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Outdoors Boating access on the upper Chattooga Wild and Scenic River

In January 2012, the national forests in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia issued decisions to allow boating above the Highway 28 bridge on the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River. This section of the river is not a place for most boaters – floating in this area at high, fast flows is dangerous for people who don’t have specialized skills and experience.

In January the US Forest Service, which is part of the US Department of Agriculture, issued an administrative decision notice which effectively brought to a conclusion twelve years of appeals and lawsuits between the Forest Service and white water paddlers trying to gain access to the upper Chattooga River.

The Forest Service agreed to allow boating from December through April during high water flows. The boaters are represented by American Whitewater, the American Canoe Association and other regional paddling organizations that have been trying to open the upper river for twelve years through the administrative appeals process and the Federal courts.

Boating is allowed under these conditions...

• On the main stem of the upper segment of the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River between the confluence of Green Creek in North Carolina and one-quarter mile downstream of the Lick Log Creek confluence in South Carolina.

• From December 1 to April 30.

• From the time that flows reach 350 cfs or greater at the USGS Burrells Ford gauge during daylight hours. Daylight hours will be 30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset. Once boating is allowed, it may continue until 30 minutes after official sunset that same day.

• With a self-registration permit.

• Using tandem/single capacity hard boats or tandem/ single capacity inflatable boats.

• Starting or ending only at specific put-ins and takeouts as outlined on the self-registration permit:

• With a minimum of two craft and a maximum of six people per boating group.

On March 27, the US Forest Service agreed to hear an appeal put forward by the Greenfire Law Firm of San Francisco which represents Georgia Forest Watch, Georgia Sierra Club and Wilderness Watch from Bozeman, Montana which seeks to halt boating on the upper Chattooga.

The upper Chattooga River is the only river on National Forests lands in the entire United States that is closed to boating. This unusual situation was created by the Forest Service’s local rangers when they were first given management responsibility for the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River. During the development of a written management plan for the river the rangers decided to divide the river in half and favor boating on the lower and fishing on the upper because it would make their job easier. The Forest Service was afraid of the threats of violence that erupted in opposition to the implementation of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act so they attempted to physically separate the two user groups. It didn’t work and in fact it created a schism that grows worse with time. Fishing and hiking are allowed on the whole river, from top to bottom, and all it’s tributaries year round. Boaters first requested (in limited numbers) to be able to paddle the higher water flows that occur on average about 50 to 60 days a year. Generally, the river is avoided by anglers during the higher flows because the water is muddy and more dangerous.

The controversy stems from a 1976 Forest Service decision to close the upper part of the river to boating, in spite of the fact that the Forest Service’s own study plan recommended boating on all the river. Closing the upper river to boating seemed to be a concession to local anglers who claimed their “solitude” was disturbed by the boating. According to Kevin Colburn, American Whitewater’s conservation director, the original decision to close the river was illegal because it did not involve public meetings, was unjustified, and did not conform with the National Environmental Policy Act and National Forest Management Acts.

In the current controversy the hikers and anglers claim the boaters will “damage the resources,” but before the lawsuit started, the Forest Service conducted a physical inventory and determined that the hikers and anglers had created 29 miles of illegal trails and 35 illegal campsites, with fire rings and trash, that were adjacent to the river and all that happened while boating was not allowed on the upper river.

Greenfire’s attorney, Rachael Doughty, claims in their appeal that boaters on the upper Chattooga would cause “glaring immediate problems with interim access.” Greenfire also objects to “no enforceable limits on the number of boating trips.” Greenfire’s last complaint states “the experience of solitude and wildnesscould be lost.”

The Forest Service plans to make a decision regarding Greenfire’s appeal sometime this summer. Unfortunately, the Forest Service has a history of not meeting deadlines and using the appeals process to delay implementation of plans. When that happens the Federal courts are obliged to step in and take action to make agencies comply with National policies and statutes. After twelve years of appeals and lawsuits on the upper Chattooga , boating was first allowed and then disallowed, later it was allowed again (with lots of restrictions) and now it has been disallowed again. It appears the Forest Service does not know what it wants to do on the upper Chattooga and that leaves the issue ripe for the Federal court.

American Whitewater, the American Canoe Association, numerous volunteers and Patton-Boggs Law Firm have spent over a million dollars trying to gain access for boaters on the upper Chattooga. The Forest Service and the U.S. Attorney’s Office have spent an estimated five to six million dollars worth of government time trying to prevent boaters from paddling the upper Chattooga. Gridlock does not benefit the taxpayers.

Although the Forest Service discontinued years ago stocking trout in the short section of the upper Chattooga that is contained in the Ellicott’s Rock Wilderness Area, they have continued to stock non-native exotic species like rainbow and brown trout in the rest of the upper Chattooga. The stocked fish come from hatcheries where they are artificially inseminated, which leads to a range of genetic defects in the fish which includes odd colorations and susceptibility to diseases. Many of the stocked fish carry residual diseases and parasites from their close confinement in concrete brood tanks. Hatchery officials have indicated that as many as half of all stocked fish are either caught out or die within thirty days of their release. After being raised in concrete tanks and fed corn pellets their whole life, hatchery raised fish are unable to hunt for food in a wild mountain stream. All this stocking occurs at considerable expense to the public and benefits a relative handfull of local anglers.

One of the unexplored issues within this controversy is the fact that most paddlers also enjoy fishing. The whole issue of solitude doesn’t carry much weight because boaters want and enjoy solitude just like hikers and anglers do.

When its all been said and done, it appears that the different uses on the upper Chattooga are a Constitutional issue. The upper Chattooga is public land and all uses that are allowed on public lands that don’t harm the resources are allowed in unlimited quantities, except white water paddling. Boaters claim they do not harm the environment and the Forest Service supports that claim so it all boils down to a social issue; local anglers don’t want people from other areas using “their” river. In consideration of all the fun hiking, kayaking, fishing and camping that we all enjoy in National Parks like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon and all the other National Wild and Scenic Rivers all over the United States where fishing and paddling coexists without conflict it seems there must be an equitable solution to the controversy on our local Wild and Scenic River; the Chattooga.


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