When the National Park Service decided to implement the first wholesale user fee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it needed some semblance of justification. So in 2011 it claimed that an overcrowded backcountry was the problem, and a user fee was the obvious solution. This was news to us frequent backpackers, so we formed the Southern Forest Watch and dug deep into their numbers. Turns out backcountry camping was on the decline, as NPS data proved.
Undeterred, the NPS simply modified its justification. Now it was “resource protection” and “increased ranger presence.” Apparently, lawlessness and unburied toilet paper were evolving as the culprits. A Canadian-based reservation system was the cure and would cost taxpayers only $4. We sued the NPS all the way to the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati. I knew where this was headed when a judge interrupted the opening remarks of our attorney, Myers Morton, to make one of her own. “What’s a mere $4? '' she opined.
Fast-forward 10 years and the NPS has a similar solution looking for a problem in the form of automobile traffic. And for good measure it is doubling the backcountry camping “tax.” Their problem here is the same as before. The numbers don’t add up.
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Don Casada, a member of the Friends of the Bryson City Cemetery group, crunched automobile visitation data from the NPS. GSMNP visitation numbers are rife with repetitive entries and other oddities, suggesting that humans fabricated significant portions of the data. In 2010, for the three months of June, July and August, each entry was different, but each entry was also an even 1,000 plus one. There are exactly 1,000 possibilities from 0 to 999, so the possibility of it being 001 is one in a thousand. That can obviously happen, but the possibility of it being 001 three months in a row is one in a billion. Even if one accepts the badly flawed data, almost half the visitation increase in recent years is associated with the Foothills Parkway rather than true park traffic.
Park Superintendent Cassius Cash, aptly named for this job, quickly realized he stepped in a pile when it was pointed out he forgot to accommodate the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. A quick backstroke of his pen granted them immunity from parking fees, but he refused to meet with other Tennessee and Carolina groups with descendants of their own buried deep within “the back of beyond.”
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President Franklin Roosevelt saw this coming. His 1940 Smokies dedication speech at Newfound Gap was prescient: “I hope the use of it (100 years from now) will not be confined to people who come hither on government-specified days and on government-directed tours." He may as well have included backdoor entrance fees, but the Tennessee state legislature rightly took care of that in the form of a deed restriction.
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Today, people are resigned to paying fees for everything but have little interest in digging beneath the emotion. The NPS funding appropriation has increased this year alone by 4.6%, and over the past decade $9.5 billion has been allocated to address the much-promoted “deferred maintenance backlog.” But send a few politicians with financial dealings dependent upon the park to hawk for user fees, and the public will fall in line.
The backcountry camping tax doubled in 10 years, but Cash — or lack thereof — had already run Scouting groups out of the Smokies. Where do you think other user “taxes” will be when our grandchildren are peering at this oasis wondering what it is those wealthy tourists are experiencing in those mountains forfeited by their ancestors?
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Traffic is a smokescreen for proposed parking fee in Smokies