National Park Service not pleased with unofficial Twitter feeds

Posted at 5:50 PM, Dec 11, 2014
and last updated 2014-12-12 12:47:52-05

Depending on who is talking, Chris Hibbard is either doing a public service or a public disservice.

Hibbard, a former Great Smoky Mountains National Park volunteer who said he is in the search engine and social network business, has run the Your Smokies website for nine years and operates several Twitter handles — such as GSMNationalParkinfo, Smokieshiker, Smokiesweather and Newfoundgaproad — where he conveys Smokies-related information to followers.

About 14,000 people are following him, according to his Your Smokies page.

On a regular basis, Hibbard said he receives text and email messages, phones calls and listens to scanners and then posts Twitter updates on situations such as wrecks, rescues and road conditions.

This is what sometimes draws the ire of the National Park Service.

On Nov. 29, he tweeted on the GSMNP feed that rangers were rescuing an injured visitor and he warned people to be very cautious around streams, roots and rocks with ice because slips were common. He ended the tweet with the hashtag GSMNP.

What really happened, according to Great Smoky Mountains National Park spokeswoman Dana Soehn, was a 70-year-old man was injured in a single-vehicle car wreck on Greenbriar Road at the park entrance from Gatlinburg at Pittman Center.

The wreck occurred at about 8:30 a.m. and the man was taken to LeConte Medical Center.

“It definitely confuses people out there,” Soehn said. “He has 14,000 followers and they think they’re getting good information.”

Soehn said the GSMNationalParkinfo Twitter handle and the other handles Hibbard uses all look professional, but they are not official, she said.

“We only have two officials ones and ours have the arrowhead symbol — Smokiesroads and GreatSmokyNPS,” she said. “He used to use our arrowhead (logo) on his Twitter feed, then he changed it.”

Soehn said now Hibbard uses a wooden sign with the letters GSMNP emblazoned on it for the GSMNationalParkinfo Twitter handle.

Soehn said Hibbard thinks he helping, but she disagrees.

“He listens to the scanner and when our guys go out with a sand truck, he makes educated guesses on when we’re going to open that particular road and often he is way off,” she said. “I guess there’s nothing anybody can do about people tweeting what they hear on scanners.”

For his part, Hibbard said his Twitter handles aren’t official, but they are helpful.

Hibbard said at least by giving educated guesses on time lines for reopening roads, people traveling to the park can have an idea of when a road and a trailhead will be open.

“The information is just not getting out there to the people as quickly as it could. I’m going to give you the reality of what is happening on Twitter,” he said. “I’m telling people it is about to be open in a reasonable amount of time. I can’t tell you how many phone calls or emails I’ve received from people thanking me for keeping them up to date. Occasionally I miss something, but more often than not, my level of accuracy is incredible.”

Hibbard said the national park’s management sometimes is not transparent and he pointed to the increase in vehicle break-ins at trailheads.

“They’re becoming less transparent the more there are negative issues that affect resources in the park,” he said.

Regarding the inaccurate information he disseminated on the Greenbriar Road accident, Hibbard admitted he got bad information, but said whenever he is inaccurate, he is quick to correct his feeds.

Hibbard, who also has a home in South Florida, said that while advertising is sold on his site, revenue generated goes back into the park through donations to organizations such as Friends of the Smokies, Great Smoky Mountains National Park Association and the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center.