Three years ago, paddlers challenged a 30-year-old ban on kayaking, canoeing and rafting on the upper reaches of the Chattooga, a National Wild and Scenic River that tumbles off the Cashiers Plateau. A vigorous debate has ensued between paddlers and those who want to keep them out. Those who hike, camp, fish and hunt in the Upper Chattooga feel paddling would infringe on the wilderness experience.
“That’s been the heart of the issue in all honesty,” said John Cleeves, a forest service official with the Sumter National Forest.
“We’ve been looking at whether can we can accommodate paddling in a way that still maintains that remoteness and solitude.”
More is at stake in the decision than boats or no boats, however. The forest service laid out nine different scenarios that it will chose from — and nearly all of them are poised to bring tighter controls on recreation in general regardless of how the decision on boating shakes out. If the public wants the wilderness experience preserved, all uses need to be examined, Cleeves said.
“People don’t want to be right on top of each other as far as their experience goes out there,” Cleeves said.
At one end of the spectrum, the forest service would institute a strict permit system, limiting the number of people who can enter the Chattooga wilderness any given day. It’s unlikely the forest service will choose that scenario, however.
What’s more likely is a self-registration system, one that requires people to fill out slips at trailhead kiosks. It’s a recurring theme in every scenario being considered.
“It’s for us to get a better handle on who is going out there. Right now all we have are just rough estimates,” Cleeves said.
The self-registration system will alert the forest service if too many people are bumping into each other. If and when those encounters cross an acceptable threshold, the forest service could start requiring permits. Until that threshold is reached, however, the forest service will likely opt for controls that are more benign.
One tool is to limit backcountry camping to designated campsites. Right now, people can camp anywhere they like. But that seems sure to change, as every scenario being considered would restrict backcountry camping to designated sites. Those campsites will be dispersed in order to preserve a feeling of solitude, Cleeves said.
Another tool for limiting people: limiting parking at trailheads.
“Indirect controls are probably what we will start with,” Cleeves said. “If there are encounter problems that show up out there, we will implement more direct controls. That’s kind of our philosophy — to try indirect measures at first, and if there is a need for permits then we will kick those in.”
Other wilderness areas
Limiting people through permits is common in national parks, including the Smokies, where backcountry camping is restricted to designated sites and permits are required. Some parks, like Denali in Alaska, limit how many people can pass through a particular quadrant of the park in a day. But such controls aren’t so common in national forests.
“The closest thing you are going to find in the national forest system is the Linville Gorge Wilderness where they do have camping by permit,” said Jeff Owenby, a recreation specialist with the Nantahala National Forest.
Owenby said national forests usually try indirect measures first.
“As recreation managers the first thing we normally try to do is the soft sell through education,” Owenby said. “It’s the path of least resistance. First you try education, then you try rules, which get more restrictive based on the severity of the situation.”
Limiting parking at trailheads is classic tool.
“In some wilderness areas we intentionally limit the size of a parking area even though we know there may be more demand,” Owenby said.
If campers are piling up in a certain area — ruining each others’ experience and the natural resources — the first tactic is encouraging Leave-No-Trace Ethics and wilderness etiquette.
But sometimes that doesn’t work and a special place can be ruined.
That’s what happened in Linville Gorge, where use got so heavy in the 1960s it was a virtual wilderness mad house. So a strict permit system was implemented that capped use at no more than 50 day-hikers and 30 campers a day. After the 13,000-acre wilderness area recouped from its trampling, the limits were relaxed.
Today, there are no permits needed for day hiking and 50 backcountry camping permits allowed each day — 35 can be reserved in advance and 15 are set aside for walk-ins. Permits are such a commodity that no one gets to camp more than two nights in a month in the Gorge.
“There are very few weeks through the season that are not totally booked,” said Barbara Watring who works out of the Grandfather Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest. “The month of October gets booked up extremely fast and most of the holiday weekends.”
Backpackers are supposed to cover up evidence of their campsite upon leaving.
“People are supposed to destroy their fire rings when they leave to make it a wilderness experience for the next person,” Watring said.
Fire rings are one of the most noticeable and lasting traces of human impact in the backcountry. In the Shining Rock and Middle Prong wilderness areas, campfires are banned completely. The proliferation of fire rings prior to the ban was downright unsightly, said David Finnan, wilderness ranger with the Pisgah National Forest.
Popular meadows for camping were littered with fire rings, denuding the area of its grasses and turning it into a dust bowl, Finnan said. When the pickings got slim for downed wood, campers took to chopping down trees. The only solution was to ban campfires completely.
Traffic in the Chattooga corridor — home to the Ellicott Rock Wilderness Area — has not yet reached a level that necessitates controls like those seen in Linville or Shining Rock.
“There are times when people will bump into each other, but that is not that frequent. Most of the time, the Upper Chattooga is a place of solitude and reflection and we appreciate that,” said Joe Gatins, a spokesperson for Georgia Forest Watch.
Depending on the section of river, you could have less than four or as many as 15 encounters with other people in the Chattooga backcountry, according to the forest service estimates.
“These are estimates and actual encounter levels can vary by season, time of day and day of the week,” said Michelle Burnett, spokesperson with the Sumter National Forest.