Chronology of documented misrepresentations employed by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park  to justify the impending backcountry fee.

This document summarizes Great Smoky Mountains National Park public pronouncements and representations that are false.

 

A. July 27, 2011, Pronouncement

Chronologically, apparently the first pronouncement was July 27, 2011. The statements which are false are in italics, bold and underlined.

 

Backcountry Office & Permit System Restructuring Proposal"

July 27, 2011
Introduction


Park management is considering a proposal to improve visitor services by restructuring the park’s backcountry reservations and permitting processes as well as assisted backcountry
trip planning services. The purpose of this document is to brief park partners, cooperators
and stakeholder representatives and to solicit feedback on this proposal.

 

Background and Scope of Problem
 

The park consistently receives complaints about the amount of time and effort it takes for visitors to get a backcountry reservation and/or acquire backcountry planning information. This is a reflection of insufficient staffing for the volume of customers, both call-in and walk-in, requiring reservations and/or trip planning information.• The park also frequently receives feedback from the public that they desire to see more rangers in the backcountry to address problems such as dogs on trails, and permit and camping violations. This includes overcrowding of backcountry campsites by nonpermitted campers. A greater National Park Service presence is also desired in the Backcountry Information Office to provide trip planning services.

 

• Non-reserved sites currently comprise over half the park’s backcountry campsite inventory. Because they are non-reserved, capacities are frequently exceeded, which results in food storage violations, increased wildlife encounters and the need to close campsites to protect visitors and wildlife. When the park needs to close one of these sites, staff must rely on closure signs at permit stations and at the sites themselves to notify campers, but this is not a reliable method of notification. A reliable system of notification is vitally important when closures are due to bears or other safety reasons.

 

Proposed Solution and Outcomes


1. Contract with Recreation.gov, an online and call-in reservation service, to which
customers will have 24/7 access and can print their backcountry permit prior to arriving
in the park. Recreation.gov is the official centralized reservation service used by all U.S.
Department of Interior and U.S. Forest Service recreational areas offering camping
reservation services. These options will reduce the number of reservation calls to the
Backcountry Information Office and allow staff to spend more time assisting customers with high-quality trip planning services, both walk-in and by phone. Although park research suggests that 80% of reservations will likely be made online and almost 20% by phone, there will also be an opportunity for customers to obtain reservations or permits on a walk-in basis at the Backcountry Information Office and potentially at one or two other select visitor contact stations in the park.
The reservation system will dramatically increase reservation/ permit customer service and ensure customers have greatly improved access to high-quality trip planning information, both through personal contacts and improved on-line planning tools. Customers will be able to make reservations and obtain permits at their convenience.

 

2. Create a cost recovery fee structure for reservations that will generate revenue to cover both the contractor cost of the reservation system and support an increased National Park Service presence in the Backcountry Information Office and in the park’s backcountry. Although Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been offering free backcountry permits for years, the park is in the minority when compared to other parks with comparable backcountry operations. Most other parks with similar backcountry operations charge between $10 and $30 per reservation, and many have additional per person or per person, per night fees. Parks use these fees in support of their backcountry operations programs and, in turn, offer improved services to the public. Similarly, beyond providing access to a more convenient reservation/permitting service, Great Smoky Mountains National Park proposes using these fees to increase ranger presence in the backcountry and improve customer access to trip planning services through the Backcountry Information Office.


Alternative fee structures that would allow the park to meet these objectives include:
o $10 per reservation + $5 per person; or,
o $10 per reservation + $2.25 per person per night; or,
o $4 per person per night.


3. Require reservations for all backcountry sites. The reservation system will have the capability of notifying reservations holders of site closures, safety issues, or emergency information via phone calls, text messages or emails. The park will be aware of, and have contact information for, users at each site. The park will be able to reliably contact each reservation holder with timely information about closures, safety issues and other important backcountry information.
By placing all sites on the reservation system and having an increased ranger presence in the backcountry, negative impacts to both the natural environment and to the visitor experience from overcrowding and other conflicts will be reduced.  Conclusion
Implementation of this proposal will result in an improvement to customer service that will make obtaining backcountry reservations quick, easy and convenient for customers, as well as increase their access to Backcountry Information Office personnel for trip planning. Additional rangers in the park’s backcountry will improve visitor experience by actively addressing commonly reported backcountry camper concerns.


Additional Information & Comments
• Written comments regarding this proposal may be addressed to the Park Superintendent by August 26th. Comments may be submitted via email to grsmcomments@nps.gov or by mail to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, Tennessee 37738.


• The park will also hold two informational open houses regarding this proposal to which partners, cooperators, stakeholder representatives and the general public are invited.


o Tuesday, August 16: Old Oconoluftee Visitor Center 5:30 – 7:30 pm.


o Thursday, August 18: Headquarters Lobby 5:30 – 7:30 pm”

 

It is to be noted that this GSMNP pronouncement appears to have been “scrubbed” from the internet; however, proof at trial will include evidence the GSMNP did make this pronouncement.

 

1. “Increase ranger presence in the backcountry”

 

It is also to be noted that before this and any other GSMNP pronouncements or statements about the backpacker tax were made, the following documents silently existed.

 

There are 2 documents, more particularly:


1) A “United States Department of Interior, National Park Service, Southeast Regional Office” “Memorandum” “F5419(5072)” that is undated; and  (click the link and scroll down to page 25 of the documents)

 

2) A “United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service” response “Memorandum” “F5419 (2608)” that is dated August 16, 2011.

 

Copies of those document are attached as Exhibits.

 

The first document or memorandum’s “Subject” is:

 

“Exception Requests for New/Increased Fees in the Southeast Region.”

 

It includes the following statement:

 

“ ...GRSM is proposing to institute a new fee for backcountry camping and shelter reservation and use. The park currently does not charge for these reservations and is proposing to begin charging a fee to cover the service charges and related costs of putting these sites onto the NRRS. The final actual fee will be determined through the civic engagement process and is likely to align with the total fees charged to the NPS by the NRRS. Having these sites on the NRRS will improve customer service for visitors wishing to reserve these sites as they will now have 24/7 access to reserve and/or change reservations rather than having to call the park during normal business hours. There will be no increase in overall annual revenue as the result of this proposed increase as this will simply be a new fee to cover the recreation.gov service fees...” (Emphasis supplied.) (click link to see actual Freedom of Information Act Documents)


It is understood this 1st, undated DOI memorandum predates all public pronouncements supporting the need for this back country camping tax.

 

The 2nd document apparently approves the back packer tax and is dated after the pronouncement.


2. “Camp Overcrowding”

 

The Park’s own statistics prove that with the noteworthy exception of shelters along the Appalachian Trail and a mere handful of other sites, quite the opposite is and long has been the case. Backcountry usage peaked many years ago and then went into an appreciable decline. Most sites are under-utilized, even in months of maximum usage such as May and October. To state that the backcountry was overcrowded when officials could readily ascertain, from their own statistical data, that such was not the case was disingenuous. Ditmanson later altered this claim a bit to focus on AT shelters, but this only came after he had been caught in his original deception.

 

Backcountry camping peaked in the 1990s and has declined dramatically since that time, leveling out in recent years at under 80,000 total camper nights annually.

 

Southern Forest Watch “crunched” the park's own data, and the data reflects that backcountry sites actually average less than 2 people per night.

 

Summary of Campsite Data

 

It shows a total of 72,907 camper nights for 108 campsites. That comes out to 675 campers per site for a full year, or less than two people per night. That is hardly overcrowded, and the figures show that the Park is misleading the public in even worse fashion if you remove Mt. Leconte and Appalachian Trail shelters. Over half of backcountry campsites averaged less than ONE CAMPER PER NIGHT.

 

Eventually, the Superintendent told Southern Forest Watch board member Frank Whitehead:

 

“Perhaps that was the wrong argument to use.”

 

3. “The park consistently receives complaints”

 

A Southern Forest Watch FOIA request has uncovered that in the last three years (2009-2011) there were precisely 15 total complaints on backcountry matters, with five coming from a single individual and most dealing with trails and issues not directly related to campsites.


4. “Insufficient staffing for the volume of customers, both call-in and walk-in, requiring reservations and/or trip planning information”


Testimony will include call-in and walk-in backpackers saying there are no real problems making reservations or planning backpacking trips.


Additionally, a solution was offered (Southern Forest Watch volunteers) that was ignored.

 

5. Sham public meetings

 

On July 27, 2011, the GSMNP announced two “informational open houses” in 20 and 22 days respectively. Each lasted 2 hours and were shams.

Testimony will include that those who attended had no opportunity to share their concerns with others. Instead, they were “assigned,” in groups of two or three, to Park representatives.

No notes were taken and apparently no effort was made to record the thoughts of attendees.

Failure to record them rendered “informational open houses” meaningless.

 

B. GSMNP To Institute Backcountry Fees

 

There was an article published in the National Parks Traveler that is full of further inaccuracies attributed to the GSMNP superintendent.

 

“...The proposal was open for public comment last summer and some 230 written comments and two petitions were received ruing the comment period, according to park officials...”

 

The GSMNP through its superintendent also stated:

 

“...a significant number of responses received either showed support or offered substantive comments towards improving it...”

and

...a small group took exception to the concept of a new fee...”


After a difficult FOIA process with the GSMNP, all the comments were obtained.

 

Actually, the responses were 827 against the tax and 45 for the tax.

 

Also, by a ratio of roughly 19 to 1, with anonymous comments pro or con not being counted, the comments opposed the backcountry fees. It actually appeared that virtually all of the sparse support for the fees came from individuals, such as concessionaires, with a vested interest in currying favor at Sugarlands. To suggest that there was wide support for the fees simply will not stand up to even moderate scrutiny. Nor is the statement that “a small group took exception to the concept of a new fee” in any way accurate. Of those who commented, the vast majority took exception.

 

C. Great Smoky Mountains Press Release dated March 7, 2012, titled “Smokies Backcountry Camping Fee Approved”

This press release can be seen at    http://www.nps.gov/grsm/parknews/bc-camping-fee.htm


It includes the following statement:

“...The Park developed the plan in order to improve its trip-planning and reservation services to users and to expand its backcountry Ranger presence to better protect park resources through enforcement of food-storage and other regulations and improved visitor education regarding Leave-No-Trace principles...”

 

This press relief quotes “Great Smoky Mountains Superintendent Dale A. Ditmanson.”

“Most importantly, 100 percent of the revenue from this program will be invested in improving backcountry services through extended hours of the backcountry office, trip-planning assistance, online reservations, and protection of Park resources through increased ranger staff.”

 

Again, the hidden internal DOI document states:

“ ...There will be no increase in overall annual revenue as the result of this proposed increase as this will simply be a new fee to cover the recreation.gov service fees...” (Emphasis supplied.)

 

This quote attributed to the superintendent is false.

 

D. Avid Smokies hiker seeks access to comments collected over park backcountry fee

 

The news article could be found at  Avid Smokies hiker seeks access to comments collected over park backcountry fee » Knoxville News Sentinel

“Park Spokesman” Bob Miller is quoted in the article:

“...?

The park is not going to profit from this,’ Miller said. ?We're not proposing the fee just to aggravate people. The only way we can contemplate this is if we can improve on the services we're not satisfied with.’ Miller said it is ‘very unlikely? the park will reach a final decision on the backcountry camping fee before next summer in 2012.’...”

While Bob Miller is not quoted, the article relates:

 

“The fee would also pay to hire two backcountry rangers who would check campsites to prevent crowding that can damage natural resources and lead to food storage problems and encourage nuisance bears.” (Emphasis supplied.)

 

Again, the hidden, internal DOI document states:


“ ...There will be no increase in overall annual revenue as the result of this proposed increase as this will simply be a new fee to cover the recreation.gov service fees...” (Emphasis supplied.)

 

Obviously, Bob Miller provided the news article’s author with the information that “...[t]he fee would also pay to hire two backcountry rangers...”


Apparently, Bob Miller is providing false information to steer support for the tax.

 

E. Great Smoky Mountains National Park Looking To Backcountry User Fee To Improve Services, Protect Resources

 

The news article can be found at:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Looking To Backcountry User Fee To Improve Services, Protect Resources | National Parks Traveler

 

Again, Superintendent Ditmanson is the source of information for this article. He is quoted throughout the article.

“...Pinched by an inadequate budget and unable to charge an entrance fee for any of his roughly 9 million yearly visitors, Great Smoky Superintendent Dale Ditmanson sees no way of improving visitor services and protecting backcountry resources without charging users who spend the night in the woods...”


The Superintendent went further:


“...A fee system, he says, would extend the park's backcountry office to five eight-hour days, enable two rangers to patrol the backcountry daily, and provide users with an on-line reservation system...”

The Superintendent is not done.


“...Superintendent Ditmanson says. `And then staffing in the backcountry office to extend those hours from three hours to a full day operation, and two backcountry rangers. So that I think is getting a lot of mileage out of that.’...”


To reiterate, when he told this writer his vision, the Superintendent also knew well that:

“...[t]here would be no increase in overall annual revenue as the result of this proposed increase as this will simply be a new fee to cover the recreation.gov services fee...”

The Superintendent apparently used false information to steer support for the tax.

“ ...?Well, I guess that’s a good point,’ said Superintendent Ditmanson. ?When I was at a public meeting talking to people, I admitted that we wouldn’t put the idea forward if we didn’t think we couldn’t improve service to the public and protect the resources. So from that perspective, have we put ourselves on a road to that kind of decision? Yeah, I can see how that can be interpreted.’...” (Emphasis supplied.)


“...If a fee program is instituted, Superintendent Ditmanson said it will underwrite two rangers whose sole responsibility will be patrolling the backcountry...”


If this quote is correct, Superintendent Ditmanson was using false information to steer support for the tax.

 

F. Conversations with US Representatives

 

The Superintendent represented that Congressional Representatives and Senators had received “Few if any” complaints about the backcountry campsite tax.

Testimony will come from North Carolina and Tennessee citizens and from staff from Congressional Representatives and Senators staffs denying this allegation.

 

G. Other False Public Statements

“...Most importantly, 100 percent of the revenue from this program will be invested in improving backcountry services through extended hours of the backcountry office, trip-planning assistance, online reservations, and protection of Park resources through increased ranger staff.”

 

DAILY TIMES ARTICLE ABOUT THE BACKCOUNTRY FEE


“...Spokesperson Nancy Gray said, "In all, comments ranged both for and against the proposal."


“It’s not surprising that our public is very passionate about the Smokies,” Gray said. “There were people who simply want the opportunity to camp in the backcountry to remain free. On the other hand, there were other people who they respected the fact of having these additional resources available but wanted to make sure if they were charged a fee that fee would go toward the use we recommended..”

"The park is not going to profit from this," Bob Miller, other park spokesman said in earlier interview "We're not proposing the fee just to aggravate people. The only way we can contemplate this is if we can improve on the services we're not satisfied with."


"When I was at a public meeting talking to people, I admitted that we wouldn’t put the idea forward if we didn’t think we couldn’t improve service to the public and protect the resources. So from that perspective, have we put ourselves on a road to that kind of decision? Yeah, I can see how that can be interpreted." Ditmanson said.


NATIONAL PARKS TRAVELER ARTICLE ABOUT THE FEE

 

To reiterate, according to their own US Department of Interior documents, the GSMNP well knew the following:

“ ... There will be no increase in overall annual revenue as the result of this proposed increase as this will simply be a new fee to cover the recreation.gov service fees...”

This was well known by the GSMNP, and all its employees, before they started their false public relations campaign to drum up support for this unwanted backpacker tax.

This is patent dishonesty by governing bureaucrats, and it is tyrannical and shameful.

 


*Caveat, this list of falsehoods is limited exclusively the backpacker tax. It does not include other, existing public misrepresentations and missteps involving other issues.

 

 

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