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Wednesday, 31 December 2008 16:22

Public lands feel the pressure: a recurring theme

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Conflicts over public land continued to heat up in 2009 as more people turn to outdoor recreation in WNC. More people equals more pressure on the national parks and national forests as they struggle to be all things to all users.

Here’s a recap of some of the conflicts brewing this year.

Chattooga River

Three years in the making, the National Forest Service concluded a study on whether to lift the ban on paddling on the Upper Chattooga River. The long-awaited verdict: to allow paddling, but only in very limited quantities. The proposed compromise would curtail paddling to just a few days out of the year with a cap of 16 paddlers any given day and limited to just seven of the 21 miles now off-limits. Paddlers vowed to keep fighting for full access, while purists lamented even the slightest foot-in-the-door by paddlers.

The forest service’s proposed compromise was dubbed a “preliminary decision.” Another round of public comment followed, with a final decision due out in early 2009.

As part of the decision on paddling, the camp-anywhere status of the Chattooga River backcountry will be changed to designated sites only and parking at roadside pull-offs will be limited to deter overuse.

Graveyard Fields

The popular spot off the Blue Ridge Parkway has long suffered from overuse, but the problem has gotten so bad it degrades the outdoor experience of those who visit.

The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation and National Forest Service hatched a plan to rein in use. It includes limiting camping to designated areas, stamping out user-created trails, installing restrooms, and curtailing willy-nilly parking along the roadside by putting in guardrails. The plan was devised this year, but actually putting it in place will happen over the coming year or two.

DuPont State Forest

A prolonged debate on whether to allow bear hunting with dogs in DuPont comes to an end. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission changed its rules to allow bear hunting in the state forest, despite significant public opposition from hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers.

But the state forest service, which holds final say, decided it would not allow bear hunting — at least for now.

Fires Creek

The Fires Creek Wilderness in Clay County is threatened by the construction of a road and homes. Owners of a 50-acre tract surrounded by national forest want to build houses on their donut hole of private land, but lack a road to their property. They ask the national forest for right-of-way to build a four-mile road.

While the forest service legally can’t bar access to an in-holding of private land, environmentalists argue that a narrow Jeep trail would suffice as access, and the owners aren’t entitled to a full-blown road.

Panthertown

Use in this idyllic, bowl-shaped paradise has sky-rocketed, prompting the forest service to tackle a trail use and recreation plan. Trails once shared by hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders will now be designated for specific uses, with many reserved for hiking only. The recreation use plan — which had been several years in the making — also bans guided trips by commercial horse outfitters. The plan went to public comment, but hasn’t yet been implemented.

Tellico

The forest service floated plans to shut down 11 miles of the 40-mile trail system at the Tellico Off-Road Vehicle Area to stem erosion from heavy ATV and four-wheel drive use. For years, rutted-out trails sent reams of mud into waterways, affecting brook trout populations. The forest service was spurred to address the problem by the threat of a lawsuit from environmental groups.

In response, four-wheel drive enthusiasts filed a lawsuit of their own protesting the closure of any trails. The environmental groups came to the defense of the forest service and filed as interveners in the case.

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