If there’s any question that artist Lee Roberson is unhappy with the National Park Service, the title of his recently published book “Sins of the National Park Service in the Great Smokies” erases all doubt.
Roberson is a Walland native and has a long history with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In 1984, he was selected to celebrate a print to help the park celebrate its 50th anniversary.
Several years ago, Roberson said, he became concerned by how the park service managed the park and the lack of sensitivity to park visitors.
Roberson said the project came to him. “I didn’t decide I wanted to write it,” he said of the book. “It picked me.”
Roberson said his grandfather grew up in Cades Cove.
“A lot of my heritage is here,” said the artist turned writer. “I grew up in Walland. Then when I moved (to Townsend), I had a boundary line with the Great Smoky Mountains, about a mile and a half of boundary line,” he said. “I even talked with the National Park Service about leaving land to the national park when I died. I had to fight them to get information.”
Roberson said he began to learn too much about the park service’s practices and was really disappointed in what he learned. “I knew a lot of park people, and I’ve been a volunteer in the park, been on board of directors, done different things, and no one can call me a park hater,” he said. “I don’t hate the park or the people. I’m not into hate.”
Roberson said he was interested in seeing accountability on the part of the park service.
“I realized at one point not too many years ago that there is no accountability in the National Park Service. They’re all protecting their own careers. Someone moves into the area, and his major objective is not to increase your enjoyment but to enlarge on his career.”
Roberson said the park rangers are career-oriented rather than being oriented toward serving the visitors to the park. Roberson said he knew something needed to be done. “I talked to people to reason with them and found that reason didn’t work. I talked to superintendents of the park and various people,” Roberson said.
Roberson said after talking to many people and getting nothing but shared frustration, he realized the answer was in getting his perspective out to the masses, with the idea that if enough people wanted something done, the park service would have to acknowledge them.
Roberson said one of the desires park visitors have is to be able to see black bears in the park, “not feed them or put children on their backs for pictures, but just see bears,” he said. In their efforts to drive the bears from the roadside, Roberson said rangers shoot the bears with rubber bullets.
“The bears might slow down traffic, but that’s why the traffic is there. The highest thing that people want is to see a bear in his natural habitat close up,” Roberson said. “We did a survey and 2,500 park visitors and area residents were questioned. Ninety-eight percent of them wanted to see animals at a reasonably close distance.”
Roberson said that now park rangers will ticket anyone who gets within 50 yards of a bear or deer. “If he (the animal) raises his head, you’ve interfered with his day, and they can write you a ticket,” Roberson said.
Roberson said when the National Park has public meetings about major issues, they don’t have to follow any of the public input they get. “”They’re under no obligation to follow what people say. It’s an exercise in futility,” he said.
Roberson said the survey of 2,500 people called Crisis in the Cove was ignored by the park service.
Roberson said he has no desire to see the national park and the surrounding community be developed like Jackson Hole, Wyo., because then working class families couldn’t afford to come.
“I realize we’re going in different directions. When I see announcements of the Three Sisters purchase in Walland, echoes of that come into my mind,” he said of plans to develop exclusive mountain home sites in Walland.
“We’ll have a community of gated communities,” he said.
Roberson said he didn’t start out wanting to write a book. “I want to tend my property, feed my chickens and tend my garden and paint my pictures,” he said. “I went into this book knowing I would probably lose money on it.,” he said. “The response has been really great. I only printed 750, and they’re almost all gone.”
Roberson said bookstores are starting to catch onto his book.
“I think that’s significant. We can’t really believe this,” he said. “We might actually make money.”
Roberson said he put $30,000 into the book and the survey, and they have had an effect. “It was money well-spent. My only objective is to protect this park and the people who live here. I have no ulterior objective.”
Roberson said he worked on the project for three years, and he worked hard to educate himself on the issues faced in the park such as traffic control, mass transportation and wildlife management.
He wants readers and people who love the park to be encouraged, said the author. “I want them to take hope that things can be made better. If they’re mistreated by a park ranger, we tell them how to make a complaint. You’ve got to fill out an official complaint and sign your name to it and ask for a follow up,” he said.
Roberson said he and his wife are currently working on distribution of the book. The book qualifies as a sales item in the park service’s Visitors’ Centers. “They’re dragging their feet. I’ve asked Congressman (Jimmy) Duncan to see to it that they sell it,” he said.
Roberson said the book can be bought at the Carriage House restaurant in Townsend and Dogwood Mall in Townsend and Hastings Books in Maryville. The longtime artist said he selected the title because he thought it was appropriate. “It catches your eye. We wanted to get people’s attention, and ‘sins’ is an appropriate term. It sums up the essence of the book. That was as good as a title can do,” he said.
For more information about the book or Roberson, call him at 865-448-0060. Roberson is also president and founder of Coalition to Save Cades Cove.