2023 Fee Changes
BackgroundOver the past decade, Smokies visitation has skyrocketed by 57%. Because the Smokies' operational budget hasn’t seen similar growth, the increase in visitors is starting to take its toll with wear and tear on aging facilities and undue strain on limited staff.
New funding sources are needed to rehabilitate this national treasure and preserve the magic of the Smokies for future generations. So, it’s time we Park It Forward.
Why a Change in Fees?The Smokies' budget, appropriated by Congress, does not increase based on visitation. Over the last decade, the Smokies' budget has remained relatively flat, in spite of increasing visitation. When adjusted for inflation, the buying power of those dollars has decreased significantly. In order to balance the Smokies' budget each year, park managers have had to reduce visitor services and decrease staffing levels. All at a time when we need them more than ever. The implementation of the parking tag program, as well as frontcountry and backcountry fee increases is crucial to the Smokies' future. Wondering why the Smokies doesn’t charge an entrance fee like many other National Parks? Find out why here.
100% of funds collected from these fees stay in the Smokies and go directly back into preserving the Smokies and ensuring the visitor experience remains first-rate.
A few examples of how these funds can be used are:
Civic Engagement Results
Parking Tag Program:
The Park it Forward and camping fee proposal was initially announced in April, and the public was encouraged to formally submit its comments. This invitation generated 3,677 correspondences, and a total of 15,512 independent comments were identified, categorized, and assessed as part of the review process. Correspondences were received from all 50 states.
Parking tag sentiment analysis is reported for each of the six counties that border the Smokies. The percent of the total correspondences received from the county as well as the count of correspondences is reported.
Parking tag sentiment analysis is reported for the two counties with the highest population centers closest to the Smokies; Knox County, TN, which includes the City of Knoxville, and Buncombe County, NC, which includes the City of Asheville. The percent of the total correspondences received from the county as well as the count of correspondences is reported.
The most prevalent comment regarding tag duration was support for an annual tag. In response, the Director of the National Park Service has authorized permission for the Smokies to offer an annual tag, which will allow unlimited visits within a year from the date of purchase. While any visitor may purchase an annual parking tag, the approval for this option was sought by Smokies leadership specifically for local residents who are more likely to visit multiple times throughout the year.
Backcounty Camping Fee Increase:Of the 3,677 correspondences the Smokies received about the fee proposal, 1,112 were specific to the backcountry fee increase. 78% of the correspondences specific to the backcountry fee increase were supportive.
Frontcountry Fee Increases:Of the 3,677 correspondences the Smokies received about the fee proposal, 1,143 were specific to the frontcountry fee increases. 82% of the correspondences specific to the frontcountry fee increases were supportive.
- 1 - Page - 1 - of 16 Transcript of “Park It Forward” virtual public meeting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Thursday, April 14, 2022, 5:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. EDT Video runtime: 57 minutes 45 seconds 00:00 – Kendra Straub Good evening. My name is Kendra Straub and I work here in the Smokies in the superintendent's office. Welcome to the virtual public meeting for the proposed updates to the fee program. First, we would like to cover a few housekeeping items. All participants other than our presenters will be in listen-only mode throughout the duration of the meeting. That's to reduce background noise so that all participants can hear the entirety of the presentation. Shortly when the meeting starts, the chat function will no longer be activated. We request that all questions be put into the Q&A function, which you should see on the bottom of your screen. You can add questions at any time during the presentation. And, in fact, many of you are already doing so. At the end of the presentation, we will have a Q&A session in which we will try to address as many questions as time allows. Now, I would like to turn it over to Superintendent Cash. 01:01 – Superintendent Cassius Cash Hi, good afternoon. As introduced, I’m Cassius Cash, superintendent here at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. First of all, let me just say thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to spend an hour with us to talk about the proposals that I'm sure many of you have seen or heard about or seen in the news by now. We're going to talk about that in depth. And as the moderator said, we're going to have questions and answers. One of the things that my staff and I decided that if this proposal goes forward, we want to make sure that we get it right. And we feel that talking with you and having the discussions and really laying the proposals out to you ensures that we do that. Now, as we know that this is the most visited national park in the country. And we're very, very proud of that. And we honor that privilege to be able to serve the millions of people that come to this park year in year out. 14.1 million people, that's a 57 percent increase in visitation over the last 10 years. Now what that means to me is a couple of good things. One is that we have millions of new visitors that are coming to the park for the first time and discovering the new love for being out in the natural world. Two, it shows to me that this park continues to grow as an economic engine for this community of the surrounding gateway communities. For example, for every federal dollar that is spent, $50 are returned back to our surrounding communities, I would say that's a pretty good deal. And then the third one, which really strikes at the core mission of the National Park Service, what this many visitors says to me is that the National Park Service, in particular the Smokies, is going to be relevant for the next generation. - 2 - Page - 2 - of 16 (Cassius Cash, continues 02:48) Now, I'm not naive to not believe that some of you oppose the proposals. And I want to talk to you this evening. Hopefully through the presentations and through the questions and answers, you’ll hear three things that serve as my motivation, and I will go as far to say as my inspiration. One, are the employees at this park. These employees at the park bring it every day. And as we've gone through the significant increase in visitors, they simply need help. Two, is that this park, the second thing I thought about was the visitor services and experiences. To me, that equates to memories. It’s the memories that have kept people and generations of people to keep coming back to this park, year after year after year. And third, which is part of the Park Service mission, is to ensure that we keep these cultural resources, these natural resources, administrative buildings intact so that the young people that are enjoying this park today, when they bring their kids back, that it will still be there for them the way that we are enjoying it today. So, I look forward to having some robust dialogue with you and having questions and answers that we're going to address this evening. I'm going to turn it over now to Dana Soehn, who serves as my Chief of Staff. And I want to say, I'm going to embarrass her, but I want to say that she's expended a lot of tireless hours on these proposals and a lot of leadership. So, with that being said, I'm going to turn it over to you Dana. 04:25 – Dana Soehn Thank you and good evening, everyone. Give me just a minute and I'm going to share my screen so we can share some of this information in a little more detail for you. And Superintendent Cash introduced me, I'm Dana Soehn. And I have served in Great Smoky Mountains National Park for 32 years. So, I am very invested in this park. And I'm very invested in this community. And that's not unlike many of you who are with us tonight. We've heard from you. We've heard a lot have comments and questions over the last week since we launched the announcement about the “Park It Forward” program. And one of the things that's really good news about that, is that there's so much common ground. Everyone agrees that this park needs more resources, and that it's critically important that it's preserved so that that next generation of users, like all of us, can enjoy it the same way we do today. And that's what drives us. There have been a couple of questions that we've had repeatedly. One of them is, “Why now?” And one of them is, “How and when did the Smokies history provide for this? What's the history about fees in the Smokies, you know, creation of the park?” And so, before we dive into the proposal details, I just want to touch on addressing those couple of questions. And I'm hoping my screen is sharing now. Okay, I’m getting a thumbs up that it's up there. And I'm going to go ahead then and just dive in to start to that “why now” question. - 3 - Page - 3 - of 16 (Dana Soehn, continues 06:20) This park provides incredible experiences. And it's our mission as the employees to provide those experiences in a way that leaves this park preserved. And behind the scenes, at every one of these experiences that you see on my screen, is an enormous body of work, that for most people, you wouldn't even notice it. We're protecting water quality, so we can support those high-quality fisheries. We are doing lots of trail maintenance on the 850 miles of trails. And we're making sure that we're maintaining 384 miles of roadways in this park for scenic motorist experiences. And we're operating custodial services and trash removal, emergency services. And we're operating 27 different wastewater systems in this park and providing clean drinking water. All in a 500,000-acre wilderness setting. It takes an enormous amount of services to make sure we're providing those great visitor experiences. And with 14.1 million visits, our staff are strained to provide this care. And our facilities and our resources are strained. And for years, we've been applying a lot of band-aid fixes to meet our needs. We've shifted our donation dollars to support operational needs. We've chased grant monies. We've chased project dollars. But with this extreme demand for visitor services in our park and the use, we simply can't meet the needs without drastically cutting services or access to the park. In the last 10 years, as superintendent Cash said, our visitation has increased 57 percent. And this is not just a pandemic response. We've been feeling this strain from extreme rises and visitation for years. During the same timeframe, park visitation around the country has increased at about 7 percent. And while we're not the only park that's experiencing high visitation, I can tell you it's just on a different scale here in the Smokies. So, in this slide, you're seeing the top 10 most visited national parks in 2021. And you can see the Smokies visitation is triple or more the visitation in these other parks. And another way to look at it is that if you took all the visitors who went to Yellowstone, and Grand Canyon, and Yosemite, Everglades, Petrified Forest combined last year, that's the same number of visitors that we supported right here in the Smokies with a fraction of the support. And if you take a look at the amount of funding that we have per visitor, you can see it's well below the average. And we believe that the Smokies visitors deserve more, and that our staff deserve more resources to care for this really amazing place. With our current revenue to balance our budgets, we've had to reduce our law enforcement staffing, by 18 percent and our maintenance staff by 32 percent. All at a time when we need them more than ever before. And so, we are at a crossroads. And our “Park It Forward” program asks that visitors, like they do at all other national parks, start to financially contribute to the care of the resources and the experiences that they've come here to enjoy. And so now we're going to jump in to the Smokies history of how and when these can be charged. So national parks get funding for operations in several different ways. First, there's the base funding, and that's represented here in orange. And that comes from the federal government, or our tax dollars. - 4 - Page - 4 - of 16 (Dana Soehn, continues 10:25) And it's just simply not enough to support our current operations, or operations in any other national park. And Congress recognized this long ago. And they provided these other funding tools and authorities for parks to charge user fees, which they felt was more appropriate than providing more tax dollar revenue to support parks. So, let's just take a closer look at the fee funding and you can see in the Smokies that our fee revenue is relatively small. About $3 million that we receive for our campground fee revenues. The average fee revenue of parks of the same complexity and size is $22 million a year. That's more than our base budget. And most of these parks also have a robust concession program and that provides revenue from lodging and restaurants. Again, in the Smokies, we have a very small concessions program by design. Those services are primarily outside the park to provide that economic benefit that Superintendent Cash spoke about. At other parks, on average, they receive about $15 million in concessions revenue, that other flexible spending to help meet their operational needs. And then the last source is donation dollars. The Smokies has an incredible philanthropic body of support with Friends of the Smokies and Great Smoky Mountains Association. And when both of those organizations were formed, their intent was to provide a margin of excellence and to support signature projects. But unfortunately, we've had to rely on them over the last decade just to meet operational needs. Their funds are being used for seasonals, for custodial services, and to pay for utilities in the park. In total, these extra revenue sources provide about 20 percent of the Smokies budget. In comparison to the other parks, again of same complexity and size, it provides 60 percent of their operational needs. So, this is a little bit of the background of the “how” parks increase revenue, including the Smokies. But now we get into the question about Smokies’ history of how and when fees can be charged. This is the most asked question that we've received. And it's a hard answer to give. And like most descendants, the descendant family that I married into 31 years ago from the Sugarlands and Elkmont areas of the park, we've long heard the story about the “promise” of free access that was given because of the descendants selling their lands for the creation of this great park. And while they did receive pavement, this was still a significant sacrifice. They gave up their communities, their way of life. And then our tribal neighbors, they experienced two great periods of sacrifice. Both in the 1800s when they were forcibly removed from their ancestral tribal lands, and then again, some of them at the time of the park’s creation. These are hard stories. And it's very frustrating for descendants to hear that there simply just were no agreements for forever-free access at the time of the park’s creation. Not in the enabling legislation for the park, not from President Roosevelt, not in hundreds of historical documents and deeds. And not when the logging companies sold their land for the creation of this park, making up about 85 percent of park lands. and not when individuals sold their lands with the creation of the park. - 5 - Page - 5 - of 16 (Dana Soehn, continues 14:20) So why can't we charge an entrance fee if there aren't any agreements? That's what leads us to this next question. And it all comes down to the state of Tennessee and a deed restriction that they put in place more than a decade after the park’s establishment. In 1951, the state of Tennessee transferred the deed for Newfound Gap Road and Little River Road to the park with a deed restriction that stated no tolls can be charged to use those two roads. This single deed restriction affects us today because of a federal statute in Title 16 that says if we can't charge tolls on our primary roads, then we can't charge tolls to use the roads elsewhere in the park or entrance fees. Now this deed restriction does not prohibit the park from charging user fees. That authority is given under the Federal Land Recreation Enhancement Act, or FLREA. And this allows us to charge for things like camping in our frontcountry and our backcountry. And parks can also charge for parking under this authority, either in addition to entrance fees, or as a standalone user fee. And several park units that don't charge entrance fees charge for parking under this authority. In the Smokies, all fees collected under this authority stay in the Smokies for the direct benefit of visitors thanks to Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, who in 1998 introduced legislation in the Land Water Conservation Act to ensure that this fee money would stay right here in the Smokies. And we believe the time is now to more fully use this authority to help take care of the Smokies. Through the proposed “Park It Forward” program, we would charge a modest fee for parking under FLREA. In the Smokies, the program would work pretty much like it does on a university campus where you can tour the campus by car and you don't need a parking tag. But if you park on campus to attend a class, go to a ballgame, go to the library, then you better have a tag. In the park, it would work very similarly. You can tour the park by car, you can enjoy a scenic drive, you can commute through the park. But if you park to use facilities, the trails the picnic areas, then we would be asking that you've now helped contribute to the care of those resources. So again, the tags would not be required for simply enjoying the scenic drive, park roads would remain toll free, and there would continue to be no charge to enter the park. Compliance for the parking tag program would consist of several tools. You know, building awareness is one of the greatest tools we have to work towards compliance of something so new and a park that's nearly 90 years old. This change will take time. We want to be able to provide ample opportunities for people to learn about the tags, to be able to understand where they can get them, and how to use them. And staff funded through this program would not only be checking to that compliance, but also providing just traditional Ranger guidance out in the field. And that's something that we've heard again and again from our visitors is they want to see more Rangers out in the field, helping them where they are. So, as a part of the compliance program, these staff can provide courtesy reminders or law enforcement staff have the discretion to provide courtesy reminders. Similarly to if you're camping, you leave your cooler out when you have a food violation, get a little courtesy reminder. That's one piece. There's also verbal warnings and written warnings. And they do have the authority to issue citations. But again, we know it's going to take time and our law enforcement Rangers will exercise discretion just like they do across the park. Just recognizing that growing awareness will take months, maybe years, as we grow this program. - 6 - Page - 6 - of 16 (Dana Soehn, continues 18:47) And the tags would be available in advance through our online store with our partner the Great Smoky Mountains Association, and the Smokies store, and also on site through automated V machines and visitor centers and other venues outside the park, in stores and hotels. We want to make them widely available, so people have the opportunity to participate easily. And our intent is not to use the tags as an economic barrier. We would not limit the tag sales to limit or cap visitation in the park. The tags also will not guarantee a parking spot at a specific location. Parking would just continue to be available on a first come first serve basis. And that will require trip planning for people who want to go to one of the seven or so sites that are the most popular, busiest sites in the park where there just simply isn't enough parking to meet demand. And we can't build enough parking to meet the demand that people have to hike Alum Cave Trail and Laurel Falls Trail. There just simply isn't enough space. But in the future, we also plan to eliminate the out of bounds roadside parking, to protect our resources, to improve the pedestrian and motorists’ safety, and to improve traffic flow through these congested areas. With our high visitation and reduced staffing that we've been experiencing, this poor parking poor stewardship behavior has really developed over the last several years. And it's just no longer acceptable for people to tear up our roadsides and block traffic when parking. This change won't happen overnight. But we are taking steps in the right direction. So as a part of the “how,” let's also talk about the scope of the program, and how it would help meet our revenue goals. So, from our 14.1 million visits, we know that this equates to about 5 million vehicles. And we also know that based on survey data, that about 13 percent of our visitors spend very little time outside of their cars, and we can assume they're driving through and would not need a tag. This program will not change the way those visitors tour the park. So based on the number of times visitors come from our surveys, we estimate that about 3 million vehicles would be required to have a parking tag. So, depending on the type of tag you choose, the final pricing point of the tag, we believe we can achieve our revenue goals at a very modest parking tag rate. Again, the intent is not to have an economic barrier because of this program. That's our goal. We propose a daily parking tag of $5, a parking tag for up to seven days for $15. And an annual tag really targeted for our local residents at $40, who we know are going to come multiple times a year and we want to make it more convenient. The proposed rates and duration are determined by considering a comparison of rates for similar access on both private and other public lands. The average parking rate in gateway communities where parking fees are charged is $15 per day and $68 per month. The national park sites where parking fees are currently charged, the average rate is about $9 per day, and $50 per year. These monies again would stay in the park and be used to directly benefit our visitors. Like increasing our law enforcement presence and coverage and emergency response times; increasing facility maintenance and preventative maintenance to help those facilities last a little longer; and increasing our educational programs and habitat restoration directly related to recreation like wildlife viewing and - 7 - Page - 7 - of 16 (Dana Soehn, continues 23:06) fishing. These funds will allow us a chance to address the needs of today in a manner that provides that long term stewardship for the future. So that's both the why and the how for the “Park It Forward” program. And now I want to spend just a few minutes on the other fee program changes we're introducing. And that is to increase our camping fees in both our frontcountry and our backcountry. Both of these fees are also charged through the FLREA authority. And we haven't increased these fees in alignment with inflation. It's been 10 years since we increased the backcountry fees and six years since we increase the frontcountry fees. So, the backcountry fee program was implemented in 2013. And we've seen steady use since then. And that's important because when we implemented this fee, we had a lot of people that thought that use would decline. But you can see that didn't happen. In fact, we had some of our highest years on record in this 10-year period. And we've experienced a 39 percent increase in backcountry overnight use since the program was implemented. And it's came at great benefit to our users. So, with the user fees, we provide seven-day coverage in our office to be able to provide really critical trip planning advice. They're fielding 17,000 calls a year, providing guidance on where to camp, access, how to get there, trail routes to get there, and are giving them really good safety messages and preventative search and rescue to help them prepare for a Smokies experience. We've hired in the backcountry two law enforcement Rangers. We've also been able to perform campground maintenance and we've worked with volunteers and trail partners to leverage those monies as we work together to provide those maintenances. And with our current fee rate, we've maximized our staffing and our field presence based on our current revenues. So, the proposed fee increases are critically important to ensure that we can continue to provide this level of service even with inflation, and to be able to grow the program into the future. So, here's the current range of backcountry fees and parks with similar programs. And the average cost for a single night in these parks is $17. Now most of these parks charge an additional reservation fee per permit, which has already been factored in. And we are not proposing in the Smokies to charge a reservation fee. Our current rate in the Smokies is $4 per person per night, which is well below the average, as you can see. And we're proposing to raise this rate to $8. And while still below the average, we believe our proposed rate is reasonable to meet our program needs. So again, we propose raising that per person per night key from $4 to $8. And then the maximum permit rate for a seven-night permit per person from $20 to $40. In comparison, the average maximum permit for a seven-night permit per person is $54. And then we also proposed raising the Appalachian Trail through hiker permit to $40. And these increases will again allow us to appropriately continue to increase our services. Here's just a quick snapshot again of how we'll use those funds both to allow us to continue to provide that critical campsite maintenance in the - 8 - Page - 8 - of 16 (Dana Soehn, continues 26:58) backcountry, backcountry patrols with our law enforcement Rangers increasing those patrols, and adding some new trip planning tools to help people even more before they get out in the backcountry. And now to the frontcountry fee increases we're proposing. For this assessment, we based the proposed fees on our operational needs, and then also the comparability rates with facilities in neighboring the park that offer similar services. As you can imagine, that can be tough, as our sites are pretty primitive. But we were able to base it on like-campgrounds outside the park. So, we propose raising our family campground rates to $30 for standard sites, $36 for sites with electrical hookups, and we propose increasing our group camps, our horse camps, and our picnic pavilions by between 20 and 30 percent, just depending on the size, the capacity of the sites, and the location. And the differences between the sites are based on the amenities that are available at each one of those sites. And you can find a full breakdown by site on our website if you want to look at each one of those in detail. We also propose increasing the daily rental rates for the Appalachian Clubhouse and the Spence Cabin in Elkmont to $300 for the Appalachian clubhouse and $200 for the Spence Cabin, no matter the day of the week. These fees will directly support our campground operations and maintenance to again provide those high-quality visitor experiences that the public has come to expect. And it's critically important for our staff to be able to have the resources to provide those kinds of resources. And again, all the fees, stay in the Smokies just like the proposed “Park It Forward” fees will stay in the Smokies to be able to support this great park. So that's the end of our proposal, including and understanding of the “why” the time is now to implement these fees, and the “how” and the “what” we'll be spending these fee revenues towards. And with that, we'd like to try to answer any questions that you may have. 29:35 – Kendra Straub We have had a lot of engagement in our Q&A. And we are we are so grateful for all of that. Thank you to everyone who has already submitted questions. You can continue to submit questions for the remainder of the meeting, and we will try to address as many as we can. To start off with, we've had some questions about tribal access as it relates to the parking tag program. 30:00 – Cassius Cash Yes, thank you, Kendra. And also, let me extend my thanks to folks. The questions that are coming in are very good questions. In regards to tribal citizens, particularly the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. You know, we have a unique relationship with federally recognized tribes. And that is rooted in the Constitution, and further solidified with treaties, laws, statutes, and court cases. Out west, or any parks that have entrance fees and has been under long standing Park Service regulation to allow tribal members for traditional purposes to have access to National Park System lands. If this proposal moves - 9 - Page - 9 - of 16 (Cassius Cash, continues 30:46) forward with the parking fee, that would be the same as well with that to allow Native American citizens to have access for traditional purposes as well. 31:01 – Kendra Straub Thank you. We've also had a number of questions about discounts related to residents of counties that border the park. 31:12 – Cassius Cash Yep, I've had that question quite a bit, here locally as well. So, when we designed the format that Dana has gone over the price of it, we kept in mind the price sensitivity. We want to make sure that this is not an economic barrier, first of all, for people to continue to enjoy the park. And then we added the feature for the annual pass. And that's specifically identified for locals as well. You know, being a park that's within an eight-hour drive of half the United States population, it was imperative that we had an annual pass so that the folks that visit the park many times on a yearly-basis will continue to have that access. So, we built the annual pass specifically for the residents. 32:04 – Kendra Straub Thank you, Superintendent Cash. We've also had a lot of operational questions and how the parking tag will be implemented. One of them is, you know, “Is the parking tag, or would the parking tag be per person or per vehicle? And could it be transferred between vehicles?” 32:19 – Dana Soehn Okay, thank you. The parking tag is per vehicle, not per person. And the implementation of how we will apply, whether it applies to two cars in a household or one car in a household, those are some of the implementation issues that we're working through right now. And we do appreciate your input to see what best meets your needs. I can tell you that as we've talked about it, we know there are some compliance challenges that come along with having one tag be transferable to more than one car, especially in a park without the digital connectivity for us to easily check for compliance. But again, we welcome your input. That's exactly the kind of information that will help us make this tag program user friendly, if we move forward with it. So, thank you. 33:17 – Kendra Straub Thank you. We've also had some questions about entrance fees in the park. And if this parking tag program is sort of an alternative to or a way to get around entrance fees. 33:29 – Cassius Cash Yeah. So, thank you for that question. So, parking fees and entry fees are both allowed under FLREA. Congress passed this law, particularly because they understood that the appropriated dollars that we get on an annual basis could not cover all of our associated costs with providing services to the millions of visitors that we get on an annual basis. - 10 - Page - 10 - of 16 (Cassius Cash, continues 33:52) So, Dana has gone extensively over the reason why we can't charge an entrance fee. So, management here – me, namely - chose to use what we call an expanded amenity authority under FLREA, and that's where the parking fee comes into play. And because we have, as I said before, because we have the deed restriction, we only have one option with that. So, it's not a way to get around. It's just exercising what's already under the law. Dana also mentioned that there are some parks that actually exercise both, the expanded amenity fee and the entrance fee. But so that's where we are. Thanks. 34:34 – Kendra Straub Thank you, Superintendent Cash. We've also seen several questions that really all get at, “How or would the parking tag program relieve congestion? Is it going to solve parking issues?” 34:49 – Dana Soehn Well, the parking tag in and of itself will not solve the congestion issues that we have in the park. The tags will not be capped, they won't be limited to try to limit visitation. The tags will not be tied to a reservation across the park. So, the tag in and of itself will not help us solve the congestion. But the revenues that we generate through the Smokies “Park It Forward” program will now give us the resources to continue to try to implement some of the congestion management strategies that we started piloting at, again, the park’s busiest sites. So, there's not one kind of like silver bullet that helps us look at each situation to manage congestion in all the same ways. But I can tell you that that's something that we have a team that is also addressing and looking at sources to help us solve those really complex challenges across the park. 35:57 – Kendra Straub Thank you, we've also received a number of questions about whether or not there would be some sort of discount for inter-agency ‘America the Beautiful’ passes. 36:10 – Dana Soehn So, the ‘America the Beautiful’ passes give discount specifically for entrance fees. That's the way the policy is written. It's the authority that is given to provide those discounts. But that is something that our implementation team is looking very carefully at now to see if there's a possibility to use the ‘America the Beautiful’ passes, specifically the access passes. That's the one that's provided for permanently disabled people. And then also the senior passes. Those two passes in particular, we know that we are able to apply to discounts in our in our camping program under FLREA. So specifically, we're looking at those but also at the other pass types. And again, we welcome your input as we try to look at that a little bit closer. 37:09 – Kendra Straub Thank you, we've had a number of folks just kind of wondering whether there's a concern or consideration for the parking tag program reducing the ability of low-income visitors to access park facilities? - 11 - Page - 11 - of 16 37:22 – Cassius Cash So, good question. So, our intent is not to have these parking passes serve as a barrier to them enjoying the National Park. As a matter of fact, we were very conscientious about being price-sensitive when we outline the different levels of costs associated with the days the parking passes would be good for. And if you remember the comparisons that Dana showed within her presentation, hopefully you can see that we were still below on a lot of passes that are comparable to what we're proposing. We're still below those costs. So, we were very sensitive to that. And again, it's not our intent to have this pass be an economic barrier. Another thing that I want to pinpoint is that there are at least seven free days, that is recognized on a national level by the National Park Service. And we intend to have those free days associated with our parking pass. And through collaboration with local communities, if we feel there is one or two, maybe more that we need to happen in this park. Based on that sensitivity, then those are conversations we can have with our local leaders here, if we feel that it's necessary. So, thank you. 38:42 – Kendra Straub Thank you, and that the next question really is around, you know, if this program were to be adopted, and the Park received that additional revenue, what would some of the park’s priorities be for utilizing that revenue? 38:57 – Cassius Cash Yeah, so good question. So, one of the things that Dana gave a couple of stats on was the amount of law enforcement we've had to reduce over the years. We've had to make some tough decisions. And the amount of maintenance staff that we've had to reduce as well over the last couple of years. Those are our largest two divisions within the park. And because of that, when we've had to make the books balance, we've had to make some tough decisions with that. I say this facetiously, but when I get “fan mail” about things that we can do better, they’re usually associated with those two divisions. And so, when it comes to prioritization, I'm going to be looking very hard at those two divisions to make sure that we can have more rotations on bathroom cleaning, that we can have more rotations on trash pickup, that we can have more law enforcement officers to respond readily when someone is in need in the backcountry. So, there's a whole list of things I In those two divisions, particularly, that I really want to have prioritized, as my top priority. I do want to underscore that there are other divisions here that serve a critical purpose in making sure that this park stays intact. But when it comes to these particular dollars, I want to focus on those. And then one last point is Dana talked about the scope of this project. You know, those monies that stay within the park are not all for jobs. There are guidelines and regulations to how we can spend those monies. And some of that is associated with how much we put into infrastructure. And it does allow us to have some staffing needs being met that are catered to, towards visitor services. So, we intend to expand as much as possible on all those percentages of where we can spend those monies that are generated from the parking pass it this proposal moves forward. - 12 - Page - 12 - of 16 40:58 – Kendra Straub Thank you, we've had some questions also about just where the parking tag would be required. Would it be all parking lots within the park? 41:09 – Dana Soehn So, the parking tag will be required in any parking lot, any designated parking spot, across the park. So, whether you're hiking in Abrams Creek or having a picnic at Balsam Mountain, or you know you're in Cataloochee touring the historic cabins, we feel like this appropriately applies the same tool for visitors to be able to help provide for the care of those resources, no matter where they are in the park. 41:44 – Kendra Straub Thank you. And we've had a number of questions regarding enforcement of the parking tag if the program were to be adopted. And could tickets be written and how would the park enforce it? 41:55 – Cassius Cash I think this is a piece of, a portion of, the presentation that Dana had talked about. And I just want to reiterate that if this proposal moves forward with us having parking tags, that education is going to be the tip of the spear for us. You know, this park is 88 years old. And there have been generations of folks that have visited here with the understanding that parking tags were not a requirement. And we don't expect for that switch to flip overnight. And so, education is going to be the front, the first leg, of how we bring up to par people understanding what the needs are. And also, as Dana has said, we always give our officers discretion. But I assure you that we will be talking with our law enforcement officers to get in alignment with that this is how we want to roll this out. And another way that I look at it too, you know, some people will say, “Well, what happens if I don't, you know, have a parking tag?” or whatever. You know, we don't catch everybody that speeds through the park, right? And same thing would be with parking. And now that's not encouraging people to not buy tags. But we can only do so much, and we feel education is more of an effective tool of using than citations. 43:12 – Kendra Straub Thank you. How much revenue does the park estimate would be collected through the proposed parking tag program? 43:23 – Dana Soehn Well, if you start to take the best estimate we possibly can and which type of tag we think visitors, based on past use, might choose. We look at how many visitors we think truly only come once a year, and they come one time, and would probably want that $5 tag, or maybe it's just a few times a year they come. And how many visitors do we think again, based on their visitor patterns over the last several years, would want that up to seven-day tag, and then the annual tag. So, when we start to break those down based on the survey data available to us, it's roughly we believe about 50 percent of our visitors would likely want the annual tag. And then you know another half would be sort of evenly divided between that daily tag and the weekly tag. So that's our very gross estimate. And again, we're basing that on the 3 million vehicles that we believe will likely need the tag. - 13 - Page - 13 - of 16 (Dana Soehn, continues 44:24) So, as you can imagine just doing some simple math and thinking about growing that compliance. It over the course of the early years, you can see that we can meet our revenue goals, which our goals now are to try to generate at least $10 to $15 million dollars in sustainable annual funds that can support our operational needs. As visitation increases, those funds would appropriately increase. Visitation takes a dip, the funds would appropriately decline. That's our goal. And again, we believe, especially based on as we grow compliance, that we're going to be able to meet the revenue goals. 45:12 – Kendra Straub Thank you. And a number of participants have been asking a variety of questions about out of bounds parking. And sort of, you know, “What is it? And how does the park plan to eliminate it? Won't this potentially reduce the amount of parking that's available to visitors?” 45:31 – Dana Soehn Well, if you've been to the park over the last couple of years, you've seen out of bounds parking. Again, at about seven locations: Alum Cave parking, Laurel Falls parking, or Grotto Falls, Trillium Gap parking on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and then a couple of areas you might not even expect it. But during a couple of months of the year at Big Creek, and then a couple of other months at Deep Creek. And then Clingmans Dome and Cades Cove. Those are the locations where we really have congestion issues. And we really have serious out of bound parking issues. And again, it's grown over time, as the demand has far exceeded the amount of available parking. It's our job to make sure that we're preserving those roadside corridors and we're providing safe access. So, we believe it's vitally important for us to eliminate that unsafe parking, and parking that is destroying some of those roadside communities and the infrastructure associated with roads’ shoulders. So yes, there will be less opportunities for people to have that behavior of parking wherever they want to, even if it's unsafe, and it's tearing up the resources. It's the best thing for the park, though. It's the best thing to protect the safety of the visitors getting out of their car, and accessing that trailhead, walking along a really busy roadway. Two-way traffic on a mountain road, people coming through there and then having to dodge, you know, several family members who are trying to make their way to the trailhead. We are looking, as I said, at those locations to see how we can accommodate access in a better, safer way. And so, it could be that, you know, as we start to eliminate that roadside parking, we're also trying to provide more options for people. Perhaps we might be able to look at some pilot shuttle systems. We experimented a little bit with that at Laurel Falls. So, our goal is to provide high-quality, safe access. We cannot build our way out of providing that by building more parking areas. We will never have enough parking areas to provide the level of demand that we have for those trails. We're hoping that people when they get to those spaces and find the parking lots are full, that they'll start letting us help them a little bit with trip planning. Picking the time of year, picking the time of day, picking some other similar locations. With 150 different trails, 850 miles of trail in the park, there are plenty of options for people to experience a trail experience if we can just help them find some of those spaces and spread - 14 - Page - 14 - of 16 (Dana Soehn, continues 48:32) out our use appropriately. So those are some of our goals. As we again, we'll start to appropriately address those congestion issues with the roadside parking. 48:48 – Kendra Straub Thank you. There's been several questions asking about exemptions or some sort of discount for descendants of families who sold their lands to the states of Tennessee and North Carolina, for the park to be created. 49:03 – Cassius Cash Yeah, thank you. So as the proposal stands now, and again, I want to just want to keep saying that we welcome any comments that you have, through our program that this is something that we need to further consider. But as the proposal stands now, that's not a feature of that type of discount being incorporated into the proposal. I just want to reiterate again that when we came up with these price points that we want to make sure that, one, those price points were as inclusive as possible. And then secondly, as I mentioned, that this would not be a socio-economic barrier for folks that want to continue to enjoy the national park. One thing I will mention in regards to the descendants that there's questions, I know I've personally received questions about, “Would we need a parking tag to go to do Decoration Days or family reunions?” And I just want to share the sentence in particular that we will continue to utilize our special use permit, which allows for descendants to have decoration days and family reunions at no cost. As you know, each of those visits are very unique. Some require both shuttle, vehicle shuttles, and so forth. And so, we will continue to collaborate with the descendants to ensure that that traditional use in the park continues at no cost. 50:37 – Kendra Straub Thank you. We've also received a few questions from park volunteers who who've joined the call and just about if there would be exemptions for park staff and volunteers for the parking tag. 50:50 – Dana Soehn So there, again in the FLREA authority, there's exemptions for people who are doing business in the park. So, the obvious situation is for park employees, and our park partners like the Great Smoky Mountains Association, who have employees that operate our visitor centers across the park. And exemptions also for volunteers who are doing work under our volunteer agreement. They're just like employees coming to work that day to do business of the park. Again, these are all implementation issues that we will be looking at as this program moves forward. And there are some complexities to that, as you can imagine, that we'll have to work through because we, certainly with our 3,000 volunteers in the park, we want to make sure we are appropriately applying an exemption. For instance, if you have a one-time volunteer group who comes just to do one service day where they're picking up litter, what type of a tag might make the most sense for them. Maybe it's the one-day tag. So, looking at how it's applied and the number of hours that volunteers who serve in the park would make the most sense for those types. It's all a part of those implementation issues that - 15 - Page - 15 - of 16 (Dana Soehn, continues 52:08) we simply need to dive into and look a little bit closer at but those are some of the first thoughts that we've had as we look at that. 52:17 - Kendra Straub Thank you. If this parking tag program is adopted, would the park stop receiving that federal funding or base funding that you showed in the presentation? 52:29 – Cassius Cash Well, I certainly hope not. That's not my intention for that federal funding to stop. Again, one of the things that we're trying to do here is take advantage of the opportunities that FLREA provides us in that fees section that Dana talked about, and to bump up our opportunities to better serve visitors. We will continue to get congressionally appropriated dollars. The issue again is that, you know, if we get a slight bump and our appropriated dollars, while we average a 3 percent inflation rate, right, if you will, just a cost of doing business, which averages in at around $300-some-thousand dollars. And so that is based on the spending. And so it's imperative again, that we can increase our opportunities in the fee section of that the bar graph that Dana showed you earlier. That, in my opinion, will get us a seat at the table with the other sized parks like the Smokies, so that again, we can raise that $2 per visitor up to the $15 and $18 per visitor. Because again, we feel that our visitors deserve just as much of a service as a visitor at Yosemite or Yellowstone or Glacier, and the list goes on. 53:51 – Kendra Straub Thank you. Once set, would the price of the parking tags remain the same going forward? 53:59 – Dana Soehn So again, under the FLREA authority, all parks are encouraged to be reviewing their plans annually to make sure that the fees they're charging - campground fees we've talked about and parking fees under that FLREA authority - are meeting the operational needs appropriately. So, they really should be assessed and thoughtfully looked at every year. As you can see, our track record isn't always great at doing that we you know. We haven't raised our campground rates in six years. We haven't raised our backcountry rates in 10 years. But the goal is that we are doing thoughtful reviews every year to look at that price point and see if it's still reasonable and feasible. 54:49 – Kendra Straub Thank you. As I said we had a lot of engagement on our question-and-answer board here and we have a number of questions we couldn't get to. But I do want to let you know that we have a robust FAQ section on our website. And you can find the link to the “Park It Forward” program from our homepage. We also want to welcome each and every one of you to provide your feedback about the proposal during the public comment period, which will run through May 7. The exact information on how to comment through that public comment period can also be found on our website. And at the end of this presentation, we will show this information on the screen for you to jot down. And now I would like to turn it back over to Superintendent Cassius Cash. - 16 - Page - 16 - of 16 55:37 – Cassius Cash All right, thank you, Kendra. And I want to thank each of you for, again, giving us your time for this hour to talk about a proposal that we're excited about. And I hope through the presentation that Dana has provided, that one is transparent and that the need is clear of what the Smokies needs. Going forward, this park will be 100 years old in 12 years. And so, we're trying to make decisions now to ensure that the protection and the preservation of this park is the way we found it if not better. You know, if you've seen the film that I've provided on our website, you will hear me say a statement, something to the effect that the sacrifices - and we've talked about that a little bit tonight - going back from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to the settlers. And again, I remain so grateful for those sacrifices that have given a lot of families from around the world the memories of being here in the park. But we're at a crossroads as we talked about. And what we are wanting to do is to shift the weight of those sacrifices of local Tennesseans and North Carolinians, that has been what we've talked about. Shifting that to the shoulders of the millions of visitors that come to this park to of course maintaining in perpetuity. In the park service, we are in the “forever business.” And we feel that with park funding - or the parking fees - that ensures that we will be able to do that in a way that we're proud and that you're proud of the work that we're doing here. So that we can continue to work and generate new visitor experiences along with those visitor services. So, I want to thank you, and have a good evening. 57:25 – END OF PRESENTATION TEXT ON SCREEN: Public Comment Period will run through May 7th. We hope to hear from each and every one of you! Submit your feedback online: https://go.nps.gov/ParkItForward or Via Mail: 107 Park Headquarters Rd, Gatlinburg, TN 37738 57:45 – END OF VIDEO
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Recording of the Park It Forward virtual public meeting held on April 14, 2022.
Last updated: September 6, 2022