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. http://www.westernslopenofee.org/pdfuploads/Fee_Policy_White_Paper.pdf

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.

Recreation.gov 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 Jim Casada on Sunday

Myers--With information on the revenue from back country reservations for a specific time period (such as the month of October), then comparison with the stated numbers, it should be fairly easy to ascertain whether or not the NPS's figures in that regard are accurate. Simply do the proper division of the $4 fee as compared to the number (that is, of course, presuming it is for camper nights, although that was not specified).

If it comes out to be the figure the NPS gave, that's immediately highly suspect because we have plenty of observations of campsites lacking the numbers given.

Beyond that, some efforts to visit the website, check the numbers given for each campsite, then do some feet on the ground checking could be quite revealing. I don't know how readily available some of this information is, but basically what I'm saying is follow the money and see where it leads. My strong suspicion is that it will lead to a web of deceit.

It's also interesting that Gary Wilson, on the National Parks Traveler site, is saying he found full campsites most everywhere he went in October while many others are reporting quite the opposite. It's one thing to be a staunch advocate for a given position, pro or con. It's quite another to be a bald-faced liar. Someone is a master of mendacity, a duke of deceit, a high priest of hyperbole, and I don't think its folks giving specific numbers or crying foul.

Jim Casada

Comment by Myers Morton on Sunday

Thanks Guys.

We're using your comments in a reformulated FOIA request.

Keep it coming.

Comment by Dustin M on Sunday

Also, if they are counting cars what is to keep someone from driving up those numbers intentionally? This whole thing stinks bad.

Comment by Erik Gerhardt on Sunday

Let's assume that by "backcountry users" they actually mean backcountry user/camper nights -- otherwise, the numbers are beyond outrageous.

So if there were 10,294 camper nights, that means for the month that 31% of the total reservable spaces (with #11 closed there are 1,084 spots nightly) were booked. Does anyone believe that in reality even on the "busiest" night of the month one-third of the total spaces were occupied? Is that even remotely possible based on anyone's observations/experiences? I can't see how this isn't either (a) a bold-face lie by the NPS, (b) an indication that 1 or more persons or groups are locking up a significant number of spaces which aren't actually being used, or (c) that waves of "buffet-binging, redneck Christians" (spending as wastefully as if they were in Vegas) have made a game of booking up the backcountry with no intention of straying more than 50 feet from their cars.  

Comment by Dustin M on November 14, 2014 at 9:43am

I would narrow the search to backcountry fee registration records during the month of October of 2014 for starters.

Comment by John Quillen on November 14, 2014 at 9:34am

Dustin,

Last week the board of SFW submitted the following Freedom of Information Act Request to the NPS.  It should provide that data you are mentioning although the NPS is giving us a hard time about it.  They have sent 2 emails asking us to narrow our search or else be faced with a huge cost to get that info.

Marianne:

Thank you for your October 21, 2014, email with questions about our FOIA request. We appreciate your assistance in formulating or reformulating our request and effort to better identify the records we seek.

The cost, if any, of you publicly opening your records is major determining factor in the scope of our request.

Whether a fee waiver is granted or not, we are also trying to more definitely focus the topic of our request to save you effort. We remain open to your suggestions on how better to limit your work.

Our request is limited to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a time period covering from January 2012, through the present.

Confidential information, if any, can be redacted.

Our reformulated request has 3 components.

1. Concessionaires/Franchise/License

Provide an accounting of the total money paid to the park from Franchise Fee Payments and/or licenses and/or concessionaires for the use of the park and park services (including the new online reservation system). Please break those fees down by Franchise/License owner and concessionaire and provide copies of all concessionaire/franchise/license agreements and contracts.

2. Reservation System (Since implementation of the reservation system)

A listing of all reservations made by name (including concessionaires/franchisees/licensees), date the reservations were made, date of the camping reservation, campsite, size of party, car and location, and any other non-confidential information gathered on the reservation website. (We do not need license plate numbers.)

Do you have any reservation analysis or mechanism to compile data reflecting what reserved campsites were actually used by those making reservations? Do Rangers check campsites and shelters? Is there a log? Etc? If so, please provide that information.

3. Blount County Government Emergency Services tower located at Look Rock.

Provide any documents reflecting any agreements and/or contracts with Blount County and/or any other entity to keep Blount County’s Emergency services and communications tower located on park property on Look Rock. (Superintendent Ditmanson mentioned the cooperation between the park and Blount County in his comments before the Blount County Commission on or about February 21, 2013.

We are seeking a full fee waiver or alternatively and grudgingly at a reduced charge.

One reason to allow a full fee waiver is you have previously given Southern Forest Watch, Inc., a full fee waiver on or about October 11, 2011. Also, unless I am mistaken, your previous FOIA response also included approximately 400 pages.

What we seek is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of government operations or activities, and it is not in our commercial interest.

Respecting the Concessionaires/Franchise/License accounting, if certain individuals, companies and other “political elites” or “cronies” are being allowed to take exorbitant profits to the exclusion of the general public, it is in the public interest to know the park is being managed in such a fashion.

Respecting the reservation system, we have good reason to believe that concessionaires are reserving or “over-booking” campsites and shelters in order to have exclusive rights for their use and to preclude others using campsites and shelters in the park. These concessionaires are not using the campsites.

If this is true, such a practice is illegal. It is in the public interest that the park be managed legally. The public needs to understand government operations or activities are not being conducted legally.

Respecting Blount County and/or any other entity’s agreement to exclusively use park property on Look Rock, it is in the public interest to know who is profiting and for how much.

This information will contribute to the public’s perception that the Federal government is managing the park in ways to allow a certain individuals and organizations to profit to the exclusion of the general public. Nothing could be a more important civic duty.

As described in a previous FOIA request, Southern Forest Watch has a broad audience of persons across many states intimately interested in the management of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Southern Forest Watch, Inc., is a Tennessee non-profit Public Benefit Corporation dedicated to watching how the National Park Service manages southern forest lands, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Logic advises that this information is readily available. It is likely the government has previously published this information; however, we do not know where else to find the information.

Southern Forest Watch, Inc., has no commercial interest whatsoever in this information. It will be broadcast far and wide and no charge to anyone.

Additionally, Southern Forest Watch, Inc., is not an “other” requester for fee purposes. The closest description of Southern Forest Watch, Inc., is as an educational and noncommercial institution. Southern Forest Watch, Inc., through its websites and contacts is considered in some circles as a media outlet also.

You may provide the information in the form or format of disclosure that is least expensive. You can attach the information to emails, burned upon a disc, deposited on a website or stacked on a table somewhere.

Comment by Dustin M on November 14, 2014 at 9:26am

Since fees were paid shouldn't there be a paper trail? A review of names and dates might be in order if possible. 9k, 10k, and 11k campers seems high to me. How do they define backcountry user and how did they count them? 

Comment by John Quillen on November 14, 2014 at 9:11am

I'm starting to wonder if the NPS isn't fudging these numbers in anticipation of the lawsuit coming to an end.  Since we proved that they decreased backcountry use by %30 they are now playing with the data to show otherwise.  I can tell you, as someone who is in the backcountry most weekends, the campsites I walk by are totally empty.  Again, I believe nothing the NPS in the Smokies puts out.  Nothing.

Comment by John Quillen on November 14, 2014 at 8:55am

In light of a lawsuit pending against the park in a bid to overturn a $4 per night per person backcountry fee, notable among October's visitation numbers were those for backcountry use. October saw 10,294 backcountry users, which brought the yearly tally to 80,595. According to Park Service numbers, such high use hadn't been seen since October 2011, when 9,488 people headed into the backcountry and the year-to-date total was 81,815. Prior to that, one needed to go back to October 1999, when 11,414 backcountry users were counted, and the year-to-date tally stood at 85,041.

http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2014/11/visitation-booming-gre...

Comment by John Quillen on November 12, 2014 at 8:07am

Once again, the News sentinel didn't see this as news but the NPT has it first line this morning.  Thanks NPT for covering REAL smokies issues.  The Daily Times, Smoky Mtn News and others received the same press release from SFW.

 http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2014/11/court-documents-show-r...

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