Tag Archives: Tennessee

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. 


Hike #3 Fighting Creek Trail (a.k.a. The Frog Blog)

29 Jan

Great Smoky Mountains National Park was my hiking destination yesterday. Leaving Asheville at 9 a.m., I traveled to Gatlinburg for a meeting with Todd Witcher, executive director for Discover Life in America, a non-profit organization that manages a thorough scientific inventory of all the park’s species that has been going on for the past 15 years.

After talking with Todd about the project and viewing the park’s LEED Certified Twin Creeks Science and Education Center with its vast collections room, I was excited to get out into the woods and see if I could spot some live specimens. I didn’t have a great deal of time, and so chose a short, easy trail that begins behind the Sugarlands Visitor’s Center. It was 64 degrees and about 1 p.m. when I started out on the Fighting Creek Nature Trail.


I hadn’t been hiking long when I heard quite a ruckus of high-pitched vocalizations just a “tad” off the trail. Following what I at first mistook for bird chatter, I spied a small green pond, tucked behind a grove of trees. Immediately upon seeing the water, I realized the source of the raucous sounds.

IMG_8844Upon my arrival at the tiny pond’s bank, all was quiet; only the final plops of retreat echoed across the surface, now muddy from what was sure to be dozens of diving frogs!

How long does one have to sit beside a pond before the frogs will start peeping again? I decided to attempt to find out. I sat very still in the soft leaves, watching and listening. Finally, after some 20 minutes, I began to see slow movement in the water, and tiny heads with great bulging eyes began to emerge one by one all over the pond. Before long I realized I could see at least 15 pairs of eyes, all fixed on me!

Once when I lifted my binoculars to get a better view, the gleaming amphibians darted down in retreat once again. But this time, it didn’t take long for them to come back up. They seemed as interested in studying me as I was in watching them.

I adapted to making much slower movements, and they adapted to my presence. Finally, after nearly an hour, they relaxed and stopped staring at me, drifting lazily with out-splayed legs in what I suppose is their usual fashion when unmonitored. Then, with them facing away from me, I was able to get a few zoomed photographs without causing a stir. But, alas, their peeping never did resume during my surveillance.




What I did was not unlike the way that scientists involved with Discover Life in America’s All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory work to identify and record the locations of various species throughout the park. The people who combine efforts on this project are not just scientists with university degrees but also everyday armchair naturalist types who are, like me, just really interested in nature. They are what DLIA proudly calls “citizen scientists” – and without them the ATBI would not have exceeded all expectations and discovered more than 900 species in the park that are new to science!

IMG_8843The nature trail loop was pleasurable and felt fairly “out there” for being so close to the visitor’s center and a major park thoroughfare, although I’m sure during warmer months there is little solitude here. There was plenty of picturesque intersection with the beautiful creek and signage pointed out a few tree species’ names that were new to me, including Hop-Hornbeam, used by the Cherokee as a painkiller. I was happy to encounter a pair of Dark-eyed Juncos – to balance the taxonomic specimens I had seen earlier. For those interested in historic structures, the restored 1860s John Ownby Cabin stands at about the half-way point. Had I not practiced patience at the peeper pond, I’d have completed the entire hike in under an hour.

After capping off my solo adventure with a quick jaunt up to Cataract Falls (off the nature trail), I rejoined the Fighting Creek loop that led me back near the frogs’ habitat. I could hear their cacophonous chorus loud and clear, and was tempted to return to their secluded domicile for more amphibious fun.

But the sun was getting low in the sky and I had several hours’ drive ahead. It was time to set a course for my own old Kentucky home, where late last night I learned from Wikipedia that in Cherokee lore, the Sugarlands was part of the area known as “Walasi’yi,” or “Frog place.”IMG_8849

Learn more about Discover Life in America and the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory.

Distance traveled: 1.6 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Birds spotted: Dark-eyed Junko, Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse

Flora of note: Hop-hornbeam, Box Elder, Sycamore, Yellow Poplar, Paw Paw, Sweet Gum, Sassafras, Moosewood