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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.