FLAG POND — Gov. Bill Haslam said he grew up not too far from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is the country’s most visited national park and is regarded for its scenic beauty.
However, he said the sights and scenery offered in Rocky Fork, a portion of which is set to become Tennessee’s newest state park, rival those offered in the national park.
“You see the waterfalls and incredible protected woodland area, it’s a great thing to have,” Haslam said. “In Tennessee, what we want to do is we want to protect those things that make Tennessee special and we want to provide opportunities for all citizens to be out and enjoy them. This is going to allow us to do both of them.”
The governor and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, as well as state and local officials, were on hand at the Zane Whitson Welcome Center on Tuesday, where it was announced that around 2,000 acres of the approximately 10,000-acre tract that makes up Rocky Fork will become the state’s 55th state park.
“The news that this will be Rocky Fork State Park, the 55th state park, is great news for Upper East Tennessee and the people of Tennessee,” Alexander said.
Rocky Fork is located along the Appalachian Trail corridor and the Tennessee-North Carolina border. The area is adjacent to more than 22,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service-designated wilderness.
The area of Rocky Fork designated for the state park will be conveyed to the state by the Conservation Fund in the coming months. For a number of years, the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency leased the land making up Rocky Fork from property owners, allowing it to be utilized by the public for outdoor activities. When talk of the land possibly being sold to developers began, the Forest Service expressed interest in acquiring the property to keep it under public ownership.
When prices of the property rose quickly and the Forest Service could not keep up, the Conservation Fund stepped in and purchased Rocky Fork property. In late 2008, the first land conveyance between the Conservation Fund and the Forest Service was completed and, in September, the Forest Service finalized the purchase of the Rocky Fork property.
Since its first purchase, the Forest Service has acquired more than 7,600 acres of Rocky Fork, with the 2,000 acres to soon be conveyed to the state under ownership of the Conservation Fund. The total cost of the Rocky Fork property purchased by the Forest Service, primarily with funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund as well as private contributions, is estimated at $40 million.
Before Rocky Fork’s acquisition by the Forest Service and the Conservation Fund, it was one of the largest unprotected tracts in the southern Appalachian Mountains.
Rocky Fork State Park will become Tennessee’s highest-altitude state park, and the portion of the property not used for the park will remain with the Forest Service. Preliminary plans for the park include an access road, ranger station, primitive campground, picnic areas and trails.
Alexander called the Conservation Fund and its efforts “indispensable.” Rex Boner, vice president of the Conservation Fund’s Southeast Regional office, said those within his organization were initially unsure what the future held for Rocky Fork, and that the area became the Conservation Fund’s “local conservation challenge.”
“We tried to figure out collectively how to balance conservation with economics, economic returns,” Boner said. “And as we ventured into this unknown territory, we quickly learned about the character of the people in this community, the spirit of the people, the resolve of the people. They were determined to make this work, and they sort of helped us understand how to make it work. We had many hours of discussions, negotiations, agreement, disagreements, but they gave us a chance, and four years later we’re getting close to trying to meet the dreams of the community with the community’s support.”
Officials who spoke at Tuesday’s presentation agreed the park also will aid in local economic development. Alexander said with his announcement that Haslam has turned a problem in Unicoi County — the high percentage of land owned by the federal government — into an opportunity.
“This says we’re going to take this 10,000 acres, 2,000 of it will be a state park, a gateway to the Appalachian Trail, we’re going to make it a more attractive place for people who love the outdoors to come, to enjoy, to spend their money and build up the tax base in Unicoi County,” Alexander said. “That’s the whole idea of it. And if it can happen in Maryville, and it can happen in Sevierville, and it can happen in Asheville, it can happen in Erwin and Unicoi and Unicoi County.”
Haslam said he called Rocky Fork an “incredible story about how things can and should work” because of this collaborative effort.
Local officials also voiced their excitement of having a state park in the area.
“It’s a huge thing for the county, a huge thing for all of us,” town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch said. “I’m expecting it to really come together and make this part of the area shine and become a much-visited park, and something that will give our people opportunities for recreational and education and conservation and, also, at the same time help generate revenue within the county.”
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said he was “very happy” to hear about the park, and said it could serve as a catalyst for recreational tourism success if marketed with other recreational attractions in the county such as trails and scenic sites.
He said the county will soon seek a grant to bring water into the Rocky Fork area, which also will benefit residents of the area, and he expects the county to be involved in the park’s development process.
“We’ll be involved quite a bit,” he said. “We’ve been going to meetings and things it seems like forever, but this is really a culmination of a whole lot of meetings, but I know we’ve got a whole lot more to do.”
Officials gave no indication of when the new state park would be ready for the public.