By Richard Rourk
The Unicoi County Rafting and Tourism Committee held an information-only meeting on Jan. 30 to discuss a matter that has been a topic of discussion for decades.
“This discussion about what to do with the Nolichucky River has been going on for more than 30 years and we will continue talks,” Unicoi County Rafting and Tourism Committee Chairman Matthew Rice told The Erwin Record following the Jan. 30 meeting.
The discussion at hand is whether to ask for a portion of the Nolichucky River to be named “Wild and Scenic.”
More than 75 concerned citizens packed the Jan. 30 informational meeting that was held inside Erwin Town Hall. Those in attendance heard from several representatives from several interested parties.
One party that wished to remain neutral was the United States Forestry Department. Cherokee National Forest Unaka District Ranger Leslie Morgan confirmed that the U.S. Forestry Department remains neutral when it comes to naming the Nolichucky “Wild and Scenic.”
“We have already been managing that 1.3 mile section on the Tennessee side, as a ‘Wild and Scenic’ river,” Morgan said. “The forest service is neutral and we will continue to manage it either way, nothing will change.”
Morgan acknowledged that discussions like these are important so the citizens can be involved in these types of decisions.
“This is your land, your public forest land,” Morgan said. “It’s important that all citizens voice their opinions.”
According to the Nolichucky “Wild and Scenic” designation request made by American Whitewater over 25 years ago, “Wild and Scenic” designation for the Nolichucky would cover the federal U.S. Forest Service lands in a half-mile wide corridor along the river between Poplar, North Carolina, and Chestoa in Erwin. The Forest Service would be charged with protecting the river’s scenic and recreational values, and dams would be forever prohibited. Designation would not affect private property or use of the railroad by trains. Recreation would continue to be managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The Wild and Scenic designation would ensure that the experiences and economic benefits the Nolichucky River provides today will be there for future generations.
Farm Bureau representative Kevin Hensley spoke for several farmers that are concerned that designating the Nolichucky River “Wild and Scenic” could open the doors for more government regulations.
“Farmers have raised concerns for numerous reasons,” Hensley said. “Farmers are concerned about third party lawsuits and we have seen where the court can make decisions beyond what is intended to do. This portion is already being protected. We are just inviting more potential regulations.”
According to Hensley, farmers already embrace the idea of the Nolichucky remaining untouched.
“Water is the number one commodity for a farm,” Hensley said. “Farmers want a clean environment. Land is always a farmer’s most expensive asset.”
The “Wild and Scenic” designation would guard the Nolichucky against any future damming, but according to Hensley, damming is a thing of the past.
“I know some are concerned of future damming, but I argue the days of damming are over,” Hensley said.
Hensley also argued against the validity of the economic stimulation that naming the Nolichucky River “Wild and Scenic” could cause.
“A peer-reviewed study shows the designation of ‘Wild and Scenic’ shows no correlation to economic stimulation to other rivers that have been designated,” Hensley said.
According to a study completed by Equinox Environmental Consultation and Design Inc., counties that participate in the designation could see a potential economic impact of a growth of 39 percent.
The study shows that it is estimated that boaters spend between $1.4-$2.4 million annually in the area. According to the report, with proper planning that number can become $4.9 million annually by enticing half of the boaters to stay overnight.
American Whitewater Representative Kevin Culburn agrees with the Equinox Environmental Consultation and Design Inc. report.
“This could be a really good thing for the local economy,” Culburn said. “This designation makes it easier to get money for recreation reasons and guides the forest management to protect the values of the land.”
According to Culburn, to have the 1.3 mile section of the Nolichucky River named “Wild and Scenic” it takes an act passed by Congress and does not affect private land.
“On private land, there is fear of the act expanding downstream, but for that it would take another, separate act of Congress,” Colburn said. “People love the designation. The only reason there was expansion was because the citizens wanted more designation. Most recently Wilson Creek in North Carolina was declared ‘Wild and Scenic’ and the people love it, studies show this.”
Culburn acknowledged that everyone agrees that they want to see the river remain unchanged. “I think everyone can agree we want the river to remain unchanged and this designation would accomplish that,” Culburn said.
Rice thanked all of the citizens for showing up for the informational meeting before concluding the meeting.
“I want to thank everyone for coming here tonight in a civilized meeting to discuss this,” Rice said.
According to Rice, the Unicoi County Commission will have more meetings and more feedback before making any decisions to support the designation.
“I think this was a good start,” Rice said. “We will hopefully discuss this more in the future, and support what the citizens want.”
As of The Erwin Record’s deadline, there have been no future Unicoi County Rafting and Tourism Committee meetings scheduled.