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Local outdoor enthusiasts work to protect the Nolichucky River

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Nov 18, 2017 at 11:22 PM

Local residents along the Nolichucky River and members of American Whitewater have recently started working to “keep the Nolichucky free-flowing” for generations to come.

Only about one-third of one percent of rivers are federally protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. With next year marking its 50th anniversary, activists and local outdoor enthusiasts say “there is no better time to build a movement around the iconic Nolichucky Gorge.”

Tennessee has already recommended that the seven-mile stretch between Poplar, North Carolina, and Unaka Springs, Tennessee, be recommended by the U.S. Forest Service for protection under the act.

Years after US Nitrogen constructed a pipeline along the river in Greene County, some residents believe more needs to be done to protect the river’s ecosystem.

John Grace, a kayaker from Asheville, recently produced a short film that called on residents in North Carolina and Tennessee to contact their senators and urge them to protect the river and surrounding gorge.

He said the campaign to federally protect the river will “need a little push,” and encouraged residents to contact North Carolina Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis and U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry to persuade them to support their efforts.

Grace said the Nolichucky, which is one of the last remaining free-flowing rivers in the southeastern United States, must be protected — not only to preserve the ecosystem, but to encourage economic growth through outdoor recreation and tourism, which he said could be lost if a dam or other developments were constructed.

“It’s one of the first places I went paddling. It has a unique character in the Southeast because it is one of the few rivers that hasn’t been turned into a reservoir,” he said. “We just want to keep it like it is.

“Keep it wild and free, and let it be what it is.”

Matt Moses from Mountain River Guides agreed that keeping the river untamed is essential to the outdoor recreation industry around the Nolichucky. In Grace’s video, he talked about how important that industry is to Unicoi County.

“I think it’s certainly safe to say that the Nolichucky River gorge and the Appalachian Trail are the two big tourism draws here in Unicoi County,” he said.

Outdoor sports enthusiasts come from all across the country to enjoy the Nolichucky and its ecosystem.

Drawn by the Nolichucky River, Dennis Ashford moved to Johnson City from Chapel Hill three years ago. He said the river is perfect for kayaking and fishing, among other things.

He said the trails throughout the area also give hikers a chance to experience a diverse ecosystem, which includes bald eagles, bears, bobcats and various types of fish.

One of Ashford’s favorite things about the river is its scenic beauty, rapids and proximity to Johnson City.

Like Grace, he said building a dam would have devastating consequences for the area’s diverse ecosystem.

“The first consequence would be the loss of habitat. When you put in a dam, parts (of the river) become dewatered, and it becomes a dry stream bed,” he said. “We see what dams can do, not only downstream but upstream.”

Ashford and Grace both said they have grown connected to the river as outdoor enthusiasts and kayakers.

“The more time you spend on it, the more it becomes part of you,” Ashford said of the river.

Woody Callaway, cofounder of Liquid Logic Kayaking, said the Nolichucky River is an “iconic place.” He too supports protecting the river under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act due to its ecological value and location.

“What I think is really cool and unique about the Nolichucky is that this is a natural river — there’s no dams,” he said. “If you look on a map, and you look at the topography, the Nolichucky headwater starts at two of the highest points on the East Coast, Mount Mitchell to the south and Roan Mountain to the north.”

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