come in from other states with their dogs in arm and have no intent in learning about the Smokies or abiding by the rules. all at a substantial cost to true hikers and with a substantial decrease in their access! grr......

below is my email to GSMNP – feel free to customize my talking points to reflect your own experience. if you care about hiking, PLEASE take the time to send something in to!

I am writing to express strong opposition to the Backcountry Office & Permit System Restructuring Proposal on behalf of myself and my fiance. As avid hikers and regular backpackers in the GSMNP, we are quite familiar with the various types of park users and the most common violations of park rules. We believe this proposal exaggerates minor challenges with the current system into 'problems', will not result in substantive improvements in GSMNP management or user experience, and is in violation of the state of Tennessee stipulations at time of park founding.

Per the memo released by the Backcountry office, this proposal is designed to 1) improve backcountry travel planning assistance, 2) improve ranger presence to decrease park violations like dogs on trails and overcamping, and 3) improve safety by increasing the ease of automated communication with park users. I will address each of these putative needs in series, along with our concerns.

1) Improve backcountry travel planning assistance
From our experience, most backpackers that utilize the park do so without any interest in 'planning assistance' from the Backcountry office. They have taken the time to learn about the park using widely available resources and personal experience. It is neither reasonable nor fair to subsidize travel planning for a subset of GSMNP users through admission fees on this larger body of park users.

2) Increase ranger presence to decrease park violations like dogs on trails and overcamping
The majority of violations of park rules are committed by a small subset of tourists. These uninformed and disrespectful individuals commonly bring dogs into the park, take them on trails, often off leash, and leave trails strewn with litter. These individuals, however, rarely come into the backcountry. In years of backpacking within the park, the only major violations I have encountered are cases of campsite decimation at popular horse campsites (discussed further below). With regard to typical and frequent violations, individuals generally are confined to a select group of overhiked trails (Alum Gap for example). Very few rangers are needed to provide presence at these widely used and shorter trails. The astronomical fees generated by this proposal are hardly appropriate to manage these issues.
With regard to decreasing 'overcamping' and the impact on local vegetation and wildlife, we anticipate that this proposal would actually worsen the (currently minimal) problem. Shelters already require reservation, as do the most frequently used sites. If additional areas of overcamping are identified, they should be addressed on a case-by-case basis and potentially additional sites should be added in hard to reach areas. We anticipate enactment of this proposal will result in decreased compliance with permit requirements in general, increase non-permitted camping at established campsites, and increase 'pirate camping' to avoid potential ticketing due to any realized increase in ranger presence in the backcountry. We feel that this is particularly true because of ill will generated by the radical change in availability of campsites to users and the unfair leverage of costs related to a small subset of users onto individuals that often are younger and thus much lower in income, yet they are simultaneously more informed about and committed to the park. Additionally, anyone who uses the trails is aware that horses do most of the damage. Backpackers have very little impact, yet this proposal would leverage the costs of policing horse users, and repairing their damage, on hikers. If an access fee is to be charged, a fee per horse should be added and the cost for hikers decreased proportionally to their impact.

3) Improve safety by increasing the ease of automated communication with park users
In spite of our the remarkable way technology has permeated almost every corner of society, backpackers often travel great distances to come to GSMNP. Computers and phones are often left behind to prevent theft or rendered useless by 'No Service' zones. This means that users are quite unlikely to receive automated communications in a timely fashion and will still be dependent on trail signs for updates. Additionally, because all campsites would be reservation only, hikers so unfortunate as to have a campsite be closed would then be forced to either cancel plans, camp in violation at established sites, or pirate camp.
Additionally, GSMNP Backcountry officials currently can update all park users on trail situations by listing trail and campsite closures on their website and at trailheads. The website is quite frequently out of date, as are trail notices. Adding additional layers of administration and interfaces to update information can only be anticipated to worsen this process. Additionally, because an online reservation is tied to an individual email address – regardless of whether there is 1 or 8 people in the party – this would shift the ability to update users on campsite conditions from all individuals to 1 person per party.

Finally, from the NPS website:
When the state of Tennessee transferred ownership of Newfound Gap Road to the federal government in 1936, it stipulated that “no toll or license fee shall ever be imposed…” to travel the road... Action by the Tennessee legislature would be required to lift this deed restriction if Great Smoky Mountains National Park ever wished to charge an entrance fee.

Because many areas of the park can't be reached without overnight stays, the proposed 'access fee' is in effect an entrance fee or toll, which violates the conditions under which GSMNP was founded. Changing this mandate would require action by the Tennessee legislature, which seems unlikely (and ill-fated) because this proposal particularly impacts Tennessee residents who regularly use the park and adjust their plans on short notice based on weather factors. Legal challenge can be anticipated on these grounds should the Backcountry office push forward with this proposal.

My fiance and I urge you to reconsider this unfortunate proposal. We strongly oppose it and will be reaching out to our state and local representatives. We also will be sharing our opposition with non-profit groups whose projects, like the Trails Forever program, we fund to sustain and enhance GSMNP.

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