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Mainspring Conservation Trust has several cleanup projects in the works that once completed will transform East Franklin for the better.

out frWhen Franklin RiverFest’s Anything That Floats Raft Regatta kicks off Aug. 23, Warren Cabe hopes to see the Franklin Fire Department cross the finish line first. The Macon County Emergency Services Director is holding the details of the team’s raft design close to his vest.

“I can’t tell you,” he said. “It’s top-secret.”

“The key is we don’t want to drown,” added fire department Captain Carey Patton. 

Two of Western North Carolina’s most storied conservation groups, both based in Macon County, merged this month into a single entity.

The Little Tennessee Watershed Association has been absorbed into The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and is being touted as a win-win for regional conservation efforts and as a means to financially help underpin regional conservation efforts.

The Land Trust name will be retained for now. The merged organization has the combined backing of more than 500 members.

The smaller of the two nonprofits, the watershed association, had just three employees. It has struggled to adequately tap spigots of grant funding. Those traditional nonprofit-geared pools of money are continuing to dry up in the face of the difficult economy.

The Land Trust, on the other hand, just completed its best fundraising year ever. A few years ago, anticipating stagnating grant opportunities, the larger eight-employee group deliberately and successfully began to diversify its revenue stream. The Land Trust now relies as much on individual, private support as on grant funding.

Such transformations haven’t proven possible, at least not to the same degree, for smaller nonprofits such as the watershed association. Also difficult for small groups is keeping and recruiting experienced board members, thereby ensuring stable governance.

Often small groups are almost totally reliant on the energy and charisma of a single leader, said Paul Carlson, who helped guide The Land Trust from a similar small nonprofit to, at least for this region, a large one.

“It’s in part a question of economy of scale,” Carlson said. “I think the toughest job I know is to be director of a small nonprofit, because you have to wear so many hats.”

Jenny Sanders, executive director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, revived the nonprofit five years ago, he said. Talks were actually under way then to perhaps merge the two groups, but that didn’t happen because, Carlson said, of the caliber of Sanders’ leadership.

Sanders opted not to take a new job with the Land Trust following the merger. The decision was personal, a desire on her part to pursue other interests, she said. Sanders supports the merger, saying it simply “makes sense” for both organizations.

“I believe for a lot of reasons this was absolutely a smart move,” she said. “And it will provide a unified front for conservation in the six westernmost counties.”

 

Ensuring the work goes on

The watershed association’s most recognizable project is ongoing aquatic monitoring conducted by a corps of volunteers and overseen by Bill McLarney of Macon County. The biologist has studied the Little Tennessee River and its tributaries for more than two decades. McLarney, via the watershed association, has assembled a body of data on what lives in the Little Tennessee waterways — from miniscule larvae to newly discovered fish species — that’s difficult to find duplicated elsewhere in the U.S. McLarney’s work helped the Little Tennessee earn a reputation as one of the most biologically intact rivers. The baseline of what species are supposed to live in the river serves a greater purpose, however. If a species turns up in fewer numbers or disappears, it would alert future researchers that trouble was brewing.

McLarney, an original founder of both organizations, described the merger as “a natural progression” for the nonprofits.

Ken Murphy, board chairman for the Land Trust, said timing of the merger couldn’t be better.

“We already had plans to broaden our scope, and the areas we touch,” Murphy said. “Land and water are almost inseparable.”

The Little Tennessee often touts its work of protecting land along the Little Tennessee corridor as protecting the river itself, based on the premise that saving surrounding land from development keeps the river ecosystem from being disturbed.

The now 10-employee Land Trust plans to expand its work further into the Tuckasegee and Hiawassee river basins, the board chair said.

There are no plans at this time to merge The Land Trust with additional conservation organizations, Carlson said.

Murphy emphasized that there is an important people component to that strategy of concentrating on both land and water — to connect all of us to the natural world.

The merger will move those plans forward exponentially, Murphy said, because it serves as an opportunity “to bring in-house real expertise on water issues” and combine that knowledge with those conservation tasks The Land Trust has long focused upon.

The Land Trust, established 15 years ago, has forged the very concept of private land protection in the state’s westernmost counties, plus successfully worked on habitat restoration and cultural landscape conservation. The latter includes farmland and historic preservation. The group’s crowning success was the preservation of the 4,500-acre Needmore Tract, which straddles Macon and Swain counties along the Little Tennessee River, and was the likely site of development.

The watershed association helped secure the Needmore tract, plus partnered with the Land Trust and Macon County’s Soil and Water Conservation District on stream-bank restoration.

 

Expanding focus

The watershed association has a history of open advocacy on conservation issues, particularly under the out-spoken Sanders, its most-recent and final executive director. By contrast, The Land Trust has been more low-key and behind-the-scenes in its approach, though there have been issues in which the board has elected to become openly involved.

“The Land Trust has tried hard to not get caught up in polarizing issues,” Carlson said, “and we will continue to lead on results-oriented work.”

Carlson and Murphy both said The Land Trust is considering a more pro-active stance when it comes to conservation protections. And the spunky, outspoken and out-front history of the watershed association should slide nicely into that new focus.

“In the past, we have taken public positions on issues that involve the environment and conservation in our area,” Murphy said of The Land Trust. “But we plan to be a little more public about our positions and views of things that are happening in the region.”

 

Conservation merger

• The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee works to conserve the waters, forests, farms, and heritage of the Upper Little Tennessee and Hiwassee River Valleys. The organization works in partnership with private landowners, public agencies, and others to conserve land.

• The Little Tennessee Watershed Association works to protect and restore the health of the Little Tennessee River and its tributaries through monitoring, education, habitat restoration and citizen action.

For two decades, the Little Tennessee Watershed Association in Franklin has been monitoring the health of the river’s water basin from north Georgia to Fontana Lake.

Last week, the group released a State of the Streams report, showcasing both its work and what has been found over the years, particularly the trends from 2002 through 2010. The unveiling took place at a noon luncheon of the Macon County League of Women Voters in Franklin, with about 30 people in attendance.

Overall in the upper Little Tennessee River watershed, two worrisome points stand out, according to the report. Monitoring of threatened and endangered species in the mainstream below Franklin suggests that the decline of native mussels is long term and not just cyclical; and a fish species, the Wounded Darter, has almost completely disappeared from the Cullasaja River.

The good news? The most significant development was the closing in 2006 of the Fruit of the Loom plant in Rabun Gap, Ga., which the group said accounted for more than 95 percent of the total permitted industrial discharges to the entire watershed.

While the closing was hard on those whose livelihoods were dependent on the plant (30 percent of the workforce was from Macon County), benefits were almost immediately visible in the downstream ecosystem. This included the recovery of riverweed, an aquatic plant of the Little Tennessee.

Additionally, in Highlands, macroinvertebrates from Mill Creek are showing slow but continual recovery following the late 1990s shutdown of the Highlands sewer plant.

The condition of the river in the now-protected Needmore area (since 1999) also suggests that positive actions have, at the very least, “counterbalanced” negative trends. The Needmore tract, purchased from Duke Energy to protect it from development through a combination of private and public funding, has been under management by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission since 2002.

“Thirteen miles of free-flowing river, no houses or bridges — that’s a pretty unique thing in this part of the world. It’s a really exceptional piece of river,” Bill McLarney, an aquatic biologist who has studied the Little Tennessee River and its tributaries for at least two decades, said of the Needmore stretch of the Little Tennessee River.

Additionally, “we are relatively blessed that we don’t have a lot of point-source pollution,” McLarney said. “Habitat modification and sedimentation is the biggest problem here … that’s what we need to focus the most attention on if we want to see healthier streams.”

Jason Meador, the watershed program coordinator for the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, said the group focuses on a “holistic approach.” The staff and the many volunteers involved don’t just study fish, they also look at and study everything involved in a healthy watershed.

That’s also involved restoration projects, such as taking out culverts and replacing them with bridges, such as the group did on Bradley Creek. The culverts — essentially places where a stream is forced into a giant pipe to pass under a road — often block fish from being able to travel freely up and down tributaries, particularly if the culvert is crumbling, Meador said.

Additionally, the culverts often can’t handle big storm flows, flushing excess sediment.

 

Where is the Little Tennessee watershed?

The upper Little Tennessee watershed covers 450 square miles of forests, fields, towns and communities in the heart of the Southern Appalachians.

With headwaters in Rabun County, Georgia at the confluence of Billy and Keener creeks, the Little Tennessee River flows north and northwest for 55 miles, unimpeded for its entire length except for Porters Bend Dam, which forms the relatively tiny (250 acre) Lake Emory in the town of Franklin. Before reaching Lake Emory, the river makes its way through a flat, wide valley, dropping less than 50 feet of elevation in more than 10 miles of channel length. Here, the valley is defined by the Nantahala mountains to the west and the Fishhawk mountains and Blue Ridge escarpment to the east.

The stretch of the river between Lake Emory and Fontana Lake is one of the highest quality rivers in the Southern Appalachians, making it unique among the Blue Ridge rivers to have escaped much of the industrial pollution that has degraded so many other rivers in the region, according to the Little Tennessee Watershed Association.

The second and final public hearing on whether the N.C. Department of Transportation should widen and pave Needmore Road took place in Macon County last week.

Needmore Road is a rough, one-lane, 3.3-mile gravel road along the Little Tennessee River in Macon and Swain counties. It parallels N.C. 28, but on the opposite bank. The road runs through the protected Needmore Game Lands. A broad coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved the 4,400-acre tract from development some six years ago after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Energy.

Twenty-seven people spoke at the recent hearing. Additionally, the entire five-member Macon County Board of Commissioners turned out to listen, along with transportation department officials. These comments come on top of nearly 800 signatures on a petition supporting some type of paving or resurfacing, and at least 66 written comments sent in to the department of transportation earlier. Plus, about 25 people spoke publicly at a previous public hearing last fall.

In a follow-up discussion, DOT spokesperson Julia Merchant told The Smoky Mountain News a post-hearing meeting would be held in about six weeks “to discuss each and every comment that has come in on the Needmore project. Then, we’ll make a decision as to whether future studies will be conducted.”

Merchant said no percentage weight is assigned directly to public support or opposition.

“So I guess you could say it’s more intuitive,” she said. “Public comments certainly weigh in the decision making, but we have to balance them against engineering criteria. We also have to weigh other engineering criteria such as cost, traffic surveys and impacts to the human environment in order to come up with the best solutions.”

Another public hearing on what, if anything, to do with Needmore Road has been scheduled for February, this time in Macon County.

An exact date and location hasn’t been announced.

The 3.3 miles of gravel, single-lane road traverses Macon and Swain counties, cutting through the protected Needmore Game Lands. The 4,400-acre tract was protected from development after a coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved it by raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Power.

State Department of Transportation in September held a public hearing in Swain County. That meeting fulfilled state-mandated legal requirements regarding public involvement. About 100 people attended, including many from Macon County. They turned out mainly to protest the transportation department’s proposal to widen and pave Needmore Road to a minimum of 18 feet, with additional construction work on the roadway’s shoulders.

The work would cost $13.1 million.

This is the only stretch of Needmore Road not previously paved. The road parallels the Little Tennessee River and can provide motorists a more direct route between counties than the motion sickness inducing N.C. 28, a curvy two-lane highway across the river.

Environmentalists as a whole do support some kind of paving or capping, because they believe sediment from the gravel road is causing harm to the river’s fragile and rare ecosystem. But what has been proposed, they say, is too extensive. Additionally, the work would require the transportation department to blaze through acid-producing rock, posing a significant danger to the Little Tennessee River if something went wrong.

“It will be very important for people to attend this meeting,” said Jenny Sanders, executive director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, a Macon County-based group dedicated to protecting just what the name indicates. “Many residents and all of the (outside) agencies involved in this project do not support the ideas of the full-blown widening and paving project.”

There are, however, residents in the Needmore community who just as vigorously do support the transportation department’s proposal, in all its grandiosity. They have cited safety concerns and difficulty traveling to and from their homes as reasons why the road needs work.

Macon County commissioners requested a public hearing be held in their county, saying they wanted to ensure residents there had ample opportunities to weigh-in on the issue.

Ronnie Beale, chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, said this week the decision by transportation department officials indicated the state agency is sensitive and responsive to residents’ desires.

An environmental group dedicated to protecting the Little Tennessee River has come out against a state proposal to widen and pave Needmore Road from one to two lanes.

The Little Tennessee Watershed Association did not dismiss out-of-hand the state Department of Transportation’s proposal to make improvements to the road. The Franklin-based group, however, stated that it would not support a proposal calling for such extensive work.

Needmore Road is currently a rough, one-lane gravel road paralleling N.C. 28 on the opposite bank of the river in Macon and Swain counties. The road runs through the protected Needmore Game Lands. A broad coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved the 4,400-acre tract from development some six years ago after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Power.

The Little Tennessee Watershed Association stated it “is in favor of a solution for Needmore Road that deals with safety and environmental problems that currently exist there, and wishes to participate with the DOT and the community in defining alternatives which will address both sets of problems while serving local transportation needs and contributing to the realization of the goals for which the Needmore Game Lands was created.”

The transportation department has set a Sept. 21 question-and-answer session, followed by a 7 p.m. public hearing, on the proposal. If built as proposed, 3.3 miles of Needmore Road would be widened to a minimum of 18 feet. Additionally, construction work would take place on the roadway’s shoulders.

The state has said the project would cost $6.5 million; the environmental group says it understands the cost would be much higher, and is citing $17.5 million as the actual potential cost.

 

Group’s opposition outlined

The Little Tennessee Watershed Association said the project was untenable because:

• “DOT states that the intent of the improvement is to ‘avoid or minimize adverse impacts’ to this outstanding stretch of river and rich game lands. Increased thru traffic and the consequences of major road construction through acidic rock will adversely impact the Needmore Game Lands and will alter the character of this recreational area which comprises and integral part of our local heritage.”

• “It is not consistent with the intent of the $17.5 million of public funds, including $7.5 million of DOT funds, invested to secure the Needmore Game Lands for recreational use and protection of local heritage.”

• “There are more immediate and pressing infrastructure and road-repair needs that should be addressed with such a large expenditure of public dollars.”

The environmental group’s position seems in line with statements previously made by Cheryl Taylor, leader of Mountain Neighbors for Needmore Preservation, to The Smoky Mountain News.

Taylor, a Swain County native and Needmore resident, said she believes Needmore Road “needs to see some improvements, but if they’d pave it just as it was, I’d be happy.”

 

Protecting the river

“There are impacts from that stretch of the river that come off of the Needmore Road,” said aquatic biologist Bill McLarney, who is the biomonitoring director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association.

McLarney has studied the upper watershed of the river for more than two decades. His work resulted in a state governor’s award in 1994 for water conversationist of the year, among other accolades.

The sedimentation is not just caused by rainfall, but even by wind, said McLarney, who sometimes uses snorkeling gear to examine the river.

“It is like somebody had put a thin layer of dust over the rocks,” he said of the bank’s appearance that is nearest Needmore Road.

Aquatic life there also has been adversely impacted.

“I have always been of the opinion [that] paving the Needmore Road would be a plus for the value of the river,” McLarney said.

But, the aquatic biologist said, he simply can’t support the option currently favored by the transportation department. Such work would increase traffic and detract from the recreational value, and diminish the importance of what took place when groups that have sometimes seemed at odds worked together.

“It would not have happened if local people … had not wanted to have it happen,” he said.”

One of the major players in that effort, the Land Trust of the Little Tennessee, has opted to stay out of this particular battle, at least for now. Sharon Taylor, land protection director for the group, said the land trust has not taken a position for or against the state’s proposal.

The land trust works with property owners and others to protect the “waters, forests, farms and heritage” of the upper Little Tennessee and Hiwasee River valleys.

 

Want to get involved?

WHAT: Presentation on Needmore Road paving proposal sponsored by WNC Alliance Environmental Group.

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16

WHERE: Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Franklin, Sierra Lane.

 

Learn more:

WHAT: Question-and-answer session, followed by public hearing sponsored by N.C. Department of Transportation.

WHEN: Q&A from 4:30-6:30 p.m.; public hearing starting at 7 p.m., Sept. 21.

WHERE: Southwestern Community College in Swain County, known locally as the old Almond School, off U.S. 74, 5.5 miles west of Bryson City.

A state proposal to widen and pave a gravel road that runs alongside the Little Tennessee River and near the protected 4,400-acre Needmore Tract is being greeted with caution by conservationists.

“It is a very important stretch of river,” said Stacey Guffey, chairman of the board overseeing the Little Tennessee Watershed Association. “As a group, I’d say we’re not opposed to improvements that would help river quality. But, if something is going to be done, we want to see it have as little impact as possible.”

A portion of Needmore Road is a rough, one-lane gravel road that parallels N.C. 28 in Macon and Swain counties but on the opposite side of the river. The state Department of Transportation is proposing to pave and widen 3.3 miles of Needmore Road from one lane to two lanes. The new road would have a minimum width of 18 feet. Additionally, work would take place on the shoulders of the roadway.

“I think Needmore Road needs to see some improvement, but if they’d pave it just as it was, I’d be happy,” said Cheryl Taylor, a resident of the Needmore community and leader of the group Mountain Neighbors for Needmore Preservation.

Taylor said she and members of her group are concerned about the scope of the transportation department’s proposal.

“(The Needmore Tract) is a place to go to enjoy the area and outdoor recreation,” she said, adding that those qualities need to be protected.

The project is estimated to cost $6.5 million and would target the section from Byrd Road in Macon County to existing pavement in Swain County. Work on three of the four sections making up the project would get under way in 2012. The final — and most difficult section from an engineering standpoint — is slated for 2015.

“This alternative will improve the entire facility to conform to NCDOT Division 14 Secondary Road Standards,” states a meeting notice issued by the transportation department. “The proposed alignment calls for widening the roadway away from the Little Tennessee River.”

Joel Setzer, DOT division engineer for a 10-county region that includes Macon and Swain, said the paving proposal dates back to about 1997. Justification for the road upgrade is based on the number of houses served and traffic counts. Though there aren’t many houses along that stretch of road, Setzer said the traffic counts are high “as compared to other gravel roads.”

The purpose of the project is as follows:

• To improve the quality of travel for local residents who currently use the road.

• Reduce sedimentation from Needmore Road into the Little Tennessee River.

• Avoid or minimize adverse impacts to the existing high-quality natural resources.

The transportation department has worked on environmental assessments of the project, Setzer said, and has plans to deal with the Anakeesta-type rock found in the area. These rocks contain high levels of iron-sulfide and can create acidic runoff.

About 4,400 acres along the Little Tennessee River known as the Needmore Tract was saved from development and turned into a state game land overseen by the N.C. Wildlife Commission six years ago. Needmore Road, in places, borders the protected tract.

Nantahala Power and Light bought the property in the 1930s with the intent of damming up the Little Tennessee River for hydroelectric generation. The power company never built the dam. Instead, the bottomland was leased to farmers. Local residents used the remainder for hiking, camping and hunting.

Duke Power in 1999 took over Nantahala Power and Light and decided to sell the land for development. Public outcry led to a massive, five-year campaign to save the tract. Local residents, conservationists and the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee worked together to raise $19 million in state grants and private donations to pay Duke. The Needmore Tract was then placed under state protection as the Needmore Game Land.  

Aklea Althoff, who operates an office in Franklin for the environmental group Western North Carolina Alliance, echoed calls for restraint when it comes to tinkering with Needmore Road.

“We know that some improvements need to be made because of the sedimentation problem from the gravel road,” she said. “But it needs to be as minimal as possible because of this pristine ecosystem.”

 

Want to get involved?

WHAT: Presentation on Needmore Road paving proposal sponsored by WNC Alliance environmental group.

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 16.

WHERE: Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Franklin, Sierra Lane.

Learn More:

WHAT: Question-and-answer session, followed by public hearing sponsored by N.C. Department of Transportation.

WHEN: Q&A from 4:30-6:30 p.m.; public hearing starts at 7 p.m., September 21.

WHERE: Southwestern Community College in Swain County, known locally as the old Almond School, off U.S. 74, 5.5 miles west of Bryson City.

The Little Tennessee Watershed Association has received a $75,000 grant to help restore migration for aquatic species.

Two years ago, a study of creeks feeding the Little Tennessee River found several places where road crossings inhibited up and downstream movement by organisms. Roads across the creeks were acting as dams, either due to collapsed culverts or culverts not properly conveying the water in the stream.

The grant will come from U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, thanks to federal stimulus money. The Little Tennessee River is a priority area for the Fish and Wildlife Service due to the presence of federally endangered species. The threatened spotfin chub is among the fish species whose migration each fall from the Little Tennessee into tributaries is being inhibited.

Grants were also awarded to the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and the Blue Ridge Resource Conservation and Development Council for the French Broad River watershed and the Upper Nolichucky River watershed.

“These grants will help local organizations and local people accomplish what really are some tremendous on-the-ground conservation projects,” said Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Anita Goetz.

Macon County has won a partial victory in the fight over the permitting of an industrial wastewater treatment plant in Rabun County, just across the state line in North Georgia.

Earlier this month, Georgia environmental protection officials issued a discharge permit for effluent that will flow into the Little Tennessee River — but on the condition that it must treat its sewage by ultraviolet technology rather than via chlorination.

Concerned residents in Macon County had demanded that discharge be treated by the more environmentally-friendly UV technology to protect the biodiversity of the river, which flows north from Rabun County into Macon.

“Chlorine in its concentrated form is extremely toxic,” said Bill McLarney, project coordinator and aquatic biologist for the Little Tennessee Watershed Association. “If I wanted to kill everything in a stretch of river, one of my poisons of choice would be chlorine.”

Chlorine may kill pathogens, but it also preys on insects and microorganisms that live in the streambed and are “utterly critical” to the river. According to McLarney, the UV treatment works just as well as chlorination, without all of the associated risks.

“The only thing that’s kept UV from being the standard disinfectant is inertia. You have an established way of doing things,” said McLarney.

Sam Greenwood, Franklin’s town manager, was pleased with the concession on UV light treatment.

“The thing that still concerns us is that the permit was granted without a user. It was sort of a blanket approval,” Greenwood said.

Rabun County’s plan calls for converting a former industrial wastewater treatment plant at the closed-down Fruit of the Loom textile mill into a sewage treatment plant.

The permit would also be useful to any new industry that sets up shop at the former factory site, since the old discharge permit used by Fruit of the Loom was no longer valid. But no one knows exactly what industry might eventually materialize at the site and therefore what kind of pollution would be discharged.

Franklin Alderman Bob Scott hopes the move toward UV over chlorine is a trend and was pleased the Georgia environmental agency listened to the public, even if not all their concerns were addressed.

“It could have been worse. They could have just not paid any attention to us at all,” Scott said.

Rabun County Manager Jim Bleckley said the UV method will add costs to the project.

“Everybody else thought it was better,” Bleckley said. “Even though it was more expensive, it was environmentally friendly.”

The county has only one taker on the industrial park space so far: a wood-fueled biomass plant that generates electricity. The company, Multitrade Rabun Gap, will burn local forest byproducts to create power, which will be sold over the grid. The company will go into operation in November and will employ about 40 people.

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