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Grassroots movement hopes to preserve Nolichucky River

Nathan Baker • Sep 3, 2017 at 9:00 AM

The push is on to preserve a (mostly) pristine section of the Nolichucky River as it plunges from North Carolina into Tennessee, providing visitors with outdoor recreation opportunities and padding local governments’ budgets with tourism dollars.

A small, but growing grassroots movements is seeking to have 7.2 miles of the Nolichucky Gorge federally designated as Wild and Scenic River, aiming to protect its natural, cultural, and recreational values.

Kevin Colburn, National Stewardship Director for American Whitewater, a national nonprofit advocating conservation of the country’s whitewater resources, said he and others have been working for four years in Western North Carolina to build support for the designation and he plans to reach out soon to communities in Tennessee.

“I’ve been paddling the Nolichucky for 22 years, and it is one of my favorite rivers,” he said in an email.

“It’s big, for one thing,” he continued by phone last week. “The canyon itself, in the wintertime it looks like something you’d see out west, and in summertime, it looks like a lot of other parts of the Southeast with continuous forest. It’s really special, and it’s a great whitewater trip. To spend a day moving through that place is a wonderful experience, and it’s one that’s not out of reach — it’s close to many people.”

The section of the river where Colburn and other conservationists are aiming their efforts starts near Poplar, North Carolina, and ends just south of Erwin in the Unaka Springs community. The Appalachian Trail comes within spitting distance, then crosses the river on the Tennessee side, and the only development in the gorge is the CSX Railroad track that follows its winding course over the mountain.

Curtis England, an East Tennessee native and a paddler who spent six years as a river guide on the Nolichucky, said the tracks, a slight touch of human civilization in the wild, doesn’t preclude the gorge from receiving the federal designation.

“Through my couple of decades of paddling experience, I’ve seen a lot of other rivers be more developed with new construction and land being sold off,” he said. “The Nolichucky is still very wild, and myself and many others would like to see it stay that way.”

England started a petition on change.org supporting the movement to designate the Noli as a wild and scenic river. In four months, the petition has been signed by nearly 18,000 people, many of them from Erwin, Johnson City and neighboring communities.

By earning a spot on the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, in one of three classifications: wild, scenic or recreational, the section of the Nolichucky would gain protection from dams and other development that would divert the river’s natural flow, water quality or resource values. The protections extend a quarter mile on either bank, but don’t exclude all development and uses of the river.

The first phase of Colburn’s plan involved gaining community support for the designation, which he said has been overflowing. The final phases, something Colburn hopes to achieve in the next year, is to gain federal support for the designation from the US Forest Service, then finally Congressional approval.

American Whitewater is working closely with the Forest Service to put together a forest management legislative package for Western North Carolina, and the Nolichucky is a large part of the push.

“The Nolichucky would be the centerpiece of any future designation,” Colburn said. “It’s the standout gem.”

The gorge winds through land already designated by national forests, so not much development is expected along it anyway, but an added benefit of the special designation is that it could help put the area on the map.

Only a quarter of one percent of the country’s rivers are protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and those that are usually enjoy a healthy bump from tourism.

England said the Chattooga River, which flows through the south part of North Carolina and along the Georgia-South Carolina border, sees more than double the number of rafting guests the Nolichucky draws.

It was designated under the act in the 1970s, and, even with a stricter permit system limiting when guided tours can launch, sees widespread popularity.

“Being nationally recognized can be pretty incredible,” England said. “The railyard in Erwin recently closed, and a lot of jobs were cut from the local economy. It’s not going to completely replace those jobs or anything, but supporting this designation and bringing in more tourists could be a way to give a boost to the economy.”

Once the effort moves forward a little more in North Carolina, Colburn said American Whitewater will begin bolstering support in Tennessee.

“If we want to do this, it’s gotta be something that is bottom-up, grassroots, broadly supported, and bipartisan,” he said. “We’re cutting across lines here, and we think we have safe, common ground positions. We hope our legislators will recognize that.”

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