The battle for the Chattooga rages on
The Sumter National Forest has fired back at American Whitewater, a paddling organization that is challenging a ban on paddling the upper Chattooga River.
The Chattooga is a federally designated Wild and Scenic River that tumbles off the Cashiers Plateau and into the Sumter National Forest of South Carolina.
American Whitewater filed a federal lawsuit against the Sumter National Forest in May alleging the paddling ban is illegal and should be lifted. The forest service responded last week, asking the courts to dismiss the suit and instead wait for a three-year analysis of the paddling ban currently under way to play out. The study will determine whether the paddling ban is justified. The forest service called American Whitewater’s suit “an apparent attempt to short-circuit” the on-going study.
The forest service asked the courts to dismiss the case and “permit the agency to complete its decision making process to determine whether and how to open the Upper Chattooga to primitive floating.”
The forest service said its decision “very well could permit floating ... rendering judicial review unnecessary” but that regardless the issue is still in “flux.”
American Whitewater’s lawsuit claimed that paddlers are suffering irreparable harm while waiting for the study to be conducted. A ban should not be the status quo. The study is supposed to determine whether a ban is justified. The ban should be lifted until proven otherwise, the lawsuit claimed.
“In essence, paddlers are being denied access ‘just in case’ the results of the analysis ‘might’ find some basis to limit their use,” the lawsuit stated.
The forest service countered by downplaying American Whitewater’s notion of irreparable harm while awaiting the analysis.
“The floating prohibition that they claim creates a judicial emergency and intolerable hardship has been in place for 30 years,” the forest service stated in their court response.
The forest service was concerned about the potential impacts paddling would have on fishermen, an issue the study is expected to address.
“The ongoing study may determine that the trout fishing experience will be destroyed by permitting floating,” the forest service stated. “The court would certainly benefit from knowing the likely consequences of any decision to open the river to floating before ordering that it be done.”
Supporters of the paddling ban claim paddling would ruin the wilderness experience for others — especially fishermen. When paddling was banned on the Upper Chattooga 30 years ago, it was done to protect fishermen from an explosion in the popularity of paddling on the river.
“The prohibition was instituted in part to increase the quality of trout fishing in the uppermost reaches of the river, where the trout fishing is best,” the forest service stated in its response to the lawsuit.
In the mid-1980s, when the forest service reassessed and upheld the ban, it again cited the need to “provide quality trout fishing.”
But American Whitewater claims paddlers are equally entitled to enjoy the river’s qualities.
“The importance of the Chattooga to primitive floaters cannot be overstated. It stems from the remoteness of the river corridor, the quality and diversity of the whitewater, the beauty of the rock formations, flora, fauna, free-flowing clean water, lack of human development and the sheer magnitude of the wilderness experience it offers,” the lawsuit stated.
The lawsuit claims the paddling ban violates the Wilderness Act, which recognizes paddling as a wilderness compatible form of recreation. The Chattooga is the only National Wild and Scenic River with a paddling ban.
American Whitewater also claimed that Sumter National Forest is dragging its feet on the study and does not appear interested in conducting a true fact-finding analysis but instead is merely going through the motions.
Meanwhile, the forest service claimed American Whitewater’s lawsuit is holding up the study.
“Ironically, their suit is substantially diverting the resources of the same agency personnel who are involved in conducting the analysis,” the forest service’s response stated.