Archived Opinion

In truth, boating won’t harm the Chattooga

By Bruce Hare • Guest Columnist

I would like to respond to Mr. James Costa’s letter (March 14, The Smoky Mountain News) expressing his concern about kayaking and canoeing on the headwaters of the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River.


First, I would like to thank Mr. Costa for his concern and appreciation for the unique and beautiful resources and the almost magical experience of being close to such a powerful and yet approachable force of nature. Whether it’s hikers, fisherman, kayakers, or biologists, we are all drawn to that mysterious and natural beauty for some of the same reasons, and we all share that wonderful restorative effect we get from being submersed in positive biofeedback from the sun, the plants, the water, and even the smell of the river. The place is so alive and healthy with plants growing on top of plants and with everything living and dead fully represented in the ecological cycle of life and the hydrologic cycle of the water.

Everything and everyone wants to share a space in that unspoiled Chattooga wilderness beauty. The river does need to be protected, and I think there are good guidelines in place, but regulations regarding resources and people have to adapt to cultural circumstances just as we all have to adapt to environmental changes.

The issue as I see it is not how people choose to use the river, but how they leave the river when they are finished using it. We all have an impact, it’s a fact of human life. We all breathe air, we make noise, we create movement, we disrupt the wildlife, we are part of the wildlife, but as a user group paddlers leave the least impact on the environment of any user group.

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There is an issue in Mr. Costa’s letter that I take strong exception to and that is his assertion that paddlers will cause “littering” because that is not true. I have been directly involved in kayaking for 30 years and I am here to tell you that paddlers do not litter. Paddlers love the river and they know that you don’t hurt what you love. The very idea that paddlers would recklessly or heedlessly damage the river is absurd and offensive to my own deeply held commitment to my own code of environmental ethics which is that “I do no harm, I leave no trace, and I respect the rights of other users.”

I am also deeply committed to the sport of kayaking and looking back over my life and all the paddling I have done I can look anyone in the face and say that I have never caused harm to the Chattooga River.

I also need to debunk Mr. Costa’s comment about “intensive use” of the river. American Whitewater’s request for boating access to the headwaters is for private boaters only and that means no commercial raft trips. The private boater rules for the lower Chattooga specify small groups of ten boats or less in each party and launch schedules are spaced one hour apart, and I think those rules will work for the headwaters.

Debunking the other part of the “intense use” objection is easy. American Whitewater member Brian Jacobsen is a lifelong guide and kayaker and environmental engineer. Brian researched the last 10 years of water flow data for the Chattooga and determined that the headwaters sections would only be boatable about 50 days per year on average because it takes a higher than normal flow to avoid all the rocks. Out of a 365-day year that amounts to only 13.7 percent of the time that it would even be possible to boat the headwaters, and not everyone can go every time the river runs. That is not intensive use.

And now lets look at the headwaters issue from another perspective and consider the larger context of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was a new, a demonstrable, and an important step in out country’s commitment to “protect and enhance our outstanding river resources.” And the Act has done a good job because it now protects 165 rivers nationwide.

Rivers are at the heart of every landscape, even the worlds deserts give us a clear picture of where the water once flowed, so protecting rivers as ecosystems brings with it a natural constituency of user groups. It may be expected that would be some potential for conflict any time people are involved, but from a boater’s perspective its just not logical to completely eliminate and discriminate against a user group that has over and over demonstrated a clear ability and an abiding willingness to help protect and enhance the rivers they love to paddle.

Again, my theme is its not how you use the river its how you leave the river when you finish using it that really counts. Paddlers take care of the rivers. For instance, one of the National Park Service rules for running the Grand Canyon of the Colorado is that you must pack out all trash from the 18- to 21-day trip so that you leave the Canyon exactly the way you found it, clean. And that includes human wastes, which are managed with plastic portable toilets that have to be set up and taken down every day. But it’s worth it! The science on this issue is clear, the Park Service and the Forest Service have conducted studies that document that paddlers cause only short term, low impact, and seasonally distributed effects on the outdoor environment.

Mr. Costa says the Chattooga River gives people a sense of “profound solitude and contemplation,” and I couldn’t agree more. I just happen to enjoy my “profound solitude and contemplation” from my kayak instead of a fishing pole or a backpack. This is a good time to remind folks that the Wild and Scenic Rivers Study conducted by the U.S. Forest Service recommended that “the best way to see the upper sections is from a boat.” And the main reason the Chattooga River was included in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was because it “offers unique whitewater boating opportunities in the South.”

The consensus of research done on the Chattooga River indicates that the biggest threat to the integrity of the ecosystem is road construction and housing developments near the river and its tributaries. Although Mr. Costa mentions the problem, he fails to take a position opposing development in the headwaters, instead he says paddlers may “degrade” the resources.

As a scientist Mr. Costa completely sidesteps the implications of the Department of Natural Resources’ policy of stocking non-native rainbow and brown trout and their infamous “put and take” fishery that the agency has created at the stocking points and bridges on the headwaters. Those non-native hatchery raised fish bring with them diseases and parasite and genetic deficiencies that are unavoidable with hatchery raised fish.

And finally, for the record, whitewater paddling does not conflict with the Wilderness Act and boating is allowed in other Wilderness Areas and the Wilderness Society does not object to boating on the headwaters of the Chattooga River.

In the end, Mr. Costa’s objections to boating on the headwaters is purely emotional and I can understand that because mine are, too. The difference is that science and history supports my responsible ecological human powered low impact use of an important public resource.

(Bruce A. Hare lives in Franklin.)

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