A strained relationship: Suspicion of NPS lingers among some backcountry users, parkside communities
It’s been three years since a vigorous debate about charging for backcountry camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park ended with the park’s decision to charge backpackers a $4 fee, but for the fee’s most stalwart opponents, the issue isn’t yet in the rearview mirror.
Southern Forest Watch, a group that formed expressly to fight the fee, filed suit against the National Park Service soon after the fee was approved in February 2013. The public had overwhelmingly decried the proposal, SFW said, arguing that the park hadn’t followed correct procedure when approving it and contending that the assertion that the existing backcountry system was inadequate, crowded and causing complaints — necessitating the fee — was unfounded.
The courts didn’t agree, ruling against SFW in 2015 and again in March of this year when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit gave its decision on the group’s appeal. SFW is now waiting on a response to the last card yet to play in the legal battle — a request that the entire U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit decide the appeal case as opposed to the three judges who delivered the March 23 decision.
“After the Sixth Circuit denies this motion, I expect this entire legal battle will be finished. Kaput,” wrote Myers Morton, SFW’s attorney. “An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court will probably be prohibitively expensive and a waste of time to boot.”
But skepticism on the part of fee opponents is anything but kaput. They’re convinced that there were some shady dealings behind the Park Service’s initial approval of the fee — many people voiced opposition to it — and that the Park Service is now slanting the story on backcountry visitation.
For Mark Cooke, a frequent Smokies backpacker who lives near Elizabethtown, Kentucky, that skepticism resulted in a yearlong project to audit the park’s statistics on backcountry visitation.
“We started seeing that the numbers didn’t match up,” he said. “I’d go in on a beautiful day. It (the reservation website) would say there was supposed to be 12 (campers) and there were only three of us, our three. The other nine wouldn’t even be there.”
At the same time, Cooke saw the park’s reported backcountry usage rise considerably after the fee, set at $4 per night, per person, went into effect. Along with the fee, the park had instituted an online reservation system, giving each backcountry campsite a set capacity. In 2012, before the fee, the park reported 75,791 overnight stays in the backcountry. The number was 74,510 in 2011 and 72,244 in 2010. By contrast, once the fee was instituted overnight stays went up to 77,422 in 2013 — a year which included a 16-day government shutdown during peak season — and continued rising to 86,153 in 2014 and 97,629 in 2015.
“For them (the National Park Service) to say that we start charging and it increased our backcountry activity, I have a hard time with that,” Cooke said.
So, in January 2015 Cooke established a new nighttime routine for himself. Before going to bed each night, he checked the backcountry reservation website — going campsite by campsite, all 104 of them — and tallied how many spots had been reserved for the night. With few exceptions, he’d make his counts between 11:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m., after most people had made their reservations but before the system flipped over to the next day at 2 a.m.
After a full year of doing this, Cooke arrived at a discrepancy.
“For the 2015 calendar year the NPS says that there were 97,629 backcountry campers,” he wrote in an explanation of the data. “According to my count there were 84,256. That is 13,373 less than what they have published. That is 13.7 percent less than what they are reporting.”
To Cooke, the conclusion is clear.
“I think absolutely, positively, without a shadow of a doubt, these numbers are being manipulated for their (the NPS’) benefit,” he said.
“I think there’s something nefarious, yes,” agreed Jim Casada, a Swain County native who resides in South Carolina and is SFW’s executive director. “I think there’s a lot of nefariousness on an ongoing basis.”
Eating and sleeping numbers
Like with most topics involving park management, the storyline told by folks like Cooke and Casada differs greatly from that related by park personnel.
“We’re not making up data,” said Christine Hoyer, backcountry specialist for the park. “We’re taking in the money that we say we’re taking. We’re using it for the purposes that we said we’d use it for and we’re doing really great things in the backcountry with it.”
In 2015, the park took in $386,442 from backcountry permits. Of the 97,629 camper nights recorded, 17,145 came from Appalachian Trail thru-hikers — park statistics assume that each hiker takes five nights to get through the park. The math shows that these reported numbers roughly line up with the park’s fee intake — at $20 per permit for A.T. hikers (a number reached by dividing the total number of thru-hiker nights by five) and $4 per permit for other hikers, you could estimate that the park would have collected $390,396 in fees. While slightly off from the actual collections, the rough math doesn’t take into account factors such as administrative permits — permits issued to park personnel who use sites for work purposes and don’t pay a fee.
Similarly, Hoyer said, there are reasons why Cooke’s numbers, no matter how carefully he catalogued them, would not match park records.
Thru-hikers permits, she said, are the biggest piece of that. While most people camping in the Smokies backcountry have to reserve a spot at a specific site, thru-hikers apply for a different permit, a $20 purchase that entitles them to camp at any shelter along the Appalachian Trail’s path through the Smokies for up to seven nights. Going through the site-specific reservations for the 104 sites listed, Hoyer said, Cooke couldn’t have captured those numbers.
Plugging the thru-hiker permits in nearly erases the discrepancy. Cooke recorded 13,373 fewer camper nights in 2015 than the National Park Service reported, but according to Hoyer that year contained 17,136 thru-hiker nights. That is to say, the unaccounted thru-hiker nights plug the gap.
But Cooke did not ignore the presence of thru-hikers in his calculations. His numbers include the four spots per campsite per night that the Park Service sets aside for thru-hikers during the height of the northbound hiking season. During that timeframe, extending from partway through February to the end of May, those spots are assumed to be taken by a thru-hiker and not reservable online.
The allocation Cooke incorporated into his data allows for a total of 4,992 thru-hiker nights over the 96-day thru-hiker season. Divide it by the typical five nights per hiker to complete the mountainous 71-mile stretch, and that’s 998 hikers.
It’s difficult to say exactly how many thru-hikers reach a given benchmark on the trail in a particular year, as they’re not required to sign in or register anywhere. But undoubtedly more than 998 people hike through the Smokies each season. According to Morgan Sommerville, regional director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, about 3,000 people attempted a northbound hike in 2015, with the number estimated at around 3,900 for 2016. About half of those hikers make the halfway point in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, each year, so it’s safe to assume that well over 1,000 northbound thru-hikers walked through the Smokies in 2015.
A smaller number of people hike the trail from north to south each year, hitting the Smokies in late summer or early fall, outside of the timeframe during which the park anticipates space for thru-hikers. Other people do section hikes, not attempting the whole trail in one season but embarking on a large enough chunk to meet the park’s definition of “thru-hiker” — a person who starts and ends their hike at least 50 miles outside park boundaries.
After seeing Cooke’s calculated discrepancy, Hoyer said, “I’ve been eating, sleeping and dreaming these numbers.” At the end of the exercise, she said, “I sit here in my office even more confident in the calculations of our numbers.”
Observations on the ground
In addition to his data collection issues, Cooke’s skepticism of the Park Service’s numbers also has to do with anecdotal experience.
Though he lives in Kentucky, Cooke makes it to the Smokies 10 to 15 times in any given year, mostly to camp in the backcountry. He’s been doing that for 40 years. Since the new reservation system came online, simultaneously with the fee being instituted, Cooke has noticed a disconnect between the number of sites listed as available online and the actual traffic upon arrival.
“There have been many reports and discussions on how hikers note certain numbers do not match up in the backcountry,” Cooke wrote. “The permit site shows one thing and when they get to the campsite/shelter it is much less.”
For example, he said, on a five-day hike his nephew took along the Appalachian Trail during a string of “perfect weather” days in October, the reservation site said that a total of 40 permits had been granted for the shelters where his nephew stayed each night. Of those 40 permitholders, 21 never showed.
“It just validated what we’d been seeing,” Cooke said of the observation, “and we’d been seeing it over and over and over again.”
People associated with Southern Forest Watch aren’t the only ones who have observed a discrepancy between reservations listed on the website and actual occupancy.
Sharon McCarthy, a Charlotte resident who’s hiked all 900 miles of trail in the Smokies as well as the entire Mountains-to-Sea Trail, said she’d observed the same thing on a Memorial Day Weekend hike she planned after the new reservation system went into effect.
“We were not able to get the site that we wanted, which in the past wouldn’t have been a problem, so we did change the plan that we made and stayed at a different site,” she said.
In fact, their second choice site didn’t have enough spaces left for a third person who’d been considering coming along. But when they showed up for the night, only four people total wound up sleeping at the site, which had a capacity of either eight or 12 people — McCarthy couldn’t remember for sure.
But while Cooke and Casada say that’s evidence of the Park Service’s tampering with the system, McCarthy attributes it to circumstance and changes in plans.
“I think it’s all full because people book it and then they change their minds and don’t do the process of going back and canceling,” she said — kind of like when you make a reservation at two restaurants but don’t cancel either one. Four dollars isn’t a lot of money to most people, McCarthy reasoned, so changing plans at the last minute might seem like a low-stakes decision — especially if the weather is iffy.
“When you get over 100 inches of precipitation a year, I’m pretty sure that if you’re out on a three- or four-day trip, you’re going to get rained on at least once,” agreed Kevin FitzGerald, retired deputy superintendent at the park who lives in Waynesville. “Not everyone wants to camp in the rain.”
Then there are the injuries, the overestimated capabilities, the unforeseen circumstances that can happen in the backcountry, keeping hikers from making it to the site where they’d anticipated staying.
“You’ll have shelters that there’s twice the number of people camping there than actually have a reservation,” FitzGerald said. “That was happening long before the permit system that the park came up with came into effect because people overestimate their capacity, they run into weather, they get injured, they get sick, they get all those things that kept them from making their appointed rounds from site to site. Overestimating their capacity is more than often the reason.”
Sure, Cooke said, but it seems like it happens a lot.
“It’s hard to imagine with over 20 documented hikes that there are that many hikers paying to stay, and then not showing up,” Cooke wrote. “No shows are very commonplace with this new reservation system.”
Before the online reservation system, backcountry sites in the park — except for a select few, which did require a reservation — were open to whomever, no reservation needed. A backpacker pulling up a trailhead would be greeted with a sign requesting him or her to fill out a permit and drop a piece of it in a nearby box. There was no way for the hiker to know whether the 12-person site they were headed toward would have 20 people bedding down or none at all.
The new system aims to correct that issue, a goal it accomplishes. Though based on observations from hikers like McCarthy and Cooke, it seems that it might be erring on the other side of the spectrum, with no-shows taking up slots that are then not able to be reserved by more gung-ho hikers.
Apples to oranges
The new system results in different overall use numbers than the previous one did. The numbers not only capture people who will actually camp where they said they’d planned to camp, but also those who started planning a trip and lost interest, or who were all ready to go but got deterred by rain, or who started out as planned but then met some challenge that caused them to change course.
It’s true that the park’s counts of overnights in the backcountry are substantially higher than the numbers before the fee and reservation system were instituted. The figures increased 13.7 percent from 2012 to 2014, and 28.5 percent from 2012 to 2015.
That sudden rise has had the folks at Southern Forest Watch crying foul. In what world, they asked, would it make sense for use of a previously free resource to increase once a fee was placed on it?
For one thing, Hoyer pointed out, overall park visitation has also increased over the same time period, rising from 9 million in 2011 to 10.1 million in 2015.
And more importantly, she said, comparing pre- and post-2013 backcountry use levels is basically comparing apples to oranges.
“We don’t think there was an actual true increase in use per say between 2012 and 2013,” Hoyer said, “and we try not to compare those because, again, we’re tracking it differently now.”
Before the online reservation system came into play, park staff calculated visitation numbers by pulling the paper permits dropped off at trailheads throughout the park and counting them up. That count captured only the people who actually showed up at a trailhead and filled out a permit, not those who’d been planning a trip and changed their minds at the last minute, and not those who set out to hike but for whatever reason just didn’t fill out a piece of paper.
And even the counting itself didn’t always happen regularly or thoroughly. Between 1994 and 2014, the backcountry visitation counts entered online were estimates, not the actual numbers — after taking her current job as backcountry specialist, Hoyer had the paper permits gathered up and the online counts trued. The month-by-month counts online are impossible to change at this point, but the year-to-date reports now have the correct information.
FitzGerald also noted an issue with the record-keeping during his tenure at the park, in an email dated July 26, 2011, pointing out that the backcountry camping numbers for 2011 and 2010 were identical.
“Naturally, this is cause for concern with several of us in that the proposal (to charge backcountry camping fees) is based upon known and anticipated use figures,” FitzGerald wrote. “Are these numbers accurate?”
Cooke sees that exchange as proof that the Park Service had known of its numbers’ inaccuracy, purposely founding its policies on faulty information.
But when asked about it, FitzGerald shrugged the email off.
“When you have humans involved, you have human error,” he said. “There was no conspiracy.”
Before the online reservation system came on board, dispatch was responsible for counting the permits. In between, that is, answering emergency calls and coordinating with search and rescue crews and running license plate numbers and everything else. In this particular case, he said, the paper permits got misplaced somehow, and at the time the employees didn’t know a fee was being considered — because no funding hinged on the numbers, they seemed a low-level concern. Visitation levels between 2010 and 2011 weren’t that different, so they just plugged in the same numbers.
What’s the motivation?
When confronted with Cooke’s tabulations and charges that the Park Service has been fiddling with the data, FitzGerald has just one question: Why? What motivation would the Park Service have to do something like that?
“If I had done all the nefarious things that I was accused of doing as a manager in the National Park Service, there would be no question where I’d be going when I died,” FitzGerald said. “I have no incentive to do those things.”
Cooke has a few ideas about incentive.
“I think they’re doing it because they want to prove a point,” he said.
For a park that’s completely free to use, the backcountry fee proposal created quite an uproar when announced, during public hearings and after the decision was made to adopt it. Cooke believes that proving the fee was successful — that is, that it didn’t exclude people from participation — would be incentive to inflate the numbers.
“If you have to pay and the numbers go up then eventually they will charge more because there’s a precedence there that says if we charge more, more people will come,” Cooke said. “That’s hard for me to fathom.”
FitzGerald said he’d have a hard time believing anything of the sort is going on. A national park is the public’s property, as are the paper records of its employees. Park Service employees who try to pull a fast one thinking no one will know typically find themselves in for a rude awakening.
“Well guess what, there are no secrets,” FitzGerald said.
A bedrock of mistrust
It may be that the park has reasonable explanations for why Cooke’s numbers don’t match park records. And the discrepancy between the number of people who reserve campsites online and the amount that actually show up in the backcountry might just be natural attrition. And FitzGerald’s assessment — that there’s just no incentive for Park Service employees to skew the numbers and mislead the public in the manner charged — may be true.
But it’s undeniable that there’s a longstanding bedrock of mistrust between parkside communities and the federal government.
“I was born in ’46, so I came along a few years after the park established,” said David Monteith, a Swain County commissioner and native of the county. “In the 30s, when the first park came in, my dad lived on Bear Creek right at the falls. My dad was just a little boy, but they disrupted him and they had to move.”
The family moved 6 miles downriver to re-establish a homestead and build a grocery store. But then the newly formed Great Smoky Mountains National Park expanded, and in 1943 the federal government came knocking once again, forcing the family to leave their business behind and move again.
Around the same time, the Tennessee Valley Authority was formed and began moving families out of the Fontana area so they could dam the river, creating electricity.
“They told the people that they had to move out. We want it for a war effort. We want to end World War II. We want to bring your husbands, your family home and end this war. Don’t you want to be part of that?” Monteith said, reciting the pitch made to families living there.
The promise was that the region would get electricity, the North Shore Road would be rebuilt once flooded for the dam project and the war effort would get a boost. But Swain County families didn’t wind up getting electricity from the dam. And 75 years later, the North Shore Road has not been rebuilt and the federal government has forked over only $12.8 million of the $52 million it promised Swain County in exchange for reneging on the road project.
“That’s why the people mistrust the park is because of what took place,” Monteith said.
In the present day, Monteith still finds plenty of fault with the Park Service. He feels that grass isn’t kept mowed in the Swain County portion of the park like it is elsewhere. Trails aren’t taken care of as well and historical structures like cabins and copper mines aren’t celebrated like they would be if they were located elsewhere in the park.
“They’re just not managing the park here like they do other places in the park,” he said. “That’s another reason the people get upset. Because the park is not treating Swain County fairly.”
FitzGerald doesn’t deny that a portion of the parkside population tends to be pretty unhappy with park management. But from his perspective, having worked at National Park units across the country in addition to his time in the Smokies, the overall sentiment is more positive than someone like Monteith might give credit for.
“If you were to go and talk to people from Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, Maryville — even the relationship in Haywood County during the time I was there and still today — I think it’s pretty good,” FitzGerald said. “When you think about the number of descendents who are in Haywood County, who came out of Cataloochee years ago, the potential for animosity for that is pretty great … There’s a general appreciation for this park that is not felt in a lot of other places.”
Still, said current Smokies Superintendent Cassius Cash, the relationship certainly has it challenges. Especially in North Carolina.
“We have a past that includes many hard stories,” he said, “and there has been a lingering perception that North Carolina communities are less important to park management than those in Tennessee.”
Cash, who took on the superintendent’s job in February 2015, says it’s a priority to change that sentiment. to change that feeling.
“The park is comprised of the land from two states, but together, we are one great park,” he said. “I look forward to continuing to listen and work together in hopes of chipping away at this perception.”
The road forward
It can be easy to harbor suspicion when it comes to a large organization like the National Park Service, especially amid the my-land-my-rules culture of Western North Carolina. But FitzGerald maintains that Park Service employees, by and large, are hardworking people trying to do the right thing.
“My experience has been that the vast majority of people that I worked with all around the country in this agency — the Park Service — are hardworking, dedicated, passionate, honest and truly public servants who do what they do not because of the money,” FitzGerald said. “They do it — we did it — because we cared about the mission of the Park Service.”
At the same time, FitzGerald said, the to do list can grow miles longer than what it’s actually feasible to accomplish. And when dealing with people who already suspect they’re getting the short end of the stick, the reality that time is short can exacerbate the relationship.
“You’ve only got so many hours in a day,” FitzGerald said. “I used to describe my job as being a mile wide and an inch deep. That’s how far you can delve into each issue that comes across your desk or your computer or your phone on a given day. It’s a challenge to meet all of those expectations on a daily basis.”
Compared to other National Park units of comparable size, the Smokies have less funding to work with due to the fact that the park can’t charge an entrance fee. If it could charge visitors to enter, its budget would grow by tens of millions of dollars — but as of now, the park runs mainly on a yearly federal allocation of $18 to $19 million, give or take. Staff can be spread thin.
Casada doesn’t disagree that the Smokies’ workforce is full of good people working hard to do their job the best they can. But he also believes that goodwill peters out the higher up the pyramid you go.
“I have and have had some wonderful friends pretty much over all my life who are park personnel, but in the upper echelons I don’t trust them,” Casada said.
Going forward, Cash hopes to reverse that perception.
“I’m proud of some of the things we’ve recently been able to accomplish together such as our Visitor Center partnership in Bryson City,” Cash said. “I believe that our best ideas in taking care of the park will come from working together.”