Archive | December, 2018

Keep Rocky Fork Wild: Raise Your Voice by December 11

10 Dec

I invite you to step away from the holiday hype and marketing madness for a moment and imagine your own favorite forest, your most treasured slice of nature, in your mind’s eye. It might be in a mountain setting, beside a lake, waterfall or river, in the US or in another country. Maybe it’s a place you knew in your childhood, or maybe you go there every weekend. It might be on your own property, or in a state or national park. Go there in your mind right now.

Imagine relaxing in this special space, where a stream gurgles over rocks nearby. Hear the sounds of the rushing water and the birds, insects, frogs and other wildlife around you. Feel the exquisiteness of the air, made fresh by the moisture of the water, the smells of the pine needles and wildflowers. See the butterflies and birds flitting around you; feel the cool earth beneath your feet and the solidity of the rocks on which you stand.

Now, imagine that the natural sounds of your special outdoor place are silenced by the roar of engines, the scrape of metal on rock, and the screeching of dozens of bulldozers that have suddenly appeared on the scene. The ground around you is trembling in an upheaval of rock and soil, trees begin to fall, and the stream is filled with dirt. You cry out but no one can hear your voice over the sounds of destruction.

Up in Rocky Fork by Joye Ardyn Durham

Biodiversity threatened
When I moved with my new husband to Unicoi County, Tennessee a few years ago, I fell in love not only with him and his handmade homestead, but also with the 10,000-acre Rocky Fork Watershed, my own new special place and practically in our backyard.

Part of Cherokee National Forest, this watershed has been studied by scientists as a biodiversity hotspot for the Appalachians. It is a haven for black bear, Peregrine Falcons, many threatened bat and salamander species, the endangered star-nosed mole and woodland jumping mouse, blue ghost and synchronous fireflies, and delicate pink and yellow lady slipper orchids among hundreds of other wildflowers. These fragile species will soon be in peril due to loss of habitat, so I’m asking you to help by making some short comments online in the next two days!

Here’s what is happening
Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation announced in November its plans to replace Rocky Fork’s iconic natural entrance with a modern visitor center plus parking, an auto bridge across Rocky Fork Creek, and a 24-foot-wide, 17-percent-grade road cut into Flint Mountain, ostensibly for access to an overlook and “primitive campground.” But rumor has it that an RV campground will come later, facilitated by this large road, even though officials say there is no plan for RVs “at this time.”

“The plan presented would have a huge effect on the entrance to the park, also the entryway to the rest of the tract,” says John Beaudet, volunteer trail builder and maintainer on the Appalachian Trail and in Rocky Fork. “The beautiful scene as we turn into the park—a small field backed by woods to the right, Rocky Fork Creek flowing down the center, and the steep slope of Flint Mountain reaching down to the creek on the left—would be destroyed. If this is done, Rocky Fork will never be the same.”

Proposed placement of the visitor center would decimate one of the tract’s few natural wetlands—the habitat of synchronous fireflies, star-nosed moles and important plant species. This new “road to nowhere” would subject the creek to excessive runoff, flooding and sedimentation, degrading water quality for trout habitat and human users downstream.

Are fireflies important?
Although insects such as lightning bugs are not federally protected species, they do represent a charismatic draw for tourism and should therefore be preserved. Their hatching and mating grounds are right where the state wants to put its new visitor center. If these areas that host the fireflies are destroyed, we will be plowing under a bioluminescent miracle that could propel the park to national fame.

Synchronous Fireflies in Elkmont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, by Radim Schreiber

Lynn Faust has been doing firefly research in the Appalachians for past 27 years, and is the author of many peer reviewed papers and the book Fireflies, Glow-worms and Lightning Bugs. In her comments to the state, she calls Rocky Fork “a lovely new park with wonderful yet fragile diversity of plants and animals all packed in a small, narrow vulnerable area. Surely a more appropriate solution to honoring and preserving this unique place is to build facilities down in Flag Pond and perhaps shuttle (with electric or something innovative) visitors up to the creek, trails and firefly area instead of destroying the most beautiful wetland and vulnerable and rich areas by earthmoving and habitat destruction, which will forever change and impact the very area you want to showcase.”

Why is this happening?
Biologist Frosty Levy was a member of the RFSP steering committee, with meetings organized by the state and held approximately once every two months. This committee included representatives from the US Forest Service, Unicoi County Commission, Appalachian Trail Conference, Mountain Bikers, Upper East Tennessee Backcountry Riders, East Tennessee State University, and TDEC. “Without exception, all supported the concept of a primitive, low-development park,” he says. “None were in favor of road development within the park. None favored RV sites. Instead, to spur economic development in the county, all favored private development in the surrounding area of campgrounds, B&Bs, food establishments, etc.”

So why is this happening? Apparently it is believed that developing roads in the tiny park will allow it to be like the Smokies, which is 250 times the size of Rocky Fork State Park. Unicoi County wants to use this fragile ecosystem for economic gain, when developing outside the park to capture visitors would be the best way to keep the asset intact.

As it is now, Rocky Fork State Park has what it takes to attract a huge piece of the global tourism market: ecotourists, who are willing to pay up to three times more for the quality experience that comes from visiting a rustic, biodiverse park. Unicoi County can derive far greater economic benefit by keeping Rocky Fork underdeveloped and marketing it in a way that no other park in Tennessee can be marketed—as one of the last remaining pristine wildlife refuges in Southern Appalachia—than if it allows the state to carve out just one more overdeveloped playground.

It’s everyone’s park, so please help!
Rocky Fork is public land that belongs to everyone in every state. About $15,000,000 is to be spent on this construction with no public input, but for the next two days TDEC is accepting public comments on its plan. If the state hears from enough concerned citizens that the park should not be over-developed, the tides could turn.

Our hope is that the public will speak up and demand that the state slow down, allow public input to help shape the plan for the park, and ensure that we “get it right” while we still have the chance. Public comments on the plan are being accepted through December 11 here.