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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Entrance fees to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would help ensure proper trail maintenance and prevent environmental degradation, a University of Tennessee researcher said Friday.

Dr. Carol Harden, UT-Knoxville associate professor of geography, has studied water runoff in the Smokies.

Her research shows hiking trails are far more likely to cause erosion than other areas of the forest.

Proper trail maintenance helps prevent erosion, but proposed federal budget cuts could reduce trail maintenance and other park services, she said.

“If (the U.S. Park Service) couldn’t pay their personnel to keep up with maintenance of the park, there would be a real deterioration of trails and other facilities,” Harden said.

Congress recently proposed that all national parks generate 75 percent of their operating cost from fees. President Clinton has called for a 10 percent cut in the Park Service budget.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials recently said they plan to ask Tennessee and North Carolina for permission to charge fees. When the two states donated the land for the park, they stipulated there would be no entrance fees.

Of the 54 national parks that admit cars, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the only one with no fee, said Superintendent Karen Wade.

User fees similar to those at other national parks — about $5 per car — can help prevent reduction in trail and campground maintenance, trash pickup and other services that might result from budget cuts, Harden said.

“Many people take it for granted that the park is attractive, not covered with trash and pleasant to visit. We have to face the fact that it costs somebody to keep it that way,” Harden said.

Contact: Dr. Carol Harden (615-974-2418)