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UP IN ROCKY FORK

By David A. Ramsey • Jun 2, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park was officially established nearly seven years ago, in 2012. Since that time, very minimal development has taken place there. In a perfect world, devoid of the need for people spending money in our communities to support businesses, jobs and the tax base that funds vital services and infrastructure, I personally would be quite happy if not a single tree was felled, nor shovel of asphalt ever laid down in Rocky Fork. But need I even say it...it ain't a perfect world.

The State of Tennessee's current funded plans for the park, which have existed for well more than a year now, provide for a small visitor center, small picnic facility and a paved road running from the visitor center roughly two miles up onto the side of Flint Mountain that overlooks the park. The road, which would utilize part of an existing forest road, would provide access to a future 30-unit campground for tents and small campers (no large RVs), and to points from which the scenic interior of Rocky Fork could be experienced by visitors, such as the elderly and disabled, who are not able to do so on foot, bike or horseback.

Except for its beginning point, the road would be located well up on Flint Mountain, away from the beautiful and fragile stream valley that is Rocky Fork to most visitors. However, this project is being vigorously opposed by some who believe it will have a significant, negative environmental impact on the plant and animal life of the area. And indeed, they make some very strong points in support of their concerns. But as the famous radio personality, Paul Harvey, used to say, "Now...the rest of the story."

From at least the mid-1990s to 2008, thousands of outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists passionately advocated the preservation of the entire 10,000-acre Rocky Fork Watershed. In 2006 it appeared there might be one final opportunity to accomplish this important goal—but it was crystal clear that passion alone simply wouldn't be enough to make it happen. Those of us who desperately wanted to save this Appalachian treasure realized it would require, and rightly so, the support of the stakeholders with the most to gain or lose from whatever happened to Rocky Fork. Those stakeholders were the people of Unicoi County.

We ultimately saved Rocky Fork not by simply fighting the push for the massive resort development that was being considered for the tract, but by reaching out to the people and leaders of the county, listening to their concerns, needs and wants and then working hard to find common ground. That common ground came in the form of consensus that if a state park could be established on at least part of the tract, it would ultimately offset the economic loss of both current and future property tax revenue, which the county very much needed. Soon, many more Unicoi County citizens and leaders joined the effort to save Rocky Fork, and our legislators took note of that prevailing consensus. Ultimately, a plan took shape as sources of funding were identified, and the pieces started coming together.

Bottom line: a great many Unicoi County citizens stepped up and made a major compromise and commitment, exchanging their support for the development of a multi-million dollar residential resort for that of preserving a true Tennessee mountain treasure and creation of a new state park to help their economy. On December 15, 2008, Rocky Fork's cherished 10,000 acres of forested ridges and coves, clear rushing streams and priceless flora and fauna were preserved intact, soon to become an 8,000-acre addition to the Cherokee National Forest and a 2,000-acre Tennessee state park.

Today, the outstanding management and staff of the new park are doing an incredible job, interacting with the community, providing programming and accommodating visitors—all with limited facilities and infrastructure. However, the State of Tennessee must still step up and meet its commitment to the people of Unicoi County. It must complete the very limited development we asked for—a small visitor center for staff offices, park interpretation and retail sales; a limited campground for overnight visitors and a means of access to the park for those who are unable to hike, bike or ride horseback.

The opponents of the current development project should also step up and assist in meeting this commitment to Unicoi County, not hinder it. If this development is, in fact, highly detrimental to Rocky Fork's environment, then they should openly engage the people and leaders of the county and honestly and accurately make the case for why it is so. They should invest just as much passion, energy and strategy in identifying alternatives for meeting the state's commitment to the community as they have in opposing the current project.

Calling the project things like "the road to nowhere" is extremely unhelpful. This inflammatory name was used for many years in the infamous North Shore Road controversy on the North Carolina side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It fueled bitter community conflict, division and lawsuits that lasted for over six decades. The people of Unicoi County do not deserve to be pitted against each other or against state officials by a sensationalized effort to build opposition to the current Rocky Fork project. They deserve their park, as promised. And if they decide the current plan is flawed, they deserve the chance to say so and provide input of their own on how to proceed with developing the park.

My family goes back five generations in the tiny community of Rocky Fork, at the edge of the Rocky Fork Watershed. I remember, when I was very young, hearing folks talk about "going up in Rocky Fork" to fish, hunt, camp and such. I feel extremely fortunate and proud to be able to still use that same phrase today—as often as I possibly can—thanks to all those who understood both the true value of Rocky Fork and the vital needs of the community in which it exists.

Suffice to say, my feelings for the land, water, wildlife and stunning beauty of this place are beyond question. People who know me know that I have worked, for a considerable part of my adult life, trying to help preserve and protect those things. And I know very well how Rocky Fork's tumbling waters, green ridges and coves and sweeping mountain scenery take hold of you, captivate your spirit and senses and never let go. I am a very willing captive.

This is all simply to say that I am devoted to this rare place we call Rocky Fork, but I am equally devoted to my fellow Unicoi County citizens who compromised, more than a decade ago, to save the entire 10,000-acre watershed from certain ruin. They earned a strong voice in this issue. All who are concerned with the future of the park should simply do the right and honorable thing: we should make sure that voice is heard.

 

David A. Ramsey is a regionally and nationally recognized outdoor photographer and writer from Unicoi, TN. His recently released book, Rocky Fork: Hidden Jewel of the Blue Ridge Wild, is available at Mahoney's in Johnson City and online at www.ramseyphotos.com

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