Four years and 10,000 acres later, the Rocky Fork land tract is now protected, according to information issued by the U.S. Forest Service on Thursday, Sept. 27. Working in conjunction, The Conservation Fund and the National Forest Service have acquired the final 1,200 acres of the tract.
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said the acquisition is very important in order to preserve the pristine nature of the area and watershed. He said TCF was successful in preserving the land.
This is the last acquisition for the Rocky Fork property, Lynch said. The Rocky Fork initiative has had quite a bit of support from our legislators.
The first acquisition of the tract, 7,476 acres by TCF and 2,237 acres by the Forest Service, took place in December 2008, according to the information distributed by the Forest Service. The tract was privately held by New Forestry, LLC before TCF acquired the property and handed it over to the Forest Service after temporarily holding it until funding could be acquired.
Using $30 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal land protection program which, according to the press release, receives funds from the development of federally-owned offshore oil and gas resources, the Forest Service has acquired 7,677 total acres.
For this final acquisition, $5 million of the $30 million LCWF funds were appropriated by Congress in Fiscal Year 2012. Also, through Walmarts 2012 Acres for America program, a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation was used for the most recent 1,200-acre acquisition.
With the Forest Service now owning 7,677 acres of the Rocky Fork tract, the remaining 2,036 acres will be held by the TCF. These 2,036 acres were acquired through previous state and private funding.
Ralph Knoll, Tennessee state representative for TCF, said in a phone interview on Monday that TCF is working with the state and Forest Service to determine how these 2,036 acres, all of which are located in Unicoi County, will be conveyed.
Knoll said TCF and the agencies are working to determine the best fit for the land-transfer stewardship while understanding the economic development needs of the community, as well as interests in public use and recreation of the tract.
We want to create a win-win for everybody, Knoll said.
This final Forest Service acquisition is huge, not only in the number of acres, but in potential economic impacts. It will also help conserve and protect many outstanding natural and scenic resources. This is truly a dream come true for many people, Unaka District Ranger Terry Bowerman said in the Forest Service press release issued on Sept. 27. Thanks to the foresight and support of a host of public-private partners and local, state and federal elected officials, such as Senator Lamar Alexander, Senator Bob Corker and U.S. Representative Phil Roe, public ownership of Rocky Fork is a reality.
Bowerman also said that economic development for counties containing National Forest System land is important.
We recognize the importance of providing economic opportunities to the counties. In Unicoi County alone the Forest Service has recently done a number of things to help, including: Reconstructed, for adaptive use, the Pinnacle Fire Tower as a public observation site; Constructed a trail from Unicoi County property, near I-26, to the Pinnacle tower; Rehabilitated the Buffalo Mountain ATV Trail; Improved the parking area at Limestone Cove; Converted the trail at Limestone Cove from hiking only to hiking and horseback riding; Made improvements at Limestone Cove day use area; Rehabilitated part of the Unaka Mountain Overlook, Bowerman also said in the press release. All of these improvements, especially the Pinnacle Lookout Tower and trail have been well received and are enhancing local economies.
Lynch said he hopes to see some kind of project started in the area to promote tourism for the county.
The end run of all this, of course the state has put some money into Rocky Fork as well, we are hoping somewhere between the Forest Service and the state that some sort of recreation area or state park is considered, Lynch said.
Lynch said a recreation area could return revenue lost to the county because the Rocky Fork land is now completely off the tax rolls. When we moved forward with this, we wanted to do something to offset the loss of the taxes on the land, Lynch said. When this was first talked about we started talking about how we could make it benefit the county.
Economic risks and cost associated with developing land currently, Lynch said, is not worth destroying the recreational opportunities Rocky Fork could offer the public.
Had this not gone the way it did, Rocky Fork probably would have been sitting up there as some bank or somebody would own it and nothing much would have happened with it, Lynch said. It would have cost tons of money to develop that into some kind of gated community.
The Forest Service reported that Rocky Fork is home to many rare species of wildlife, including the Yonahlossee salamander, eastern hellbender and peregrine falcon.
Rocky Fork is also part of the Unicoi Bear Reserve and prime bear breeding habitat is found on the tract. And at least 10 species of greatest conservation need have been recorded on the tract.
You can tell that Rocky Fork is a special place because of the unwavering dedication and determination of so many individuals and groups to preserve its natural heritage, Knoll said in the press release. We are especially grateful for the support of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and Appalachian Trail Conservancy, who have been instrumental throughout this landscape-scale conservation effort.
By Keeli Parkey
and Kayla Carter