Buffalo National River. (Photo: National Park Service)

Last May, a Springfield man died after falling during a challenging hike on a path in Arkansas’ Buffalo National River area. This month, the man who organized and led that hike was sentenced to a two-year ban from the national park. 

Jeffrey M. Johnson, of Bentonville, must serve two years probation and pay $3,366.27 in restitution, fines and processing fees. The $2,686.27 restitution fee is tied to the search-and-rescue effort to reach Brad Lee Thomas, a Springfield resident who fell along a narrow portion of the path into a pool of water about 15 to 20 feet below. According to U.S. District Court Records, the fee will be paid to the U.S. Department of Interior’s Restoration Fund. 

“Jeff just wanted to share his love of hiking with others and it is a tragic case,” Johnson’s attorney Chris Flanagin said in a statement to the Daily Citizen. “Other hiking and outdoor clubs need to know that a voluntary fee or contribution can be considered business or commercial in nature as to activities conducted in a national park or national river boundary.”

In December, Johnson was found guilty following a bench trial in federal court of one count of engaging in or soliciting business inside a national park and one count of soliciting money inside a national park without a permit. He was found not guilty of engaging in an activity subject to a permit requirement without obtaining a permit. The charges had been filed against him in relation to a May 7, 2022, group hike to a landmark in the National Park Service area called the Eye of the Needle. Thomas was one of over 30 people who signed up for the hike. 

After Thomas’ death, Johnson told the Daily Citizen that Thomas and another hiker turned around on the challenging path to the Eye of the Needle, a rock formation at the turnaround of a 5.4-mile path Johnson described as both steep and slippery in the event description. The other hiker was Veronica Gilmore, who testified during Johnson’s trial that she and Thomas turned back due to safety concerns about the next section of the hike, according to an account of Johnson’s trial from the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Last May, Johnson told the Daily Citizen it was a tragedy, that he felt awful for Thomas’ family and wished Thomas and his friend had heeded his advice to stay with the group. Hours after learning they had turned around, members of the group came upon hikers and rescue workers trying to save a man’s life. Johnson would learn a day later that the man pulled from the water was Thomas.

The event was posted on the Arkansas Nature Lover’s group’s Facebook and Meetup pages, and Johnson was the group leader. According to a December press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Arkansas, Johnson accepted at least four payments of $20 in the Kyle’s Landing parking lot for his guide services prior to leading the fatal hike. 

On Facebook and Meetup, the news release states, “Johnson advertised membership to his group, which included attendance at as many of his hikes as the member wished, for a $20 annual fee, payable through Paypal, check or cash at the first event attended.”

Johnson told the Daily Citizen last May that he never tried to present himself as a licensed guide, and that the $20 fee was a voluntary one to help offset the costs of starting the private hiking group page on Meetup and paying for gas to drive to areas that he pre-hiked before determining if they were event-worthy. The bench trial found otherwise. 

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson