Should you have to pay to camp in a national park’s backcountry?
A federal court in Tennessee is now considering this question after a group of disgruntled park lovers filed suit to force Great Smoky Mountains National Park to drop its new backcountry fee.
The complaint, filed by single-issue non-profit Southern Forest Watch, alleges that the park’s goal is “to control and limit use of the backcountry areas of the Smoky Mountains,” in violation of the Park Service’s original mandate.
The park recently began charging $4 per person per night for use of its backcountry, with a $20 cap per permit. It also implemented a new online reservation system, which the fee helps pay for.
Although the Smokies is the most visited in the national park system, logging 9.4 million visitors in 2010, the park does not charge an entrance fee because an agreement with Tennessee prohibits the practice.
By contrast, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone—the next most visited national parks in descending order—all charge entrance fees of $10 or more per individual to help maintain the roads, keep open campgrounds, clean up trash, provide backcountry rescue and a number of other services.
The park’s administrators justify the new fee on their website by saying it will support a new 24/7 online reservation system through Recreation.gov, and pay for rangers assigned specifically to the backcountry.
Although planning for the new fee predates the current sequestration crisis, Great Smoky Mountains took a $944,000 hit on March 1, leading to the closure of several campgrounds and delayed road openings.