ERWIN — Nearly four years after it first received a portion of Rocky Fork land, the U.S. Forest Service has completed its final purchase of Rocky Fork property remaining under private ownership.
On Wednesday, the Forest Service finalized the purchase of approximately 1,200 acres of the Rocky Fork tract from The Conservation Fund.
“This final Forest Service acquisition is huge, not only in the number of acres, but in potential economic impacts,” District Ranger Terry Bowerman stated in a Thursday release announcing the purchase. “It will also help conserve and protect many outstanding natural and scenic resources. This is truly a dream come true for many people. Thanks to the foresight and support of a host of public-private partners and local, state and federal elected officials, such as Sen. Lamar Alexander, Sen. Bob Corker, and U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, public ownership of Rocky Fork is a reality.”
“Tennesseans are enthusiastic protectors of the great outdoors, and I am pleased that the efforts at Rocky Fork will preserve this remarkable place for future generations,” Alexander said in the release.
For decades, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency leased the land that makes up Rocky Fork from property owners, allowing citizens to use the land for general forest activities such as hunting, camping, fishing and sightseeing, Bowerman said. When the threat of the property being sold to developers arose, the U.S. Forest Service expressed interest in acquiring the property to keep it under public ownership. However, Bowerman said the price of the property rose more quickly than the Forest Service could keep up with.
This led The Conservation Fund to step in and purchase the Rocky Fork property, which is located along the North Carolina border in Unicoi and Greene counties. Bowerman said acquisition of the land has been at the top or near the top of the Forest Service’s priority list for years and, in late 2008, the first land conveyance between the Conversation Fund and the Forest Service was completed.
Since that time, the Forest Service has acquired a total of 7,677 acres with more than $30 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal land protection program that receives funds from the development of federally owned offshore oil and gas resources. Congress appropriated $5 million in LWCF funds for the 2012 fiscal year, which along with a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation through Walmart’s 2012 Acres for America Program, allowed for the purchase of the final 1,200-acre tract. The total cost of the Rocky Fork property was $40 million, according to the release.
Bowerman said with Wednesday’s purchase, the Rocky Fork property under Forest Service ownership is once again open to public use for general forest activities, such as camping, fishing and hunting.
Just a little more than 2,000 acres of the nearly 10,000 acre tract making up Rocky Fork is now held by The Conservation Fund. Ralph Knoll, a field representative with the Conservation Fund, said the organization is working with state agencies and the forest service to determine how to best manage this land with an eye toward opening it up to public use and economic development opportunities.
“So we’re working with all those folks on a game plan basically to have those acres flow from The Conservation Fund to public ownership,” Knoll said Thursday.
Knoll also called the completion of the final phase of the Rocky Fork project a significant milestone.
“You call Rocky Fork a special place because of the unwavering dedication and determination of so many individuals and groups to preserve its natural heritage,” he said. “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.”