The following letter was crafted by myself, Jim Casada and Adam Beal on behalf of the Southern Forest Watch and will be forwarded to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in one month. Should you wish to have your name attached, please indicate below. For folks not members of this forum you may indicate your desire to sign off by contacting us through our website, http://southernforestwatch.org and signing the guest comments. A copy of this has already been presented to Congressman John Duncan, with whom we are scheduled to meet soon. This is a direct link to the guestbook to have your signature attached.
I don't know how to say this but bluntly. Your man on the ground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Dale Ditmanson, has some serious issues with the truth. Locals on both the Tennessee and Carolina sides of this wonderful national gem are fighting mad over his lack of leadership on multiple issues. For present purposes though, I am contacting you about his backcountry fee proposal. It also appears your NPS Director, Mr. Jarvis, is in collusion and similarly unresponsive to the citizenry they are appointed to serve.
The first level of dishonesty perpetuated by Ditmanson is the campsite overcrowding data. He originally presented this, in a press release announcing hearings on the proposed fees, as the key reason fees for camping, backpackers were being considered. That contention proved demonstrably false. Once the Park's own data was crunched, it revealed that in recent years the average campers per night in sites rated for 12 and 14 individuals was less than TWO per night. Only in Appalachian Trail shelters was there anything approaching crowding. Furthermore, backcountry camping nights have declined dramatically from their peak the better part of two decades ago. When this rationale was proven false, he changed the argument to accent problems with Appalachian Trail shelters, yet they are only a small percentage of the overall designated campsites.
Another troubling approach was the manner in which hearings on the matter were conducted. There were only two of these, they were poorly advertised and information on the park's website changed multiple times in the brief 30-day comment period. Furthermore, those of us in attendance were not given the benefit of hearing the thoughts of others. It was not a public forum but rather rangers talking to individuals and trying to “sell us” on the proposal.
When challenges to the entire process emerged, Ditmanson refused to provide the comments over the backcountry fee proposal submitted by the public in a shortened comment period (one month) so I filed a Freedom of Information Act Request. This was after an email exchange between the Asst. Superintendent Kevin Fitzgerald and myself where he informed me it would be “illegal” to provide that information. (I can forward it to you if you like), for an individual in his position to provide clearly inaccurate information is a blatant abuse of his office. I proceeded with the FOIA anyway and was then told it would cost me $1200 to receive the public comments. More stonewalling or diversionary tactics by the Smokies leadership, it would appear. At that juncture, I retained an attorney who assisted with my appeal. Even then, Ditmanson still stalled the release of the documents. Apparently he was waiting until he had turned his final recommendation in to Washington and Jarvis before making this material public.
Ditmanson then, in the press release announcing the decision to begin charging fees in 2013, told folks that the comments were about evenly divided in favor of and opposition to his proposal. Now I can understand stretching the truth, but I have a copy of the comments via the FOIA request showing this was outright deceit. The final tally, not counting anonymous comments whether for or against the fees, tallied 827 opposed and 45 in favor. Does that sound like half to you? It comes to a ratio of roughly 19 opposed to 1 in support.
In a recent article in the National Parks Traveler magazine about what we have dubbed the FEEasco, Ditmanson all but admits that this notion of charging backpackers to sleep on the ground was predetermined. He has no intention of incorporating any of the public comments and the biggest affront to us locals is how he has used a network of park concessionaires to pump up this plan. I have serious concerns about the impropriety of using Vesna Plakanis and Sutton Bacon, heads of two large guide services, to promote a hugely unpopular proposal to native Tennesseans and North Carolinians. You can imagine the slap that is to us. They were among the very few individuals who spoke out in favor of the fees, and it is significant that neither appears to have deep roots in the Smokies.
But most important is the drive behind this proposal. Making up problems and then creating solutions such as the hiring of additional rangers to patrol an empty Smokies backcountry is the type of press that people love to cite as government run amok. Furthermore, given the lack of trust Ditmanson has garnered, no one believes for a moment, never mind what he says, that all income from backpacker fees will be used exclusively for the backcountry. We are well aware of the fact that neither his track record nor standard management regulations hold any assurance at all this will transpire. (It is also important to note that one of our coalition members, Jim Casada, saw what had previously been frequent orders for his book on fishing in the park cease, and copies of the award-winning work mysteriously disappeared from park visitor center shelves after he voiced opposition to the proposal)
You know quite well that the Smokies received the largest infusion of cash ever with the recent stimulus funds. As an avid backpacker, I can tell you that there is NO crowded backcounty. This Fee proposal in the Smokies will create legions of outlaw backpackers that will require more law enforcement that he or you can provide, I hear that on a daily basis. We mountain folk are fiercely independent and resent the arrogance of this Superintendent and his unwillingness to accept our proposed solutions. We have repeatedly volunteered to man the backcountry office, he ignored our plea. We volunteered to man citizen patrols to the backcountry, he ignored our plea. As a matter of fact, there are so many of us volunteering in the Smokies, they had to turn us away in droves when the campsite volunteer program was launched.
That won't be a problem if this fee is enacted. There are few times in history when you can cite a specific example of a sea change in public sentiment towards a government entity. I can assure you that if this fee proposal is enacted, this will be the watershed moment of that event. It is about much more than a simple fee for trumped up reasons. The Smokies are unique in that this land was largely occupied and schoolchildren held bake sales and counted pennies to donate the land for creation of a National Park. You know all of this but what you likely don't know is that a large movement is afoot to have this travesty halted and we need your assistance. Picking on backpackers because of the permitting system is shooting fish in a barrel. They are the Park's best citizens. Alienate them and you have lost the support of your base. Please show that government is responsive to citizenry and halt this backcountry fee proposal in its tracks. There is no backcountry crisis. Even if there were, sound management would have dictated convening a meeting of the minds-regional stakeholders, interested parties, well known backcountry advocates and the like-and discussing the best way to address issues, whether real or perceived.
I implore you, Mr. Secretary, to hear our pleas. Step in and stop this. The Cherokee were booted from the Smokies first, then the mountain people and now backpackers. Please make a statement to this National Park fee culture before it is too late. You would definitely win friends and help the NPS regain some respect in our neck of the woods.