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Forest Service’s Rocky Fork stake grows

Members of The Conservation Fund last week closed on a deal to transfer another 1,429 acres of land in the 9,624-acre Rocky Fork watershed to the U.S. Forest Service, TCF field representative Ralph Knoll said on Monday.
The move brings the total Rocky Fork land area now owned by the Forest Service to about 6,478 acres in Unicoi and Greene counties.
With the Forest Service’s acquisition of this latest land tract, only about 1,200 acres of Rocky Fork remain unprotected. However, Knoll said the president has included $5 million as part of the U.S. Land and Water Conservation Program to be used toward acquiring those acres.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that the $5 million will remain in the budget,” Knoll said. “That would allow the Forest Service to allocate that money toward (acquiring) the remaining unprotected land at Rocky Fork.”
Last Thursday’s land conveyance is the fourth since December 2008, at which time three separate tracts, totaling approximately 2,239 acres, were purchased from Atlanta-based New Forestry, LLC and conveyed to the USFS.
In August 2009, a second transaction conveyed approximately 1,278 acres, all in Unicoi County, to the USFS. In April of 2010, another 1,534 acres in Unicoi County were acquired by the Forest Service.
Only a small portion of the land conveyed to the USFS last week lies in Unicoi County, with the majority of the land transferred situated in Greene County. However, with the exception of the 1,200 acres set aside for 2012, all of the remaining land held by TCF – about 1,965 acres – is in Unicoi County.
Pending the passage of the nation’s 2012 fiscal-year budget, TCF still maintains ownership of 3,165 acres of land at Rocky Fork.
Knoll said that the 1,965-acre portion in southern Unicoi County was purchased using state grant money, as well as privately raised funds. He indicated this tract is where the state could maintain partial ownership in order to develop a state park.
“Each piece that they get is good news,” Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch remarked when he learned of the transaction. “We’re certainly still waiting and working with state officials to get a state park in there and get the gate down to where people can start using it.”
Lynch, who has supported the conservation of the watershed since taking office in 2006, said recreational use of Rocky Fork is among his top priorities, and commented that he will continue to work with conservation officials and other entities toward that goal.
Knoll acknowledged in a statement that TCF expects the state will end up retaining ownership of at least part of the land at Rocky Fork. He also said that discussions are currently on the table to develop a new state park there.
“(Rocky Fork) was one of the largest remaining undeveloped properties in the southern Appalachians,” Knoll said Monday. “Any effort like this involves a strong federal component, and wouldn’t be possible without the support of Congress and Tennessee delegation.”
Knoll went on to thank Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, as well as Rep. Phil Roe, for their efforts in assisting TCF at the federal and state levels. He also thanked Lynch for “recognizing the importance of this project to help with local economic development strategies.”
Other conservation organizations that have assisted TCF with the Rocky Fork project include the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and Trout Unlimited.
Lynch also commented that recreational tourism at Rocky Fork could bring in significant revenue to help offset the loss of the watershed from the county’s tax base.
“Hopefully, we can push that recreation element and bring in a state park to help us make up whatever we might lose as far as the tax base is concerned,” Lynch said. “It’s just another step (in) the process and it’s going to have to be something that the whole community gets behind.”
USFS representative Terry McDonald said the latest acquisition for the agency puts them one step closer to protecting the whole property.
“We’re real pleased with this latest addition,” McDonald said, adding that the Forest Service will conduct an assessment of the property once all land conveyances are complete.
Following an assessment, McDonald said the USFS will formulate a land management plan in order to determine how best to use the area.
“At this point we don’t have anything set, but we’re going to look very closely at it,” McDonald concluded.