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Hikers to pay backcountry fees in Smokies in 2013

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The Great Smoky Mountains National Park now has approval from the National Park Service to charge backcountry camping fees.

Park officials plan to take reservations and charge each person $4 per night to use any of more than 80 backcountry campsites and 15 trail shelters. The rustic sites are reachable only by hiking or on horseback. The fees will begin in 2013.

In taking public comment on the proposal, Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson said officials discovered many people wrongly believed the park was prohibited from charging user fees. The park service can't charge an admission fee to the Smokies, but that relates to a transportation issue, according to The Knoxville News Sentinel.

"The park is prohibited from charging a toll or license fee from motorists crossing park roads, by language in a 1951 deed under which the ownership of some park roads was transferred from the State of Tennessee to the National Park Service," he said.

There have long been campground fees, charges for weddings and other user charges by the Smokies.

Several of the 230 written comments and two petitions about the backcountry fee proposal expressed concern about the more spontaneous nature of backcountry camping and suggested the reservation system used by all other national parks might not be flexible enough.

The fee will support hiring two backcountry rangers to patrol the forested trails.

A park spokesman said the system to book rustic campsites hasn't been determined.

"We're not wedded to recreation.gov," said Bob Miller. "If it's not the right fit, we'll develop a system of our own."

Not all outdoor advocates oppose the coming fees. The Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, N.C., supported them. Among groups in opposition were the Southern Appalachian Back Country Horsemen and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

The Appalachian Trail — a 2,181-mile path from Georgia to Maine — passes through the park southwest to northeast.

Morgan Sommerville, regional director of the conservancy, said its concern is through-hikers getting bottled up at Fontana Lake, where the trail enters the park's southwestern boundary.

"We hope to continue our strong partnership with the park, and hopefully work with them to make this proposal as (Appalachian Trail) friendly as possible," Sommerville said.

Although the conservancy disagreed with the fee, the organization sees the desirability of improved services in the backcountry where cell phone coverage is largely non-existent.

The Smokies is the only national park that doesn't charge an entrance fee and one of the few that hasn't previously charged for backcountry camping.