The Rocky Fork Trail Crew, aka “trail gorillas,” have been working for about ten months now building a new Whitehouse Cliffs Trail to replace the old “trail,” which is plagued with numerous problems. The regular crew is made up of volunteers and Friends group members along with the park ranger, and we have also have received help from Carolina Mountain Club and Tennessee Eastman Hiking & Canoeing Club.
So far, more than one mile of new trail is complete, climbing over 800 feet in elevation from the starting point. The Whitehouse Cliffs, which the trail passes near, are visible from I-26 near the rocky summit of the mountain. The trail building has been challenging due to the steep slope of the mountain requiring a lot of digging to create a shelf wide enough for the trail, as well as the numerous areas with no soil to dig in, only rocks, which must be moved and fitted together into a trail.
Here are a few photos by Van Hovey from this week’s adventures.
Numerous statements in the article by Ramsey suggest that he is not fully informed about the state’s plans, which may well be the case since he has spent the last few years focused on developing the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership. For example, Ramsey says there would not be RVs, but the plans state clearly that the road is designed to accommodate them.
He also says Unicoi County citizens “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” and 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.”
First of all, that large residential resort development was very unlikely to have ever come about; a consultant concluded that the site was unfeasible for development and the ostensible would-be buyers had to defend themselves in court over numerous crooked deals. Second, Tennessee’s Conservation Compensation Fund pays the property taxes for the state park land. Third, although it is less than what private owners would pay in property taxes, the federal Impact Aid Program annually pays counties with large federal land ownership: $61,000 for Unicoi County in 2019—and this from an owner who does not even expect county services in return.
Indeed a residential resort development in Rocky Fork would have brought in additional taxes. But, after providing all the services expected in return, the county would likely have had to raise taxes. Now, as a result of preserving this special place, tourism will bring many visitors and the county will benefit economically—if it has the infrastructure in place to take advantage of the increase in visitors. Large development within the park would only destroy the natural beauty of the larger tract (which is what draws tourists) making it impossible to ever recoup the $23 million spent on the road.
Perhaps the best argument against Ramsey’s article is provided on page 81 of his own book, Rocky Fork: Hidden Jewel of the Blue Ridge Wild: “The Cherokee National Forest, that covered nearly half of the county, comprised a largely untapped economic asset of major proportions, and, in our assessment, adding the spectacular Rocky Fork Watershed to that asset would increase its long term value to the community by far more than what might be derived from property taxes alone.” His is a beautiful publication in which he tells the story of Rocky Fork’s “salvation” from development. But what his audience needs to realize is, the story doesn’t end with Dave’s book: the Rocky Fork tract is still under threat—this time from the state itself.
We are still expecting meetings and/or a chance for public input on those plans when the new leaders at TDEC get up to speed on the issue. We will keep you up to date until then.
While there are still plenty of the more common firefly species to be seen over fields and forests in our area, the “season” for the incredible Blue Ghost and Synchronous firefly has just about ended.
We were fortunate to have Radim Schreiber, an accomplished expert photographer of fireflies, stop in after his work in the Smokies to have a look at our spectacular Rocky Fork fireflies and capture this image.
Radim, who lives in Iowa and is originally from the Czech Republic, has been photographing insects since 1999. Visit FireflyExperience.org to see many more incredible photos and videos of fireflies and the beautiful book and prints he has produced. You can also follow his work on Facebook.
Good news from Rocky Fork: the wildflowers have been great, the fireflies are coming out, and the unofficial word from state officials is the Flint Mountain road project is “on hold.”
In spite of the fact that TDEC is officially still waiting for the permits required to begin building a road through Rocky Fork, and that road opponents were led to believe there would be additional discussion and public input, on May 6 we went into the park to discover a group of engineers preparing to “start clearing the road right-of-way.”
The firm had been awarded a $300,000 contract to perform geotechnical surveying in areas where road structures (like 750 feet of retaining walls up to 27 feet high holding back fill dirt up to 30 feet deep) would be located to determine if the designs are compatible with existing soil and geology. This work would require clearing trees and some dozer work to get a large drilling rig along the path of the road to drill core samples—in effect going ahead and starting to tear up the area we want to protect.
This was disconcerting to say the least, especially given the fact that a few weeks earlier, on April 16, Defenders of Wildlife, Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning and several other area conservation organizations met with new TDEC Commissioner David Salyers to request that he reconsider plans for Rocky Fork State Park. Salyers said many letters had been received calling attention to the lack of support for the development plans and that he intends to look into the situation and seek additional public input before moving ahead with the project.
Salyers has appointed Jim Bryson as Deputy Commissioner of Parks and Conservation, a position that has been temporarily filled by Anne Marshall since the removal of Brock Hill earlier this year. So, with new leadership in place and the message of the need to review the plans for Rocky Fork delivered, it seems we will get another chance to provide public input.
Also, the park recently grew by 88 acres with the acquisition of the “Sparks Tract,” which joins the parklands just above the “blue hole” along the entrance road and continues down to state highway 352. This property could provide an alternative site for a campground with much easier access than the proposed site up on Flint Mountain.
So, for all of us who were disappointed with the Rocky Fork plans presented last November—and who are hoping the state will not repeat mistakes made in the past and not create a park similar to others but one that is singular in the area and showcases Rocky Fork’s unique characteristics as the wildest Tennessee state park—we now have the opportunity we have hoped for.
But we cannot just rest on our laurels. It’s now time to prepare for your chance to provide input, write down your ideas for alternatives to a road, look for examples from other parks around the world that illustrate the effectiveness of your ideas, talk to others and get them involved too, so that when the time comes we have our ideas ready to present.
The mission statement of Tennessee state parks reads in part “to protect and preserve the unique natural, cultural and historic resources of Tennessee.” The State Parks Act of 1937, which created the parks, reads in part “that every park under the provisions of this act shall be preserved in its natural condition, so far as to be consistent with its human use and safety, and all improvements shall be of such character as not to harm its inherent recreational values.”
The current development plans for Rocky Fork State Park are not consistent with these provisions and should be revised, with an abundance of public input, until they are. The following fact sheet was recently prepared by three conservation organizations to help raise awareness of the threat Rocky Fork faces. Please feel free to show it to friends or contacts who want or need to know more about what is going on. Feel free to email me if you cannot readily access the document or want a PDF or another format.
Other voices besides our own have begun to be raised and heard on the issue. We appreciate anything and everything you do to help Rocky Fork. Sharing information, even with a few people, goes a long way toward the overall goal of making everyone who loves this place aware of the situation. Thank you!
Last November, after three years of relative silence, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation finally presented to the public their plans for the first stage of “improvements” in what was to be the “minimally developed” Rocky Fork State Park. Part of the plan is a 24-foot-wide, two-lane, paved road that begins with a bridge over Rocky Fork Creek and extends ¾ mile to a campground and scenic overlook on Flint Mountain.
The photo below shows the approximate route of the road, now estimated by TDOT to be a $23 million dollar project, designed so as to be able to accommodate RVs and 2,000 to 4,000 vehicles per day. Due to the rugged and steep terrain, extensive use of retaining walls, massive road cuts, and metal reinforcement bolted into rock on slopes above would be required, leaving an ugly scar on Rocky Fork. Also, take note of the fact that a future stage of this development would be to widen the existing Rocky Fork Road to similar standards, changing the “prettiest mile of road in Tennessee” forever.
If this isn’t what you want to see in Rocky Fork I suggest a letter to the new Commissioner of TDEC, David Slayers (David.Salyers@tn.gov) and/or the interim Deputy Commissioner of State Parks, Anne Marshall (Anne.Marshall@tn.gov), asking that these plans, developed by the previous administration, be re-visited and public input sought to arrive at a better plan that the public supports, before permanently damaging the natural beauty we worked so hard to protect.
In November, for the first time in three years, Tennessee State Parks staff came to Unicoi County and held a public meeting to discuss management of Rocky Fork State Park. State Park officials presented plans for a visitor center and an access road to a campground and a scenic overlook; these plans were presented in final form, only awaiting permits before construction would begin.
general feelings we heard from folks at the meeting included serious concerns
about environmental damage as a result of the implementation of these plans,
and discontent about the plans not being influenced at all by public
input. Evidence available seems to
indicate that state parks staff are not very interested in the public’s opinion
or input, but rather are simply satisfying a requirement to hold a public
meeting and accept comments.
public was invited to submit comments for the following 30 days. Later, I
personally requested, twice, to review all comments submitted and did not
receive a response, but, after the recent removal of Deputy Commissioner Brock
Hill, asked again and did receive an incomplete collection of comments.
comments are public information and are excerpted here for you to see what others
think about the state’s plans, without identifying who provided each one. Roughly
60 comments vehemently oppose the plans presented with only two in favor. Contact
us if you would like the unabridged versions.
absent from the information provided by state parks were the comments submitted
by a number of conservation organizations, all of whom opposed moving forward
with the plans presented, including Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy,
Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, The Sierra Club, The Wilderness
Society, MountainTrue, and Wild South. A number of our friends’ comments were
also missing (we add some here) but it is clear that the public is
overwhelmingly opposed to the plans presented.
With this evidence that the public does not approve of the state’s plans, and the lack of public input to help shape those plans, we hope the new leaders will re-visit the issue before the heavy equipment moves in and changes Rocky Fork forever. We encourage you to send your letter to that effect to the new Commissioner of TDEC, David Salyers, Commissioner, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the acting Deputy Commissioner of State Parks, Anne Marshall (both at 312 Rosa L. Parks Avenue, Nashville, TN 37243). Letters to political leaders would be helpful as well including Governor Bill Lee, Senator Lamar Alexander, Congressman Phil Roe, and State Representative Rusty Crowe.