Final countdown to the Chattooga decision

There are nine scenarios on the table in the debate over whether paddling should be allowed on the Upper Chattooga. They run the gamut, from a paddling free-for-all to none at all. The scenarios in between limit paddling under various conditions. The forest service most likely will chose one these “compromise” scenarios:

• Paddling allowed on some portions of the Upper Chattooga but not others.

• Paddling allowed only certain times of year, namely the winter months.

• Paddling allowed only when the water level is high, following heavy rains.

• Paddling allowed by permit only, with a limited number of permits available.

Some scenarios combine the various conditions, like paddling on certain stretches only at certain times of year.

The forest service is on track to announce its decision by the end of February. The decision is technically a preliminary one and will be followed by a round of public comment. After that, the forest service will announce its final decision — but it nearly always mirrors the preliminary one.

The timeline for a decision has been extended a few times, but this time it seems the forest service is finally ready. Forest service officials from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia — all of which claim a stretch of the Upper Chattooga — gathered for a summit in mid-December where a decision was made.

The players involved in the decision have been remarkably mum. Neither side in the debate has been privy to leaks or even murmurs that might indicate which way the forest service is going.

In the meantime, the forest service has been putting the final touches on the decision. The decision will attempt to capture and explain the high emotions on both sides in the debate, including the historical conflict between fishermen and paddlers on the river, said John Cleeves, project coordinator with the Sumter National Forest on the Chattooga issue.

“This has not been our typical environmental analysis because the social side is taking a lot more work than you would normally see,” Cleeves said. “But that’s a lot of what this issue is. It’s about the social issues, people just not feeling comfortable with those encounters. Those social issues are measurable but it’s a lot tougher.”

Cleeves had this assurance to offer fans of the Chattooga.

“We are going to keep that area the special place that all the users think it is. We just have to implement the decision properly,” Cleeves said.

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