Tag Archives: Rocky Fork Journal

Building the New Whitehouse Cliffs Trail in Rocky Fork

View of Whitehouse Cliffs from the new trail

We are so fortunate to live in an area with a great deal of public land where we can get out and experience the natural world—more often than not by hiking the many trails. For many hikers there comes a time when they realize the government does not build and maintain those trails, volunteers do, and the hiker becomes a trail worker. Trail workers find the enjoyment of working in the woods with their friends equal to, if not greater than, that of a simple hike, and the satisfaction of giving something back can be downright addictive.

The 10,000-acre Rocky Fork Tract is crisscrossed by numerous old roads and trails long used by hikers, and a few years after the tract was acquired for public use and a portion became Rocky Fork State Park, volunteers began working on the existing trails there. A volunteer trail crew evolved that worked with park staff to remove blowdowns, cut back vegetation, and build bridges at stream crossings.

One of the more popular existing trails in the park, The Whitehouse Cliffs Trail posed some very serious problems, running right up a small creek, crossing property lines, and eventually going very steeply up a rocky slope to a spectacular 360-degree view. Being the closest trail to the park entrance and offering the best view in the park, a new trail was needed. There was talk of obtaining grant money for a new trail, using a trail dozer that could do most of the work, and hiring trail crews to build the new trail in what was expected to become about a three-year project. With none of that assistance in sight, the staff and volunteer trail crew began, on National Public Lands Day, September 26, 2018, to build the new trail the old-fashioned way, with hand labor.

The call went out for volunteers and they showed up, enjoyed the work, and quickly took the new trail out of sight of the parking lot and up the mountain. Then, in December, the government shutdown began and trail volunteers were banished from federal lands. People passionate about trails didn’t want to stop working on them just because the federal government was not working, and the Carolina Mountain Club asked, “Hey, that’s state-owned land, right? Can we come help?” Absolutely! Much progress was made during the 35-day shutdown and all of a sudden the new trail was halfway up the mountain.

By the end of January, the shutdown had ended, Carolina Mountain Club had gone back to national forest lands, and the trail dozer had shown up, but was ineffective on the sleep slopes and rough terrain. The Rocky Fork Crew continued the work and reached the most challenging area to be tackled, a boulder field below the cliffs. The crew spent many days working in this boulder field moving tons of rock to create a small “bench” through the rock field to walk on. The view from this spot—of the cliffs themselves and the distant mountains and ridges—was spectacular and the crew repeatedly commented about what a great place they had to work. Once past the hardest part, it felt like they had success in hand, even though there was still a great deal of work to do.

Volunteers kept coming, even though it was now quite a walk up the new trail to the work site, including folks from Carolina Mountain Club, Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club, and Friends of Rocky Fork State Park. One-day work trips brought a group from Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin, students from ETSU, Carolina Climbers Coalition members and some big strong teenagers from Holston Home for Children. The closer to the top the trail got the less soil there was to work with and it became mostly rock work, which is very slow and difficult, so even though the summit could be seen close by above, progress to reach it was slow. The rocky top of the mountain provides a nice, sunny location with numerous hiding spots for timber rattlesnakes, which were seen sunning themselves as they prepared to den up for the winter. The crew felt privileged to see these beautiful creatures and, combined with the forest and stunning views, the reason for public lands and trails was abundantly clear.

So now, as we approach the new year, a gift for everyone is completed: A beautiful new trail to a spectacular 360-degree view of the Southern Appalachian Mountains at their finest—cost to the tax-payers essentially zero. On 58 work days, 99 volunteers and 4 park staffers contributed 2,496 hours of work, 2,208 by volunteers, to build just over one and a quarter mile of trail. The trail includes 175 stone steps, hundreds of feet of rock cribbing to support the trail on steep slopes, and 75 locust-log steps. The federal government values volunteer labor at about $25 an hour, and at that rate the volunteer labor alone on this project is worth more than $55,000.

The crew on this project worked really hard, in difficult terrain, but enjoyed every minute of it and felt privileged to build a trail that everyone can enjoy for years to come. Volunteers always get more in return for their effort than they put in and this project is no exception. So many of us love to hike, and someone, most often volunteers, built and cared for the trails we walk on. When we volunteer ourselves, we re-pay the debt we owe to the stewards of the past that paved the way for us until that day when we became aware that it takes volunteers, and we became trail workers as well as trail walkers.

The park staff has said they anticipate opening the trail on January 1, 2020. Check the Rocky Fork State Park’s web site and Facebook page for updates.

These are your trails; it’s your turn. Volunteer.

All images courtesy of Van Hovey, trail Gorilla.

Elk are returning to the Bald Mountains

Nearly surrounded by national forest and wilderness, the 10,000-acre Rocky Fork watershed adjoins the Appalachian Trail corridor, Sampson Mountain Wilderness, and Bald Mountain Roadless Area, the largest area of its kind between Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah national parks. Its former logging tracks crisscross the property in a network of unimproved woods roads, ideal for exploring the remote backcountry—and possibly for a new population of elk to settle in.

That’s right, elk! Ever since elk were re-introduced to the Smokies and not-so-far-away areas of Kentucky, folks have wondered if the animals would expand their range and re-populate the Rocky Fork area. The elk seen dead beside I-26 at Sam’s Gap on October 12 is a sign that the elk are coming towards Unicoi County—and they may have already been here for some time.

Bull elk killed on I-26 East just below Sam’s Gap on October 12. Image by Stephanie Thomas Wood.

“Animals that pop up in Western North Carolina or East Tennessee are not always from the Smokies, but I think our herd is the source for most,” said Kim DeLozier of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “It’s also possible that they moved from Kentucky or maybe someone even released captive elk.”

It’s exciting to think we may soon be able to see elk when we hike in Rocky Fork. But there are concerns that we must be prepared to address if we are going to welcome these animals back to these mountains they once roamed. Much larger than deer, elk are grazers and and thus can cause problems for farmers, so we will need to work together and communicate with elk researchers in order to deal with new issues and limit damage.

Due to their size, elk also create a dangerous situation when they get out on our roads. There is a documented rise in motor vehicle collisions with wildlife throughout East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. Due to increasing populations—both animal and human—as well as growing tourism in the area, it is expected that this situation will only get worse.

“We counted up to 60 elk this fall on tribal lands, and elk like to move great distances,” said Caleb R. Hickman, supervisory fish and wildlife biologist with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI). “Right now, over 40 elk are known to walk across Highway 19, and another 12 across the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the mountains create tight, windy roads with blind curves. These smaller highways are particularly dangerous to elk and people.”

Bull elk in Cataloochee Valley, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Image by Joye Ardyn Durham.

Liz Hillard, a wildlife scientist with the nonprofit Wildlands Network, and Steve Goodman, a wildlife researcher with National Parks Conservation Association, are researching how roadways in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina influence the connectivity of bear, deer and elk habitat. They are conducting road mortality surveys and procuring mortality data from state agencies (TDOT, NCDOT and NCWRC) along I-40 in the Pigeon River Gorge to determine wildlife mortality hotspots. They are also working with partners to put GPS collars on elk to assess roadway movement patterns and elk road-crossing behavior.

“The frequency of elk–vehicle collisions is likely to increase through time as road networks continue to expand, the elk population continues to grow, and traffic volume increases,” Hillard says. “This research will provide information to guide mitigation strategies to increase human safety, reduce elk–vehicle collisions, and increase the connectivity of public lands as elk disperse.”

We would love to hear of elk sightings, living or dead, and will pass the information on to researchers. Email Frances Figart with any images or information.

Learn more about wildlife crossing and road mitigation here.

Road seemingly on hold for now

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.

And, go take a hike and see what you see. Send your pictures to ffigart@gmail.com and we can post them on the Rocky Fork Watershed Almanac.

Defenders of Wildlife Stands Up for Rocky Fork

When I was a kid growing up in the woods of East Texas, I joined Defenders of Wildlife and pored through the stories each month in their magazine—and that contributed to my growing love of nature. When they asked for volunteers to help capture the last Red Wolves, my dad and I went down and helped track the wolves and even got to see two of them loping along in the salt marsh.

The red wolf is still hanging on, but just barely, and at a recent event I met some folks with Defenders of Wildlife who are still at it, protecting our treasured wildlife. I was pleasantly surprised when one day I had a message waiting for me that Defenders had gotten word of the issue of development in Rocky Fork and the harm it would do to the wildlife and wanted to help me in my quest to protect the place and its natural wonders.

Defenders has dug into the issue and put together this blog to raise awareness and get Rocky Fork the protection it deserves: Read the blog Rocky Fork and its Wildlife Need Saving—Again.

Fact Sheet on the Rocky Fork Development Issue

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!

I can’t believe I have a blog

A few years ago I had never used a computer, sent an email, or been on the internet—and certainly never expected to have a blog.

For years I had lived off-grid in the woods, spending most of my time backpacking all over the mountains—12,000 miles in all. Considering all the places I had hiked, I set down roots in the best place I had found; the mountains along the Tennessee–North Carolina border, just a little ways north of the Smokies in Flag Pond, TN.

I chose this spot carefully due to the large amount of protected land with only one missing piece: the 10,000-acre Rocky Fork tract. It was soon to be acquired by the government, completing a huge swath of protected land that would now be my backyard. I quickly purchased property within walking distance of the tract and built a little homestead.

Four years ago, a lovely new wife joined me in the off-grid cabin—bringing with her electricity, computers and the internet. That and the realization that protecting a special place would require continuous diligence ended my laid back, never-been-on-the-internet, just-grow-my-garden-and-hike-in-the-woods lifestyle.

Rocky Fork has a great deal of interesting natural and cultural history to be explored, but finding information about it all can be a challenge. And so I have started a blog, the Rocky Fork Journal, to help others learn more about my chosen backyard—the wild, remote, unspoiled Rocky Fork watershed.

Rocky Fork Creek by Joye Ardyn Durham

Please check out the journal. It’s a work in progress and I welcome your feedback. Feel free to forward this to others who may be interested.