Sunday, March 25, 2012

My Citation

I've received a number of emails and phone calls regarding the recent NPS statement describing the citation I received in the Buffalo National River area.

There are inaccuracies in the article that I'd like to address. Those inaccuracies have led many readers and enthusiasts to make incorrect assumptions about the expedition.

Before I address the article, I'll explain my side of this story.

I started scouting locations for this expedition in October of 2010. I had narrowed many viable options down to what I thought would comprise the best three; one in Northwestern AR, one near Little Rock in the Ouachita Mountains, and one on the Buffalo National River.

My selection process focuses primarily on specific environmental factors and terrain features, rather than just looking at areas with reports. There are very few reports online from the Buffalo River area, but once I started working closely with witnesses and local researchers in Arkansas, I was able to learn quite a bit about the many undocumented and unreported observations and encounters in the area.

I scouted the specific area on February 1st. It's a dramatic and beautiful area; overwhelmingly gorgeous. I was remarking incessantly to the individual who accompanied me to scout (an interpretive ranger for the National Park Service) about how much the Boxley Valley looked like a more dramatic version of Northeast Georgia. I even tweeted this about the area: "I was absolutely enamored with the area I scouted yesterday in Arkansas for the upcoming #BFRO expedition. Truly stunning!"  

It really is an incredible area. The Lost Valley Canoe general store is great as well. They were very helpful and friendly to all of us prior to and during the expedition.

After scouting that location and having been very impressed with the area, I decided to conduct the expedition there.

I immediately scoured their website to see if I needed any specific permits or passes to conduct such an effort there. There are applications for permits related to commercial fishing (which doesn't apply to us), commercial photography (which doesn't apply to us), weddings (which doesn't apply to us), and cremains scattering (which doesn't apply to us). I didn't see any rules, regulations, or permits related to a coordinated group hiking and camping in the National River. Moreover, the campground that we were based out of is free each year from mid-November to mid-March.

I assumed that I had fully acquainted myself with the necessary information related to the usage rules and regulations of the park. I was wrong, and I paid for that mistake.

On the morning of Friday, February 24th, two NPS law enforcement rangers entered our base camp. I was in the process of distributing map packets to the expedition participants when one of the rangers approached me and asked me if I was in charge of this group. I told him that I was the organizer of a field research effort, and that I was indeed in charge of the group. I explained that myself and a few others had been conducting field research in the park since Wednesday (the 22nd), and that most others had arrived on Thursday, the 23rd.

He explained to me that he had "received a tip" informing them that we were with a popular television series and were filming in the park. I explained (in no uncertain terms) to him that we were not filming for a television series, and that the series he was referring to was about bigfoot researchers affiliated with the research organization that I was a member of.

I told him that I had worked on an episode of the first season (Georgia), and that I would be working for the show again in March for an episode in Oklahoma, but that our presence in the Buffalo National River was unrelated to the series.

I provided him with the name and number of the Co-Executive Producer of the series, and told the ranger that any and all concerns related to the TV show should be direct to him. I also provided him with the name and number of BFRO Director and series cast member Matt Moneymaker, and the name and number of a BFRO administrator should they have any further questions or concerns. Moreover, I provided him with the URL of the BFRO website.

I was told that there was "nothing wrong" with our group using the campground and the park to conduct field research. I told them exactly where we had been during the previous two days, and exactly where we planned to go. I even offered to mark each locations on the map for the rangers so that they could be aware of where we would be at all times.

The ranger took my driver's license and asked me wait. Concerned expedition members asked me if everything seemed to be okay, and I told them that the concern seemed to be related to the television series.

When the rangers returned my license, I was told that I would be given a warning. During that conversation, one of the rangers was called back (via radio) to his vehicle. I was asked to wait again.

After a few minutes, the ranger came back over to me and asked me why the BFRO website used the nomenclature "Sold Out" next to the expedition dates. I explained to him that the organization charges fees for first time participants and first time repeaters for our public expeditions. I explained to him that once an expedition roster is full, we use the term "Sold Out" to indicate that we weren't receiving any more inquiries for that expedition. I also explained our fee system.

Each organizer is different, thus each expedition is different. There is no fixed number of expedition participants that an organizer can involve in a given expedition. I chose to have a roster of 30 people for this expedition, based on the number of BFRO members attending, and the area we would be operating in. I explained to him that the "Sold Out" nomenclature was to be used at the organizer's discretion; not when a certain number of slots had been "sold", or a dollar amount achieved. We ended up having 32 people attend the expedition, as two witnesses were invited by BFRO members to come and share their experiences with us.

At that point, the ranger informed me that I needed a special permit to operate in the park if members of our group had paid someone to be involved. I told him that I wasn't aware of that, and would do whatever it took to rectify the situation. I offered to provide him with all of my receipts, rosters, emails, and documents related to the expedition if it would help in any way.

The rangers explained to me that I would be issued a citation for "conducting a business operation" in the park without a permit. I had the option to attempt to appeal it in court (in Arkansas) at a later date, or pay the fine within 30 days.

I told the rangers and the expedition participants that I would pay the fine. Here is the bottom line:

There was a permit that I needed in order to conduct that type of operation in the park, and I wasn't aware of it. The blame falls on ME, not the BFRO.

My neglect caused me to receive a citation. No one made me go to that location. I chose it, and I thought that I had thoroughly looked into any potential obstacles.

I told the rangers that I would pay for my mistake, and that I hoped that it wouldn't reflect poorly on the expedition participants or the organization. They told me that it didn't. One of the rangers addressed the expedition participants to tell them that they should enjoy the park, and that we weren't in any trouble by being there and conducting research. The ranger told them that I had neglected to obtain the necessary permit and was given a citation, but to enjoy the rest of our stay.

I immediately called the Co-Executive Producer of the series to inform him that the National Park Service might call him to ask a few questions. I also spoke with Matt Moneymaker and informed him of the situation. I called Karen Bradford (Law Enforcement Specialist) to ask specifically which permit I needed so that I could educate myself. Several expedition participants were present for those phone calls and conversations.

I paid my citation in full on Friday, March 23rd. That same day, I received an email from a writer who asked if I would respond to the recent statement that the NPS made about my citation. I wasn't able to make contact with the writer for a few hours, and by the time I had made contact with him the article had already been released.   

There are a few inaccuracies in the NPS article (written by Karen Bradford). The article states: "After questioning numerous people associated with the group, they discovered that approximately 30 people had paid Matt Pruitt, who is affiliated with The Bigfoot Field Researcher’s Organization [sic], to lead them on a hunt for the creature. Several participants said that they had paid $300 to $500 each to be lead on a three- day expedition."

First of all, there were not 30 paying participants. There were 32 expedition participants, including myself. Of those 32 participants, seven were BFRO members (who don't pay any fee). Three more people were guests of those members, and also paid NO fee. Five expedition repeaters had to pay a "repeater fee" of $150. Of those five repeaters, four brought a guest (one each) at no additional fee. There were eight new participants who paid a "newbie fee" of $300 to attend the expedition. One of those new participants brought a guest at no additional fee. Finally, a group of four men from Mississippi and Alabama came to the expedition together in one vehicle and were charged $500, which they split among themselves. 

That brings us to my next point: paying expedition participants send their fees to the BFRO, not the organizer. None of these people paid me. They paid the BFRO, who then sent me half of each fee.   

For those of you who don't want to do the math, that's a total of $3650, of which I, the organizer, receive $1825.

If you read Karen Bradford's statement literally, you may have assumed that I was paid anywhere from $9,000 to $15,000. That is absolutely not the case. Again, I received a grand total of $1825.00 for organizing and leading the expedition. 

I'd like to explain to the readers how I use that money.

I started scouting for this expedition and receiving inquiries in October of 2011. I lived in Oklahoma City during that time, and the drive to the Arkansas border itself is about 180 miles, not to mention the additional miles to other locations. One of the locations that I scouted was 325 miles (one way) from my home in OKC. That's a 650 mile round trip. The site I scouted in the Buffalo River area was 295 miles from my home; a 590 mile round trip. That's not even including the many miles that I drove while scouting around each location, and not including my final trip to and from the expedition itself. During that expedition, I drove dozens of miles each day. I am currently in the process of moving and have boxed up most of my documents, but when I get fully moved in to my new location, I'll gladly organize and share my gas receipts to give the readers an idea of how much I spent in gas alone for this expedition.  

In preparing for each expedition that I lead, I make a number of purchases. I'll name a few here, but like I said above, I will gladly share my receipts and total costs with interested readers here once I have organized all of them. 

Prior to each expedition, I typically purchase a surplus of batteries for all of my devices, as well as enough batteries to supply many other people, should they find themselves needing batteries. My GPS units and audio recorders require AA batteries. My headlamps (of which I have five in case any are needed by participants), handheld red LED flashlights (of which I have five), and two-way radios (of which I have five) all require AAA batteries. I buy enough batteries to power all 15 of those items for five days (Wednesday through Sunday), as well as a surplus to provide for other expedition participants if necessary. Anyone who has attended one of these expeditions can tell you that we go through batteries like crazy. 

I purchase a surplus of rain covers (ponchos) and hand-warmers, in the rare event that an expedition participant is under-prepared and we encounter rough rain or sudden temperature drops. 

I purchase multiple maps of the area, including the relevant 7.5 minute topographical maps, the National Geographic waterproof topo maps, a DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer, and any other specific (vehicle use, hiking trails, etc.) maps I can locate. 

I spend literally hundreds of hours on the phone discussing the expedition with inquirers and participants. I spoke with over 60 expedition inquirers to select the few new participants who came to the expedition. Many of the expedition participants signed up months in advance. I made myself available to take their calls at anytime. I interviewed dozens of witnesses across the state, as well as interviewing a few seasoned researchers. I devoted a significant portion of my phone bill each month specifically to the expedition. 

Finally, I was also working a full-time sales associate job earning $9.50/hr, or roughly $380 a week (before taxes). I had to take several days off work for scouting locations (which I haven't added up yet), as well as taking six days off work for the expedition itself. That six-day stretch alone is a (roughly) $456 portion of my income that I had to forfeit in order to be present at the location during the expedition. When you have monthly bills (rent, car payments, auto insurance, cell phone, etc.) each dollar that you purposely forfeit counts.

So, if any of my readers are interested, I will add up my receipts and phone bill percentages, and internet bill percentages, and days missed at work (which also caused me to forfeit a quarterly bonus) to reconcile against that $1825.00 that I received for the expedition. I think you'll quickly see that I didn't profit a single dime on this expedition. 

I don't organize expeditions to make money. I organize them in order to explore new areas, to challenge myself, and to introduce interested parties to the sasquatch phenomenon. In the process, I end up fostering many relationships between new researchers and BFRO members, witnesses, and cultivating new friendships. 

It's very difficult to organize expeditions the way that I choose to do them. It's incredibly stressful, and requires a lot of focus and responsibility. It's exhausting, time-consuming, and financially difficult. However, it's personally very rewarding, and that has (until this point) inspired me to continue organizing expeditions.   

In closing, I'd like to apologize to anyone who read the NPS statement and thought that I was intentionally trying to violate the National Park Service or the Buffalo National River. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have the utmost respect and compassion for the National Park Service. I have very deep connections to the NPS. I won't discuss the nature of those connections at this point, but those who know me personally know what I'm referring to. Beyond certain connections, I've been fortunate enough to get to know many NPS employees; a few of which I consider great friends. Also, I have visited many NPS sites, including Great Smoky Mountains NP, Grand Teton NP, Yellowstone NP, Glacier NP, North Cascades NP, Mt. Rainier NP, Olympic NP, Redwoods NP, Chickasaw NRA, and Buffalo National River. I have been to the Oklahoma City National Memorial so many times that I've lost count.

I was more than willing to pay my citation. As I stated before, my negligence was to blame for being unaware of the permit. I failed to do so, and I learned my lesson. That doesn't bother me.

What does bother me is that the NPS statement may lead people to believe that I intentionally violated the rules and regulations of the park. That hurts. I would never do such a thing, and those who know me personally (and especially those in NPS who know me) can attest to that.