Tag Archives: Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation

TDEC Extends Deadline for Comments to March 15

Just giving everyone an update: You now have more time to make comments on the 10-year plan, details below.

This article appeared in yesterday’s Erwin Record. The deadline for submitting comments on Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s 10-year Statewide Parks, Recreation and Conservation Plan 2030—which includes state parks such as Rocky Fork—is tomorrow, Friday, Feb. 19.

While I can’t explain the short notice, we all still have time to review the document and submit comments. While this document goes into a wide range of issues, the management of state parks is included, buried within the material.

TDEC does not often give us such an opportunity to comment, so I hope folks will take advantage at this time to let your opinion be known to those who manage our parks.

Rocky Fork’s Brand New Plan

Under the new leadership of David Salyers at Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and Jim Bryson at the Bureau of Parks and Conservation, the plans for development of Rocky Fork State Park are being re-visited.

At two planning meetings last week—facilitated by Robert Reedy of Reedy and Sykes Architectural Consultants who have designed numerous facilities in Tennessee State Parks—input from many stakeholders was gathered to help guide new plans for the park. TDEC staff stated that the road up Flint Mountain is no longer being considered and announced other changes under consideration, such as moving the location of the visitor center to a site outside the park on the area’s main road.

The meetings were structured as charrettes with small focus groups discussing various topics including preservation of natural and cultural sites, types and locations of facilities, means of access to the park, recreational opportunities and development to support them, land management on park and surrounding forest service lands, and opportunities for economic development as a result of the park. These “roundtable” groups were facilitated by staff from TDEC, US Forest Service, Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, and area park managers and rangers.

After the sessions, facilitators reported to attendees the predominant consensus of input for each group. These reports revealed the overall desire to preserve the park’s wild and pristine nature by limiting development and locating facilities outside the park. The input showed a preference for low-impact hiking, nature study, historic site interpretation, and overall protection and preservation of the ecology of Rocky Fork. There was widespread consensus that roads, buildings, and developed campgrounds are not appropriate in the park.

Images by Joye Ardyn Durham

These meetings mark the return of a Planning Office for State Parks, which has been absent in recent years, now brought back under the leadership of Anne Marshall, Senior Advisor to Jim Bryson. Rocky Fork stands to benefit as the first subject of an improved planning process now in the works.

Next, Reedy and Sykes will compile the input gathered last week into a report to present to TDEC in about one month. Then additional input will be sought if needed, and by April or May TDEC hopes to have a draft plan available for release to the public. When that happens there may be public meetings or there may simply be a public comment period, so be alert for your chance to provide your own input. TDEC hopes to have a final plan in place by July.

Defenders and TCWP Respond to Ramsey

Hikers in Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park. Image by Joye Ardyn Durham

On June 2, an op ed column by David A. Ramsey appeared in the Johnson City Press criticizing those opposing the overdevelopment of Rocky Fork State Park. Johnny Cosgrove of Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning and Christian Hunt of Defenders of Wildlife—two of the many folks hoping to change the plans for the park—responded with letters to the editor that you can read here.

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.

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!

$23 million road to nowhere

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.

Comments oppose development plan in Rocky Fork 60-2

Comment: Keep Rocky Fork primitive.

Comment: I am against making this park more developed.

Comment: 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.

Read all comments here.

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. 

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Notably 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.

White House Cliffs Trail. Image by Van Hovey

Sample Letter to New TDEC Leader

State parks in Tennessee are managed by a division of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which, under new Governor Bill Lee, has a new commissioner: David Salyers. This change of leadership presents an excellent opportunity to write a letter asking for a review of the plans for Rocky Fork before any construction begins and permanent changes to the landscape are made. The letter I sent appears below. Feel free to use it as an example and write your own letter asking for proper care of this treasured place. If you need a little more background, here are the issues in a nutshell:

The mission of Tennessee State Parks begins with preserving and protecting the natural, cultural, and historic resources of the state. This mission goes on to include recreational use, but the intent is clear that such use shall not threaten those natural resources. 

Tennessee state parks are highly developed with inns, conference centers, restaurants, RV campgrounds, golf courses, swimming pools, rental cabins, marinas, etc. Rocky Fork State Park was promoted from the start as a “primitive, minimally developed” park, and because it is a small portion of the much larger Rocky Fork tract—10,000 acres protected for public use in 2008 at a cost of $40 million—the state should be obligated to live up to the original plan and not overdevelop the park to the detriment of the surrounding public lands.

Plans presented for the first step in developing the park include a two-lane paved road up Flint Mountain with an auto bridge over Rocky Fork Creek, a campground on the mountain (which will not include RVs “at this time”) a large visitor center where the current parking lot is, and widening of Rocky Fork Road. The state does not appear to be following the primitive, minimally developed philosophy we heard about early on.

Seven attend public meeting

Thursday, January 10, 2019, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, State Parks Division held a public meeting to discuss a proposal to acquire the Morrill Electric property within sight of the park entrance and apply for a grant from the EPA to clean up the contaminated site and redevelop it for the park’s use. Due to the fact that notice of this meeting was not released to the public until the day before the meeting, only five citizens participated along with one reporter from the Erwin Record and the park manager.

TDEC Grants Consultant Ryan Ray presented a proposal to apply for an EPA grant of $500,000 to clean up the site, projected to actually cost $618,000, the difference to be paid by TDEC. Although notice of this meeting alluded to the site being redeveloped into an equestrian trailhead, Ray confirmed that the grant is for cleaning up the site once TDEC acquires it and does not pertain to the precise purpose for which the site is then redeveloped.

Ray presented to the group of seven present some options for additional grants that would be pursued for funds to redevelop the site after cleanup and acknowledged that future use of the site was a separate issue and would be addressed at future public meetings and comment periods.

Although the small group seemed to all support the acquisition and clean up of the site, several questioned the future use as an equestrian trailhead and voiced opinions that the site would better serve the park as the visitor center location.

Ray reconfirmed that future use of the site is not dictated by the grant being applied for and that the various uses suggested other than as an equestrian trailhead could be considered by TDEC and discussed with the public at future meetings.

As for using the site as an equestrian trailhead, the park manager confirmed that TDEC has been working on a plan for a new horse trail into the park, which would start across the road from the site on property TDEC is working to acquire but does not yet own. One might wonder, if the park acquired land that would accommodate a new horse trail into the Flint Mountain area of the park, the same area as the proposed campground, perhaps auto access to the campground could be through that same property, thereby avoiding a great deal of environmental damage from construction of the currently proposed road to the campground area.

As for the reason for such short notice of this meeting, Ray said TDEC did not want to address the public on the topic until they were at least very close to a deal to acquire the property, and the grant sought has a deadline for application of January 31 so a very small window was available and the best he could do was a posting in the Erwin Record one day prior.

The acquisition and cleanup of this site seems to be a worthwhile project and very beneficial to the area and Unicoi County, which is currently stuck with an unusable contaminated site and could come away with a nicely redeveloped facility.

However, this will run into the millions of dollars and the future use of the site does create many questions that need to be addressed with further public input.