BACKCOUNTRY TAX FEEASCO the unedited and uncensored edition

Our original Backcountry Tax blog on the gosmokies site was moderated by some folks who held an opinion in favor of backcountry fees.  As a result the blog operator, Jigsha Desai made several threats to shut us down but we remained in operation because it was the most popular blog post in the history of that site.  We decided to take our conversation to a place where our message wouldn't be suppressed.  This blog is the result.

Therefore, it is our collective opinion that the Backcountry Fee Proposal put out By Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson and backcountry specialist Melissa Cobern is an egregious reach into the pockets of taxpaying citizens. 

A prominent study proves that access fees restrict use of National Park and forest lands.

The primary justification of the backcountry fee proposal made by park administration is campsite overcrowding which was proven false.  Click here for details and statistics to prove this fallacy for exactly what it is.  A federal fee grab.

Park management cozies up to the horse lobby but proposes a tax on  backpackers who are the best citizens of the Great Smoky Mountains.  In fact, Ditmanson recently signed off on a new horse concession smack dab in the middle of Cades Cove. is touted as a solution for reservation problems in the backcountry office but this Canadian based company is frought with problems.  72 hour reservations are required for the empty Smokies campsites you will be paying for the privilege of using.  Forget spontaneous weekend outings with the family.  Better pull out the wallet, you are going to pay just to talk to them.

This is not about money for any of us.  We love the Smokies and actually get out there and know the lies being spread by the Sugarlands swashbucklers.  It is a matter of deciding what type of National Park you want.  Should boy scout groups and single mothers and twenty somethings be discouraged from nature because of trumped up justifications for more rangers?  We think not.  Help us stop this double taxation now.  One fee will result in another.  We must make a stand.

(picture courtesy Kittzy Benzar, Western Slope No fee coalition)

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Comment by John Quillen on June 25, 2017 at 11:16pm

That is very interesting, Mike.  Explains why this report could be late, huh?

Comment by Dustin M on June 24, 2017 at 10:51am

Nice find, thanks Mike

Comment by Mike Thorpe on June 24, 2017 at 10:20am

John, I wasn't sure how to link to his FaceBook page so I copied and pasted this below....feel free to move or to delete if you choose, just looked interesting and sounds far too typical of their doings.....

Comment by Mike Thorpe on June 24, 2017 at 10:17am

Interesting account sent to me apparently written by the supervior of Wildlife at Smokies. Wildlife personnel have always been just this type of professionals and always could be counted on. There were other rangers there also trying to sort out the chaos. Lets see how the "Individual Fire review addresses this mess and tell us where the hell all the other park service firefighters were and who was making any decisions.


Below my questioning is Stiver's account of his employees. The yellow highlights are points of interest. Unfortunately - no timeline. What is interesting is my question about "backfire" being ignited at Headquarters and Maintenance? You can see charring at this low ground level as did History Association employees photographing fire literally right up to the tin/metal storage building - posted on Facebook. Unfortunately we didn't download the image before it was removed; yet I can prove where they did remove posted comments from an employee on Facebook talking about the Chimneys Fire being "monitored" like a prescribed burn. More on that particular subject later.

If embers from the main fire were "supposedly" causing these particular spot fires; then how come fire was in the valley floor at Headquarters? Why didn't these spot fire embers land on the roof of NPS structures or did they? Wouldn't the wildfire embers land more so on adjacent ridges higher up in the trees - above the valley floor of Headquarters? I find it ironic that fire was all around the History Association structures and maintenance at such a low elevation? Simply, was the fire from the valley floor at Headquarters and maintenance areas from falling wildfire embers; or from backfire "out of control"? Was the fire that "rolled up" up the mountain from backfire ignited in the Headquarter/Maintenance valley area?

What is interesting is they were headed back to Headquarters and fire was on them. They were told to close the by-pass gate. Obviously the Chief Ranger had to give those orders. While these 2 wildlife technicians (Herrington & Williamson) were cutting trees up to Campbell Lead along the by-pass, is that when the fire manager and crews ignited backfire to protect Headquarters/Maintenance; and when the 2 wildlife technicians were on their way back to Headquarters, fire was rolling up from the valley floor to them on the by-pass??

At Headquarters they apparently had sufficient time to go clear fallen trees to Campbell Lead along the by-pass; yet on their way back they ran into fire. Spot fires from the actual fire, or fire from backfire????

Also, the direction up the by-pass is more of a north, north western direction. The main fire was reported as jogging a little northeast.

Also, if the lookout was allowed to "grow-up"; obviously NPS is not following protocol with Wildland Urban Interface procedures???

Maybe I'm grabbing at straws Jerry; but experience shows there is very little, or no honesty when it comes to NPS. Nobody has addressed my questioning of backfire to date. Thanks and take care.


Herrington and Williamson Narrative of 11/28/2016

The Chimney Tops 2 fire was reported in Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg, Tennessee on Wednesday, November 23, 2016 at approximately 5:20 pm. The wildfire began burning in a remote location (Chimney Tops) about 5 miles within the Park. The steep terrain with vertical cliffs and narrow rocky ridges made access to the wildfire difficult for firefighting efforts. On Monday, November 28, exceptional drought conditions and extreme winds caused the wildfire to grow rapidly, with many new spot fires starting from blowing embers carried miles away, as well as, from sparks from downed powerlines outside the Park.

The fires in Sevier County burned over 17,000 acres and were later characterized by the Sevier County Mayor as “one for the century.” The Chimney Tops 2 fire burned 10,964 acres in the park, making it the largest fire in Park history. Other fires burned another 6,176 acres on private land throughout Sevier County destroying hundreds of buildings and caused 14 human fatalities. Dozens of emergency rescue personnel responded from a variety of agencies, all of whom made significant contributions to reduce additional loss of life. However, the hard work, quick thinking and courage of two individuals was instrumental in preventing additional loss of life that night. The following is their story.

November 28, 2016 was Andrew Herrington’s first day back to work as a seasonal wildlife technician in the Twentymile area which is in the southwest portion of the Park. His assignment for the day was to drive to Park Headquarters (Gatlinburg – about a two hour one way drive) and complete orientation with personnel and his supervisor, as well as, pick up supplies and equipment for the season. Ryan Williamson, a permanent wildlife technician, was participating in the first day of a three day chainsaw course at the Twin Creeks Science and Education Center near Gatlinburg.

As the Chimney Top 2 fire increased in intensity and spread, late in the morning there was a call from the fire management office for any available firefighters. Andrew and Ryan were the only employees in the Wildlife Branch that had current qualifications. Ryan had his firefighting gear at Headquarters and was immediately assigned to patrol Little River Trail in a utility task vehicle (UTV) with two other firefighters. Their assignment was to assess fire activity on the backside of Sugarland Mountain. After driving the UTV to the Huskey Gap trail intersection and hiking about 3 miles, they determined where the fire was, made contact with the Fire Management Officer, hiked back down the trail (another 3 miles) and then drove back to Headquarters for their next assignment.

In the meantime, Andrew drove two hours back to Twentymile, got his firefighting gear, and then drove two hours back to Park Headquarters. He and two other firefighters then drove up Ski Mountain road to serve as lookouts. According to Andrew, the whole valley was choked with smoke and visibility was poor. It was an area Andrew was familiar with as 15 years earlier he had worked on a Wildland Urban Interface crew that cut firebreaks in the area including a opening in front of the porch that they were using as a lookout. Andrew remarked to the other firefighters that the area had grown up again and that it would burn if fire got in there. He also asked if they had a chainsaw in the truck, and when they replied no, Andrew suggested that they leave the area since the roads were very narrow and winding, and the winds were picking up.

Upon returning to Headquarters, Ryan and Andrew teamed up and were given the order by Chief Ranger Steve Kloster to evacuate and clear the headquarters building. They split up, with Ryan clearing the second floor, Andrew clearing the basement floor, and both of them clearing the third floor. After clearing the Headquarters building, they returned to the Little River Ranger station for their next assignment.

Back at the Ranger station they could see the red glow of the fire over the mountain. They were asked if they had access to chainsaws. Coincidentally, Ryan had a Wildlife branch chainsaw, as well as, his personal chainsaw from home with fuel, bar oil, and all the personal protective equipment for two men in his truck due to the scheduled chainsaw class. Fire Management Officer, Greg Salansky, directed them to clear trees along the south end of the Gatlinburg Bypass road from Highway 441 to Campbell Lead (approximately 1.5 miles). On their way to the Bypass road, Ryan and Andrew escorted approximately 700 evacuees out of the park fleeing towards Pigeon Forge. They cut numerous trees along the 1.5 mile section of the Bypass road, reopening a main corridor for evacuation and then turned around to go back to Headquarters.

Embers started dropping on them and spot fires erupted on both sides of the Bypass road. By the time they made it to the Bypass gate (1.5 miles) the fire was jumping the road. They decided the Bypass road was not a safe evacuation route so Ryan reported it in over the radio, and they were instructed to close the gate. Within a few short minutes the firestorm was upon them and they watched as it ripped by and violently went up the mountain toward the Ski Mountain community. They closed the Bypass gate and headed down a fiery Highway 441 toward red light # 10 at the Gatlinburg entrance. Both sides of the road were burning and trees were falling everywhere. They turned several visitors around and then parked diagonally in the road to prevent tourist from coming into the Park, and there were several.

Things looked really bad and Ryan called over the radio to anyone else at Park Headquarters that if they were there it was a time to leave or risk being burned. Everything seemed to be on fire at this point, and they heard some radio traffic about trees falling on the Spur, a 5 mile section of highway 441 between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Sensing the urgency of the evacuation and the need for chainsaws to cut trees, they decided to head to the Spur. They knew the Spur was a critical escape route from the fire and that the trees would need to be cleared so people could evacuate.

On the Spur, there were several trees down blocking one lane of traffic. Ryan and Andrew started cutting trees out of the road as they drove along, with Andrew riding in the passenger seat with his chainsaw on his lap so he could jump out and cut as quickly as possible. Traffic soon came to a gridlock so Andrew jumped out of the truck and told Ryan he would run up the road and cut out the trees, thinking Ryan could follow along with the truck once the trees were cleared. Andrew started running toward Pigeon Forge with his chainsaw and Ryan drove the truck along the road shoulder. However, eventually Ryan had to park the truck and start walking toward Pigeon Forge with his chainsaw as well. At this point, there were no fires burning nearby on the Spur.

As Ryan and Andrew quickly moved through the stopped vehicles to get to the downed trees, people started to panic and abandon their cars. At one point, a father and two boys came running up behind Andrew. Andrew told the father and two boys that he was heading up the road to cut out the trees, but they starting running forward. When other drivers saw the father and boys running, they also started exiting their vehicles. Knowing that unoccupied vehicles would block a critical escape route and potentially result in many deaths, Andrew directed people to stay in their vehicles and that they would get the trees cut out. Thankfully the people returned to their cars.

After walking through approximately 1.5 miles of traffic, Andrew arrived at Gnatty Branch and started cutting the tree. A short while later, Ryan arrived, so Andrew jumped into a Pigeon Forge cruiser and went down the road to the next burning tree to remove it. When Andrew returned, traffic on the North bound Spur (the escape route) was being diverted to South bound Spur because a tree had fallen and stopped traffic flow. Ryan and Andrew cleared tree after tree trying to maintain traffic flow with law enforcement. Soon afterwards the fire had taken the North bound Spur, closing it, meaning all traffic had to use the south Bound Spur for two way traffic, however trees had fallen only allowing one lane to operate. Ryan and Andrew quickly cleared tree after tree. During most of this time it was panic and confusion. It was basic triage… take care of the worst first and roll with the punches. Both stated details were a little blurry due to the intensity of the situation.

With no vehicle, Andrew told Ryan that he was going to hike back and get the truck. About halfway back, traffic cleared and a law enforcement unit stopped next to Andrew (Andrew couldn’t remember if it was Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg). Andrew asked the officer to get him back to the truck so he could keep cutting trees. When they got to the truck, there was fire on both sides. Andrew jumped into the truck and drove up to Ryan’s location. When they met up, Andrew asked Ryan why he parked there and Ryan replied, “there was no fire around when I left it!”

Soon after, Andrew started getting messages on his cell phone. One of his neighbors emailed him the following: “Help! there is a fire in our neighborhood and it has melted the phone lines. We can’t call for help. Emergency call 911.” Andrew’s wife and young son were in their cabin about one mile down a remote gravel road in that neighborhood. The neighborhood borders the park so Andrew immediately notified Incident Command that there was another fire 1/2 mile from the park on the Tennessee/North Carolina border and then he called 911. The Tennessee dispatcher could only connect Andrew with Blount County EMS, so he hung up and called Graham County dispatch. Seeing the fire behavior in Gatlinburg, Andrew asked them to evacuate his wife and son. The dispatcher advised Andrew that they were aware of the fire near his house, and after some convincing by Andrew, they tried to find his cabin. Thirty minutes later Graham County dispatch called Andrew and assured him that his family was safe. Andrew described it as “the worst thirty minutes of the night for me.”

Neither Ryan nor Andrew could remember many specifics after this point. They were the only two people running chainsaws on the Spur and the work was physical and constant. They worked tirelessly throughout the night driving a big circuit along the entire length of both the North and Sound bound Spur (5 miles) cutting tree after tree. Some were on fire, some were not. Tensions were high and their conversations were at a minimum, but there was no other way out for these people and that was very apparent to both of them.

As they were working, they helplessly watched as buildings along the Spur went up in flames. Ryan described it as “heart-wrenching to see fire roar through a community and to watch and hear the propane tanks explode like dominoes in succession.” At times, the propane tank explosions would drown out the sound of his running chainsaw. The winds were strong and trees kept falling. At one point, while Ryan was cutting a tree with his back to the wind, the wind became so strong that it started pushing him into the tree. Andrew had to grab ahold of Ryan, leaned back, bracing him while he cut on the tree. Andrew stated, “I would like to know how strong that gust was, as I am 200 pounds and it was pushing me around”. Andrew has been fighting fires for 16 years. He has had to run from straight line winds dropping snags around him and he has had his spike camp burned over once in Idaho, but this experience was surreal. Throughout the night they both wished they had their goggles as their eyes were getting trashed from the strong winds blowing dirt and ash in the sides of their safety glasses.

Late in the night, Ryan and Andrew returned to the middle of Gatlinburg to meet District Ranger Jared St. Clair. The city looked like a nuclear war zone. Everywhere they looked on the hillsides the forest was burning and structures were torching. Building security alarms were going off. They had started work at 7am that day. It was now 2 am, and Ryan and Andrew headed to the hotel in Pigeon Forge. Their vision partly obscured due to exhaustion and the prolonged exposure to smoke, dirt and ash. They rehabbed their chainsaws for the morning, took a quick shower and went to bed.

Up at 7am on November 29, with less than 5 hours of sleep, Andrew and Ryan returned to the Park to clear more trees along Highway 441. Both described this day as fuzzy due to being tired and exhausted, but neither complained.

Ryan and Andrew were each asked to write a report of their activities on November 28, 2016, which is what I used to write their story. Ryan concluded in his report by describing that night as “a long night filled with raw emotion and high tensions. Few events in life make you want to go hug your family, but watching others lose everything and potentially their family sure puts it into perspective.” He also stated that, “he was honored to be able serve his community in a moment such as this.”

Andrew has been on a lot of fire assignments in his 16 year National Park Service career and commented, “Only out West, have I seen fire behavior that intense, never in the East. There was no way to plan for what happened that day as it was way outside the realm of known possibilities. I watched the chaos; I experienced it; and I can tell whoever reads this that the reason nobody died at Headquarters or on the Spur is because good decisions were made in the heat of the moment. I witnessed Steve Kloster, Jared St. Clair, and Greg Salansky decisions save lives in the park that night.”

As their supervisor, I am extremely proud of Ryan and Andrew, and I am honored that they work for me in the Wildlife Branch. There is no doubt that the physical nonstop work they performed, and the quick decisions they made, saved many lives that night. Both men are very modest, humble, giving, get the job done kind of guys, and probably don’t even realize the true magnitude of their efforts. I suspect in their minds, they were just doing their jobs and what needed to be done. However, we all know these guys truly were heroes that night.


Bill Stiver

Supervisory Wildlife Biologist
This entry was posted in Uncategorized on April 17, 2017.

Comment by John Quillen on June 24, 2017 at 8:13am

I haven't seen that Mike.  I'm not a facebooker but have seen his other stuff.  Can you post a link to it somewhere here?

Comment by Mike Thorpe on June 23, 2017 at 9:09pm

From yet another angle, I am wondering if any of you guys are following Jerry Grub on Face Book. He has had a couple of interesting posts about the fire and the possibility that the fire that affected Gatlinburg might possibly have stemmed from a backfire lit near the park headquarters and having gotten out of hand....if that happened, it would sure be nice to see the feet of those in charge, held to the fire, no pun intended!

Comment by John Quillen on June 23, 2017 at 11:10am


Individual doesn't make any sense unless Lameass made a subconscious slip and they may be looking to "fire" someone over it. I believe Myers accurately noted how Ca$h quickly threw Clay Jordan under the bus right after the event.  We all know that Ca$h, however, was a firefighter for the Forest Service previously.  So he isn't in the least bit ignorant about what should have been done.

If there is one good thing that has come from this, it is that you haven't heard a peep from them about the frontcountry camping fee increase we gave them hell over.  They seem to have avoided any more contentious topics until the smoke settles.

Comment by Jim Casada on June 23, 2017 at 11:00am

John I wonder if the word "individual" was supposed to have been "independent." That is obviously the type of review that was needed. As for being overdue, that's seemingly standard operating procedure in many areas of government bureaucracy. Or am I just overly cynical?

Jim Casada

Comment by John Quillen on June 23, 2017 at 10:46am

Apparently Lameass has forgotten about the Backcountry Tax he so fervently supported. (from the same article below)

I hope you’ll continue to work with me and others from Tennessee and North Carolina to see that the Smokies receives at least the same appropriation as the other Western parks — especially when its total number of visitors is twice as much and when it doesn’t have fee revenue available to help.”

Comment by John Quillen on June 23, 2017 at 10:15am

Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander took advantage of a subcommittee meeting to inquire about the status of the individual fire review of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s response to the fall 2016 Sevier County wildfires, and Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke said it was “overdue.

I can think of a lot of things that are "overdue" at the NPS.

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