FLAG POND — The final parcel of Rocky Fork property owned by the Conservation Fund has now been conveyed to the state of Tennessee, clearing the way for work to begin to convert the area into the state’s next state park.
On Monday, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation officially acquired from the Conservation Fund the 2,036 acres of Rocky Fork property that is to become the state’s 55th state park.
“We’re excited and happy that we were able to convey to the state the land that will be used to create the new state park,” said Ralph Knoll, Tennessee state representative for the Conservation Fund.
In late October, Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander visited Unicoi County to announce that around 2,000 acres of the nearly 10,000-acre tract that makes up the Rocky Fork area would become Tennessee’s next state park. Rocky Fork is located along the Appalachian Trail corridor and the Tennessee-North Carolina border in Greene and Unicoi counties. Adjacent to Rocky Fork is more than 22,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service-designated wilderness.
Conservationists have had an interest in preserving the Rocky Fork area for a number of years. The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency previously leased the land from private property owners to allow the area to be utilized by the public for outdoor activities. When the possibility of Rocky Fork property being sold to developers presented itself, the U.S. Forest Service stepped in and expressed interest in acquiring Rocky Fork to keep the land under public ownership.
When land prices climbed more quickly than the Forest Service could keep up with, the Conservation Fund stepped in and began to purchase Rocky Fork property. The first land conveyance between the organization and the Forest Service occurred nearly five years ago. In September, the Forest Service finalized its purchase of Rocky Fork land.
Since it first expressed interest in acquiring the property, the Forest Service acquired approximately 7,600 acres of Rocky Fork. This left the 2,036 acres that is set to become the next state park.
“We no longer have any ownership in Rocky Fork,” said Knoll, who had been involved in the process since the fall of 2006. “This was the last piece that needed to be conveyed.”
Brock Hill, deputy commissioner for the TDEC’s Bureau of Parks and Conservation, said the state has already been on the Rocky Fork property conducting preliminary work. Hill said the TDEC is currently working with the Tennessee Department of Transportation to determine the best route for a road that is to be constructed within the park, and that this plan is expected to be completed some time in the fall. He said this road will enter from the county road adjacent to the park and connect to amenities within the park.
Hill said TDEC is also in the process of having an engineer work with TDOT to plan a layout of where the park’s amenities, which are set to include a ranger station/visitors center, primitive campground area and picnic areas and shelters, are to be located. Hill said the state has been working with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and biking and horseback riding enthusiasts, as well as the U.S. Forest Service, to develop a trail users’ working group.
Visible construction will not start until the planning process is complete, Hill said. Right now, there is no timetable for construction to begin.
“It’s not as simple as sticking a road in the middle of the woods and building a lot of things,” Hill said. “There’s a lot of thought that goes into it, a tremendous amount of planning has to be done before we actually start doing things.”
One visible change set to occur soon is the relocation of the gate into the park area. Hill said this gate will be moved further back into the property so that visitors can enjoy the area set to become the next state park.
A recent economic impact study completed by the University of Tennessee showed that every dollar invested in the state park system had $37 of economic impact on communities in which parks are located, Hill said. He said state officials are anxious to bring this type of potential impact to Unicoi County.
“We’re grateful we have the opportunity to do this project,” Hill said. “We think it’s going to be a great amenity for east Tennessee, and we think that people who live in that area of the state, as well as western North Carolina and southern Virginia and north Georgia, will be flocking over there because there’s very few places as beautiful.”
Knoll said the Conservation Fund will maintain a local presence to help state officials in transitioning the conveyed property into the state park.
“We clearly think that getting the park developed will be very helpful to the local economy, and we hope that it will spur some business development in the community,” Knoll said. “It will take some time for that to occur, but there’s lots of evidence out there that basically indicates that this type of development will help the local economy, and I think folks in the community will see some of those benefits at some point in the future.”
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch also said the state park would provide a valuable economic development tool. He also said the state park should bring infrastructure improvements to those residing in the area, and officials have explored ways to enhance access into the area set to become the state park.
“It’s another step in the foundation of what has been a long and sometimes arduous process,” Lynch said of the conveyance. “I think that the citizens will be pleased.”
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