Unicoi County to delve deeper into request for federal protection of Nolichucky River gorge

Sue Guinn Legg • Jul 11, 2019 at 10:02 PM

ERWIN — Rafting enthusiasts’ campaign for federal protection of an eight-mile section of the Nolichucky River between Poplar, N.C., and Erwin has hit some choppy water.

The Unicoi County Commission’s Rafting, Tourism and Economic Development Committee voted this week to table a request for support of a federal Wild and Scenic River designation for the river gorge in order to look deeper into the concerns of farmers and private property owners elsewhere along the river.

County Commissioner Matthew Rice, who chairs the committee, opened Wednesday’s committee meeting with a brief summary how the request for the Wild and Scenic designation was previously presented to the committee as “low-hanging fruit” in ongoing efforts to increase Unicoi County’s tourism revenues by capitalizing on the its natural areas.

Up for consideration, Rice said, is a study that found the county is generating more than $12 million in tourism dollars annually and has the potential to increase that figure to more than $18 million; a petition for the Wild and Scenic River designation that includes more than 20,000 signatures, and a letter from the local Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation opposing the designation.

There to represent the farmers were the Unicoi County Farm Bureau president and several members of the board of directors, who told the committee the 20,000 people who signed the petition are primarily rafters who do not live in Unicoi County.

Also at the meeting were Carl Jones of Jones Church Farms, who told the committee $12 million in tourism dollars is a “drop in the bucket” compared to money being generated by Unicoi and Washington County farms along the river. Steve Scott of Scott's Farms questioned whether the proposed Wild and Scenic area could be extended beyond the proposed 8-mile section.

Kevin Colburn, national stewardship director for nonprofit American Whitewater organization, told the committee the congressional designation his group is seeking is limited to the specific eight-mile section of the river that runs through U.S. Forest Service land and ends at the privately owned Nolichucky Campground south of Unicoi County’s Chestoa community. Colburn said a separate act of Congress would be required to extend the designation beyond that area.

Asked if the federal government could extend the designation by claiming private property through the legal process of eminent domain, Colburn said the government had used that method only once in the past 30 years and would not do so again.

Unicoi County Farm Bureau President Rene Rogers said she has received conflicting information form Farm Bureau Federation about whether the designation can be extended through eminent domain.

Chestoa resident Judy Webb, who owns an island in the river, told Colburn she simply does not believe the government will not attempt to take her property if it choses to do so. 

Greg Quillen, a conservationist for the local U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Office said the Forest Service would continue to manage the river if the designation is granted and as the managing agency would also protect the river’s water quality.

Colburn said the designation does not allow regulation of land uses along tributaries of the river and the sole purpose of the designation is to prevent the construction of a dam and keep the river free flowing.

Matt Moses, owner of the USA Raft Adventure Resort, said his interest in the designation is simply to keep the river as it is.

With the committee members consensus, Rice concluded the meeting by saying the committee is not in a hurry to make a recommendation to the full Conty Commission and will take some time to study the issues further.

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