When paddle comes to shove

The only thing rippling more than the water through the rocky headwaters of the Chattooga is the controversy regarding the U.S. Forest Service’s ban on paddling in that stretch. It is a ban that has been in place for 30 years or so and doesn’t sit well with paddlers. Although paddlers have tried for decades to have the ban lifted, Sumter National Forest’s management plans of 1985 and 2004 both left the ban intact.

American Whitewater (AW), a national paddling advocacy organization with strong ties in the region, has taken the lead in trying to get the ban lifted. They appealed Sumter’s 2004 plan and the USFS directed Sumter to re-visit the ban and gave them two years to gather public input and analyze and measure the impacts of various user groups on the upper Chattooga. Apparently AW thinks that is foot-dragging and has sued for immediate and unrestricted access for paddlers on the headwaters.

User conflicts on public lands are nothing new and have escalated in recent times with the shrinkage of access to private forests and the increased numbers of hikers, bikers, horse riders, paddlers and others looking for a place to recreate. One of the sad things about these conflicts is that often — as in the case here — groups with much in common wind up at an impasse over a particular issue.

The Chattooga Conservancy is in the forefront of the opposition to the lawsuit and to unrestricted access for paddlers. It’s easy to see that the Conservancy and AW both benefit from — and both have contributed to — the larger conservation issues of protecting the Wild and Scenic Chattooga. But now they are embattled combatants. One can only hope that embattled doesn’t lead to embittered.

Those of us who support the conservation efforts of both of these organizations are left in the uncomfortable position of either turning our heads or choosing sides (sort of.) I think I would be OK with whatever decision Sumter and the USFS came to after their study and with public input — after all, we’re talking about public lands. But I am uncomfortable with the lawsuit and I feel that AW’s PR campaign to garner support is a little over the top.

In the “Riverwild” article in the May 31 edition of the Smoky Mountain News by Becky Johnson, Mark Singleton, director of AW, equates banning of paddlers with segregation and declares, “...That’s unconstitutional.”

When the Constitution refers to segregation it is referring to a race or class of people. Most paddlers I know are humans representing many different races and they are no more a class than jet skiers, ATV enthusiasts or motor boaters. This is just a classic attempt to play the victim card.

Similarly, in the same article, AW board member Don Kinser states, “I’m the only user group that has to fill out a permit. I’m the only user group they have data on. They use that data to manage my use, but they aren’t managing any other use.”

Does Mr. Kinser have to keep that permit on his person at all times while paddling? Fishermen do. It’s called a license.

Are there “paddle wardens” that check to make sure paddlers have their permit? And data from fishermen is one of the primary tools used to manage the resource.

AW also has specific references to the Chattooga issue on its Web site. On a page devoted to conflict resolution it states, “An example of social values conflict can be seen in the following comment by a Chattooga River angler: ‘Obviously they [boaters] just don’t understand backcountry anglers ... and our low tolerance for encounters with others with different beliefs.’” This individual states that his conflict is based on a perceived difference in beliefs, rather than any problems associated with physical interaction.”

I wonder why they didn’t use this message board posting from a paddler that displays a similar sentiment? — “I still remember seeing these helicopters stocking the upper sections of the Chattooga. Is this in exact accordance with the WSRA????????????? I think there was a new listing today of a property near section 00 today?????? Hopefully this private little playground can be opened up to a few “PRIVATE” outsiders that have as much right as everyone else! This is “Public Land”!!! ??????”

AW’s Web site also states “As we pulled layers away from their position that paddling was inappropriate on the reach, the final defense they offered was that paddlers ‘impacted its specialness.’ At that point we knew that whatever the true interest behind the ban was indefensible and inappropriate. With that in mind, we appealed their ban.”

Perhaps poor grammar is a reason to lift the ban but if you look up special in a thesaurus you will find “unique,” “extraordinary,” “rare,” “singular,” “memorable,” “momentous,” “cherished” and even “beloved.”

AW is trying to stack the deck here. They are the victims, they are being persecuted, they are just nice environmentalists with no axes to grind. But how does AW really feel about other users?

This is from AW when it was still American Whitewater Affiliation regarding the conflict between paddlers and motor boaters on the Colorado River — “We hope that the NPS recognizes the multitude of opportunities to ride a motor rig in the U.S. vs. the few places that afford the chance to be away from motors,” Rich Hoffman, River Access Coordinator.

Perhaps Sumter is just trying to recognize the only (“special”) place in the USFS that affords the chance to be away from paddlers?

I believe this issue merits the transparency of public meetings, public comment and the careful considerations of the professionals charged with managing our public resources. But, hey, that’s just me.

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