The 10,000-acre Rocky Fork tract was acquired for public use mostly with federal (Land and Water Conservation Fund) money. The nonprofit Conservation Fund actually purchased most of the tract and slowly sold it to the state and federal government piece by piece. In the end, 8,000 acres had become national forest land and the remaining 2,000 acres a new Tennessee State Park with funds mostly from the Tennessee Heritage Conservation Fund.

The 8,000 acres added to the Cherokee National Forest surround, on three sides, the 2,000 acres now a state park. National Forest land is managed for “multiple use” and includes things conservationists are not always happy with, like timber harvesting and prescribed burning. Therefore the public will have to monitor the USFS plans and activities if we are to insure the area gets the kind of care we want for it. The Rocky Fork lands fall under the Greenville office and Ranger Leslie Morgan.

The USFS has management plans for all its lands and these are updated every ten years or so; Cherokee National Forest’s plan is in the process of being updated now. Therefore, Rocky Fork is still not included in the plan being implemented at this time. Conversations with staff indicate that, with budget restrictions and low staff levels, creating a management plan for Rocky Fork and beginning to implement it will take a number of years. Additionally, with a wilderness area, a state park, and the Appalachian Trail surrounding the forest service lands within Rocky Fork, it will be difficult to carry out operations typical in national forests without causing a lot of unwanted disturbance to adjoining land uses. So the word is that not much will be done there, at least not anytime soon.

In the early days of discussions about acquiring Rocky Fork and what would be done with it afterward, the idea of a state park within the watershed was said to be critical to get the support of Unicoi County, which was worried about losing property tax income due to federal ownership of the land. Some reports say the state was interested in up to 4,000 acres but in the end wound up with half that.

The state of Tennessee has a program called Conservation Compensation, which pays would-be lost property taxes, so the county has not lost any tax revenue due to the state park. Unicoi County is expecting economic development as a result of the preservation of this land and creation of the state park. The question is: will the county take advantage of increased visitation and generate economic development by providing products and services in the surrounding area outside the park where dollars stay in the county? Or will the county sit back and expect the state to “develop” the park to supply facilities catering to visitors inside the park, thereby degrading the natural scenery of the park in the process and sending most of the income to the state folks in Nashville. 

While the 2,076-acre Rocky Fork State Park—just renamed Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park—is only a chunk of the 10,000-acre watershed, it provides the best point of entry for everyone who enjoys the entire tract—and the public is expecting the state to manage its portion in a way that does not negatively affect the rest of the tract. The small Rocky Fork State Park (RFSP) currently has no “facilities,” only a small parking lot where visitors can access miles of hiking trails. It is accessed via a narrow one-lane paved road, sometimes referred to as “the prettiest mile of road in Tennessee,” tightly wedged between the gorgeous Rocky Fork Creek on one side and steep-sloping embankments on the other.

The park’s iconic entrance is comprised of a field and wetland on the right, the spectacular creek in the center, and the steep slope of Flint Mountain arcing up from the creek on the left. In November of 2018, after a three-year silence, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) announced plans to replace the natural entrance of the park with a modern visitor center and parking lot on the right, a new auto bridge over the creek, and a massive road cut into the steep slope of Flint Mountain for a two-lane, 24-foot-wide access road leading three quarters of a mile up Flint Mountain ostensibly to an overlook and primitive campground. What would this cost taxpayers? About $15,000,000.

These plans do not seem to fit the “minimally developed primitive” philosophy that was expected. When asked why we need a big road up the mountain Deputy Commissioner of State Parks, Brock Hill said, “I hate to think what the Smokies Park would be like without their roads.” For the record, the Smokies is 250 times the size of Rocky Fork State Park, and the main road there connects communities on either side of the park, so the comparison is ridiculous. TDEC has considered having RV sites in the campground and would only say they have no plans “at this time” to have RVs. TDEC did say they would be taking over the one-lane Rocky Fork Road (prettiest mile) from the county later, and it is in the current plan to widen the bridges on that portion of the road, so it certainly looks as if in time they will have two lanes from the state highway to the top of the mountain and perhaps “at that time” RVs will move into Rocky Fork.

The road up Flint Mountain would be a disaster according to architect and rural resources planner Taylor Barnhill of Madison County, NC. “Construction of the road is an engineering folly, an extreme waste of taxpayer money, and cannot avoid serious environmental damage,” he cautions. “Sediment and debris run-off into Rocky Fork Creek cannot be controlled under storm conditions. The steepness of this road—at 17-precent-grade for much of the length—would be dangerous for any type of vehicle, especially RVs. Despite the statement that this road is not for an RV park ‘at this time,’ the future intent is clear to those who have followed this planning process from the beginning.”

The application for permits for the road project lists 15 streams, 5 springs, 3 seeps, and 4 wetlands within the project boundary as well as a number of plant and animal species that are rare or of concern and thus reads like a definition of a poor site for a road—which it is. But Tennessee State Parks do have roads and officials seem intent on Rocky Fork having auto access despite the high cost to the environment. When questioned about the wisdom of building this road and the several structures planned in such a difficult landscape where they seemingly do not belong, state officials respond with “that’s what we do in state parks.” TDEC does not seem to be open to the idea that Rocky Fork is too rugged and fragile for business as usual and should be treated differently than other parks.

These plans have also been arrived at without sufficient public input. Hill defended this saying, “we got all the input we needed from the stakeholder meetings.” Those meetings were not open to the public but were with a small, handpicked group of folks including representatives from the US Forest Service, Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), Unicoi County Commission, mountain bikers, equestrians, and TDEC. Dr. Foster Levy, an East Tennessee State University biologist who attended those meetings said: “Before and after its establishment, RFSP was envisioned as a ‘primitive state park,’ one in which preserving the abundant natural and wild characteristics of the site would be paramount. It was to be a park that emphasized low-impact recreational use that included hiking, nature study, mountain biking, and hike-in camping. Without exception, all supported the concept of a primitive, low-development park. None were in favor of road development within the park.”

After the November 2018 public meeting, TDEC accepted the public’s comments on its plans for 30 days. But one look at the first page of the permit application for the road reveals the statement: “Please be aware the governor has deemed this project to be a priority and permits are needed as soon as possible,” by September 26th according to the request, fully six weeks before the public meeting where TDEC first shared these plans with the public. So it’s hard to believe it was the state’s intention to incorporate into the plans any ideas it got from the comments.

We shouldn’t be surprised since TDEC has a history of not allowing public input to guide their decisions and the department is very politically controlled. But, the public just spent $40 million dollars to “save” Rocky Fork from the developers, so it shouldn’t be too much to ask that TDEC State Parks live up to its mission statement to “preserve and protect unique natural, cultural, and historic resources of the state.”

Rocky Fork State Park does not even have a master plan or management plan yet, and additional land around the park is being considered for acquisition, which could change things quite a bit. Therefore, many have spoken up and asked that these plans not be rushed into construction, but that the state first back up and complete a comprehensive plan for the park and consider public input before permanent changes are made to the landscape we seek to preserve.

A few of the organizations that submitted comments along these lines are:

  • Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy
  • Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning
  • The Sierra Club
  • The Wilderness Society
  • Mountain True
  • Wild South

Before the final permit is granted, there will be a required 30-day public comment period and a public hearing to address the road project. This will be the time when it’s critical to raise our voices, or else we will have to live with the consequences. One of the best ways to keep abreast of developments is to follow this blog, so that when we post about next steps, you will be informed.

Click here to see the entire road plan. Click on the PDF on the top line for Application Revised. 

This site plan shows the entrance to the park and the proposed visitor center with bridge adjacent leading to the beginning of ¾ mile road up Flint Mountain.