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They’re Not Happy Campers

Despite disgruntled locals, Big South Fork Superintendent Nichols encourages local use of river and recreation area


For seventy-six year old Gene Roberts and his seventy-nine year old buddy, Earl Jones, and Earl’s son Rick, the idea of camping for ten days on the Big South Fork River at Big Creek and hauling in some fresh catfish and bass seemed like a great way to get a little rest and relaxation and still be relatively close to home.  However, the three McCreary County campers are not happy with the treatment they received recently when they were ticketed by a Big South Fork River and Recreation Area (BSFRRA) law enforcement ranger and ordered to break down camp and leave the banks of McCreary County’s Big Creek and Big South Fork River.

Despite having camped for twenty days in the same location last year, after complying to a request by park law enforcement to purchase a camping permit to camp at their Big Creek location, the campers were told earlier this month to leave despite their having already purchased a valid Big Creek permit and displaying it prominently at their campsite.

According to the campers, the officer who requested they leave the campsite told them the area was for picnickers only.  Apparently, without looking at the valid camping permit, the officer checked coolers, examined and photographed the campsite, and questioned the campers in regard to food storage, waste disposal, firewood, weapons, and other matters.  Ultimately, the campers, despite having paid for their ten day camping permit at Big Creek, ended up with a seventy-five dollar ticket in hand and an early end to their camping/fishing excursion because, according to one of the campers, “we were told if we didn’t leave we would all go to jail that night and possibly face an even bigger fine.”

“I began complaining to park officials as soon as I got back home and some of the issues were resolved,” Roberts remarked.  “However, I think I should get my money back for this year’s camping permit, and I should get a refund for the lifetime permit I bought last year because I was planning to camp at Big Creek every year.  Now, since I can’t camp there, I don’t need the permit.  After the way we were treated, I will not camp in the Big South Fork and neither will my buddies.  I think we were treated rudely because we live here locally.  I’ve heard it before, and now, I believe it.  I don’t think they (Big South Fork officials) want local people here in McCreary County to use the park.  They want the park to only be used by tourists.   There was no reason for us to be treated the way we were treated.”

Determined to make good on their vow to not camp in the Big South Fork again, the three campers pulled out of McCreary County on the following day and headed west to enjoy their vacation, filled with fishing, camping, and spending money on food, ice, fuel, and bait, in neighboring Wayne County.

This incident is just one example of repeated reports heard throughout the community concerning local residents who have clashed with park rangers in the BSFRRA.  Most frequently it seems, one hears local residents complain of being checked repeatedly, having their belongings searched, and/or being treated rudely by rangers.  These perceived grievances lead many to feel that local McCreary Countians are not welcomed or wanted in the park.

However, BSFRRA Superintendent Niki Nicholas is adamant in her statements supporting recreational use of the BSFRR by local McCreary Countians.

“The incident with the campers at Big Creek was a misunderstanding,” Nicholas said.  “We had been lenient when the water was down (due to the lowering of Lake Cumberland) and had allowed camping, but now that the water has risen again, people want to picnic there in the designated area.”

However, in printed information given to the three McCreary County campers upon purchase of their camping permit, one finds a listing of defined developed areas where camping is not allowed.  Big Creek is not listed as one of the developed areas where camping is not permitted and signage at Big Creek does not indicate that camping is prohibited.

“We definitely want to increase the number of local visitors who use the park,” Nicholas stated.  “However, park management is adaptive-a balancing act.  It’s never our goal to close things.”

Nicholas continued by stating that BSFRRA rangers average writing about fifty tickets per year.

“For every ticket issued, we do two search and rescue or agency assists,” Nicholas commented.  “Although we have an understanding with local law enforcement that we will assist when needed and requested, our jurisdiction is in the BSFRRA.”

According to Nicholas, yearly trainings are held to update park personnel.

“We’re here to protect our visitors and park resources,” Nicholas explained.  “In addition to yearly training, our law enforcement rangers must have a certain level of law enforcement background plus six months of federal training.”

When asked as to what an average family or individual should expect if they encounter a law enforcement ranger, Nicholas was quick to respond.

“Unless their behavior or the situation triggers a search, no one should automatically expect to have their belongings searched,” she replied.  “Rudeness on the part of BSRFFA staff is unacceptable, and leaving food out where it can attract bears is definitely something our rangers notice.  The majority of the few tickets we write are for littering and vehicle violations such as speeding.”

Nicholas encourages visitors to the BSFRRA to stop and say hello to park rangers, especially law enforcement.

“It’s all about building relationships,” Nicholas emphasized.  “We definitely do not want barriers between the community and the BSFRRA.  I want to hear about problems if people have any.  If they e-mail me or phone about an issue, I assure the public that I will investigate and get back in touch.”

Those visiting the park are encouraged to familiarize themselves with rules applying to the BSFRRA by visiting the park’s website and reading print information distributed with camping permits, etc.

Problems occurring with BSFRRA staff (not Fish & Wildlife or U. S. Forest Service which are separate entities) can be reported to Superintendent Nicholas by phone at headquarters (423) 569-9778 or by email through the Big South Fork River and Recreation Area web site.

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