Coexistence on the Chattooga
Paddlers floated down the Chattooga River outside Cashiers last weekend for the first time in 30 years since the U.S. Forest Service first imposed a paddling ban on the upper stretch of the Wild and Scenic River.
Boaters have occasionally paddled the stretch anyway — called poaching a run — but this weekend it was actually legal. Eight boaters selected by the forest service took a trial run in an ongoing study to determine whether to lift the ban.
“Spectacular,” said Don Kinser, a paddler in the panel. “It was awesome. There is no reason that shouldn’t be open to boaters, that’s for sure.”
That was what paddlers had long expected, but they need officially sanctioned runs to document it with certainty.
“There had been reports of that, but it had been from renegade attempts,” said Mark Singleton, a paddler in Jackson County and director of American Whitewater.
Meanwhile, fisherman, hikers, environmentalists and wilderness lovers are lamenting the prospect of the paddling ban being lifted. Joe Gatins, an avid hiker along the Chattooga River, was out in the woods both days of the trial paddling trip.
“When I saw those 10 boats bobbing down the river, I had a disturbing, sinking feeling. I felt it was the wrong thing to be happening on the river,” said Gatins, spokesperson for Friends of the Chattooga. “I’m not going to say the one trial has damaged the ecosystem, but if you multiply that it will be thousands of times with thousands of boaters.”
Last weekend was selected for the trial thanks to big rains that swelled the river. The top goal of the trial was to figure out how much water boaters need to make floating the narrow river feasible. At the same time, the forest service wants to know how much water is too much for fishermen to comfortably fish. A panel of fishermen were sent out on the river over the weekend as well.
“The big question we hope to answer with the panels is where does the flow naturally segregate the anglers and boaters?” said John Cleeves, a forest service ranger leading the study.
But what about everyone else, asked Buzz Williams, director of the Chattooga Conservancy.
“They have left everybody else out. The hikers, the birders, the botanists, the photographers — people who love solitude and appreciate the last remaining wilderness area being left out,” said Williams.
Mike Bamford, a Cashiers resident who lives along the headwaters of the Chattooga, went swimming Saturday — even though it was well-below ideal swimming temps — to prove a point to the forest service.
“To be fair to all visitors, the forest service should look at all activity types on the river,” said Bamford, who is concerned about a boater hitting a swimmer, “If I can keep one child from being injured by an inexperienced boater, I will consider these plunges worthwhile.”
The forest service is planning to hold workshops with hikers and other outdoor users at some point during the study. The forest service is surveying trails and campsites in the river corridor to see how heavily they are used. They are also counting vehicles at picnic areas, river access points and trail heads to see how many people are using the area.
Kinser, one of the paddlers, said he never saw another river user during the paddling trial, not even the panel of fishermen.
“That’s what we have told the forest service all along, which is we would never interact with each other,” Kinser said.
Of course the boaters would say that, Williams countered. The panel of boaters selected by the forest service is too biased to provide impartial feedback — all are members of American Whitewater.
“This is an organization that just filed suit in federal court demanding unlimited, unrestricted access right now,” Williams said. “You couldn’t have made it more bias if you tried.”
Singleton said everyone seems to have preconceived ideas about the paddling ban, not just the paddlers.
“The Chattooga Conservancy is probably not the most objective partner in this dialogue,” Singleton said.
Forcing their hand
The forest service was forced to conduct the study — which included the trial paddling trip — by American Whitewater, a national paddling advocacy group. The group appealed the ban to the highest levels of the forest service in Washington, D.C.
American Whitewater claims the ban is arbitrary, concocted to give preferential treatment to fishermen. Forest service higher-ups agreed the ban lacked justification and ordered a study. American Whitewater also filed a lawsuit, further prodding the forest service along with the study.
Williams said the forest service decision was the work of Washington lobbyists.
“How one special interest can come in and literally just push the forest service aside and say, ‘We want in there, get out of the way,’ it is a disservice to people who love the river,” Williams said. “Local people should be enraged. Something very important and dear to people who love the Chattooga is at stake. We are going to fight them to the last drop.”
The ban on the Chattooga is an anomaly within forest service. It is the only river under forest service domain that doesn’t allow paddling. Paddling is a considered a “wilderness compatible” use under the Wilderness Act.
But Joe Gatins, a regular hiker on the Chattooga River, said boats would interfere with his wilderness experience.
“The boaters are not going to be invisible. You will see them often enough that it would be jarring to the wilderness experience and solitude,” Gatins said. “If you had a high water day, the boaters would come like locusts from a 150-mile radius.”
Singleton disagreed. Studies have shown hikers and backpackers like seeing paddlers, offering a kind of vicarious experience of the river from the shore.
“Backpackers line up at Hance Rapids on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon to watch boaters on river trips navigate those huge waves,” Singleton said.
The top part of the river, known as the Chattooga Cliffs, can only be reached by a mile and a half hike. Williams is concerned boaters won’t be happy about hiking in with their boats.
“If the forest service opens that section up to boating, do you think for one second the boating community isn’t going to say, ‘Now we want a parking lot and a road,’” Williams said. “The key to wilderness is inaccessibility.”
Gatins tagged along with the boaters as they hiked to the river along the 1.5-mile trail.
“Some of them carried their boats all the way, but several of them got tired and dragged the boats in,” Gatins said. “I don’t think one or two boats being dragged one day kill the resource, buy many boats being dragged many days will add to the erosion on that trail.”
In addition, Williams is concerned about the fate of the Chattooga Cliffs ecosystem, a narrow cliff gorge covered in plant life. Boaters who can’t navigate the stretch — either lacking the skill level or attempting the run when the water is too low — will end up scooting along the bank.
“It is absolutely gorgeous, and they are going to rip it to shreds,” Williams said.
That’s not what boaters reported, however.
Boaters got out of their boats and scrambled around one major waterfall on the river — which they would have run if not for a log jam in the falls, according to a forest service consultant for the paddling study, Doug Whitaker. Other than the major waterfall, boaters got out of their boats on only a few occasions to assess a rapid before going over it.
“In all cases, boaters were able to scout and/or portage the river without having to scramble up the steeper banks, allowing them to stay on bedrock and avoid erosion impacts,” Whitaker said.