3/01/15  Grandstanders of the Smokies     (underlined portions indicate clickable hyperlinks)

We’ve had quite the spate of winter these past few weeks.  And that is usually the kind of element that Highlanders enjoy.  We did partake in a brief jaunt to cs 10 two weekends ago before the real heavy stuff hit.  As a result, the park was closed a good portion of the last two weeks.  That, however, hasn’t keep me out of the park.  It took a good virus that has lasted for two weeks to take care of that.  I have been coughing and hacking for 14 days in attempts to rid myself of this insidious respiratory infection that is as tenacious as the weather has been.

I thought I would take advantage of this opportunity to update you on events with the Southern Forest Watch.  The NPS filed their latest response to our last filing at midnight last night.  In their 20 pages of legal vomit they have managed to say, what I characterize thusly:  We checked the boxes on civic engagement and do not have to produce documentation that we actually contacted chambers of commerce and congressional reps so quit bothering us you stupid, barefoot peons.”

We were asking them to produce said evidence and requested “discovery” to obtain those documents.  Being the Kings and Queens we know the NPS to be, they are not to be bothered with this meniality.  They did admit that land was conferred to former Governor Don Sundquist at Ace Gap.  In any real media environment you think this would be of note but the News Sentinel is too busy promoting Blackberry Farms this morning to be bothered with that kind of story anyway.

I have posted the entire text of the NPS response HERE if you would like to pour through it.  I encourage you to do so.  It leaves one with the attitude that the federal government is serving itself, which we know to be the case and any meddlesome taxpayers are to be quickly dispensed with so the NPS can move to more important issues like promoting Llama use on Mt. Leconte.

We all know that the Great Smoky Mtns Association has been attacking the SFW for over a year now.  Apparently we have been digging a little too close to home for them.  First they sent an envoy to social media to discredit our claims against Blackberry Farms.  This individual spent months emphatically denying the existence of any such trail system and proceeded to call us ambulance chasers and on and on.  In an embarrassing turn of events it was proven that Blackberry did indeed maintain their own trail system within the park and the GSMA was forced to muzzle their loose cannons following complaints to the organization.  I personally found it odd that a “friends” group would assume the role of apologist for a commercial entity that was clear cutting trees and running four wheelers into the Smokies.  But such is the nature of wealthy people and their connections.  This fee is about money and money rules the park.

However, when we discovered the other day that the Great Smoky Mtns Association had produced this documentary, appropriately entitled "Grandstand of the Smokies"  things started smelling even ranker.  It appears as if the GSMA is promoting not only high impact Llama use in the park but the mega money maker, Leconte Lodge as well. (Don't bother trying to leave a comment, they have removed any content which calls into question their commercial for the lodge.  You are supposed to have a permit to produce commercial videos within the park and the NPS has not been able to locate one for the GSMA) Which brings us to another important point.  We know that Leconte Lodge revenues are 1.736 million dollars per year.  I had to go through channels to get that income figure but here is what the NPS produced which proves that there were good reasons for the lodge managers to promote the backcountry tax.  I am not aware of any competitive bid process for the concession and the NPS was reluctant to provide it.

Now fast forward to today.  Myers and I on behalf of the board of SFW filed a Freedom of Information Act Request several months ago in an attempt to follow the money trail in the Smokies.  We are trying to reconcile the discrepancies in shelter numbers with the actual income from the fee.  We had been hearing that folks were showing up in shelters and campsites that are showing full to find out they were the only occupants.  In fact, the NPS has been broadcasting that the fee has actually INCREASED backcountry usage.  That certainly wasn’t my experience.  Last summer we went into cs 17 and had the same experience.  It was showing full and there were two other folks outside of the two of us.  Were that many people abandoning their reservations on a beautiful, star filled early Autumn Saturday?  Had the weather been bad it wouldn’t have seemed so strange.

That is when I started hearing from others in the shelters and began to wonder if the NPS wasn’t manipulating data, again.  They have two reasons to do so.  First is to promote the benefits of a user fee by saying it increases backcountry use.  Second is to decrease the number of humans in the backcountry.  Remember the NPS said that “resource degradation” was one of the primary goals of law enforcement in the backcountry.  When you control the counting mechanisms, you control the results of the count.

I have long suspected the padding of numbers with regard to Smokies visitation.  I have little doubt that a lot of traffic crosses Newfound Gap road.  It is, after all, the main thoroughfare between NC and TN.  Add the casino traffic and Sevier County go kart crowd and that adds up to a lot of cars using the road.  However, how many of those are Smokies visitors?  How many actually leave their vehicles as they cross Newfound Gap?  If they get out at the overlook, they are considered a visitor by the NPS.  But how do we know how many folks do that?  Just trust the federal government.   They have complicated algorithms that are waaay too complex for us barefoot hicks.   They know exactly how many folks visit the park.  Meanwhile, in those 9 million “visitors” there were 79,000 documented backcountry camping nights.  What percentage of 9 million is 79000?  The answer is .88%.   That’s right.  Less than one percent.

Now, the NPS has been stalling in providing the reconciliation in actual revenues from the fee.  In the Freedom of Information Act law, there are statutes outlining the amount of time the federal government has to produce documents.  And they have exceeded their time limit.  Aside from pinning them down on the actual receipts, we asked for income from Leconte Lodge and other commercial enterprises.  Much like the original scandal with the public comments, the NPS doesn’t like to release “inconvenient” information.  And when you are the King, you can get away with it.

The NPS has deep connections within the Blackberry Farm crowd.  There was a food channel show a while back showcasing the resort and guess who was sitting prominently in the background?  A former unnamed Smokies Superintendent, of course.  Now with the Great Smoky Mtns Association we see even closer ties to the money.  This purported nonprofit entity seems dead set on promoting commercial use in the park.  And coincidentally, they are re-releasing Horace Kepharts works to raise money.  Money that is apparently used to promote commercial use in the park and clear cutting of trees on private trail systems.  Seems as if the GSMA has lost their vision.  It is a shame because their income base is huge amongst the Evergreen Ball crowd of feel good cocktail sipping philanthropists.   Few of whom have ever stepped foot in the backcountry, unless you consider Blackberry Farms trail system backcountry.

So this is what we have been up against.  The SFW has about 1500 dollars in the bank.  And we don’t go around asking for money.  Conversely, the GSMA and Friends of the Smokies pull in millions per year.  Since the GSMA has called us ambulance chasers that would imply that we are seeking damages from the park.  It is another falsehood on behalf of the GSMA.  All we want is for the backcountry tax to be dissolved.  It has cost us way more than could ever be reimbursed to fight this tax.  If you are reading this missive, you have, in some way, contributed to justice for Smokies enthusiasts.  The amount of time Myers has spent preparing, defending and retorting this lawsuit are untold.  Our board of directors works daily on your behalf.  Right now we have an SFW member, Mark Cooke making daily tallies of backcountry usage.  We are documenting the NPS lies.  I can’t tell you how much time he spends in this endeavor, but it sounds like hours per day.  Like the rest of us, he is unpaid.

When the fee fight is over, there will be continued issues of similar nature.  We are the ONLY watchdog organization keeping tabs on the Smokies bureaucrats.   The only one.   We need your assistance.  If you are inclined to contribute a donation, we are a tax exempt organization with official status.  None of the monies gathered to date have gone towards anything outside of the lawsuit with the small exception of renting a booth at the Rossini Festival and producing stickers.  In order to spread the word, we could use some help.  Thanks for all you have done to support the cause.  www.southernforestwatch.org  


John Quillen

p.s.   On a personal note, there are trips in the future.  I will be heading to the Austrian Alps in a week and a half and this summer we are planning an ascent of Kiliminjaro.  Next Spring it looks like I will be returning to the Himalaya for an attempt on another 8 thousand meter peak.   Also work on my next book continues and is in the final editing stages.  Here is one of my photos from the Muztagh Ata tale. Stay tuned!