Archived Opinion

Paddlers will not do damage to the Chattooga

By Bruce Hare • Guest Columnist

In response to your article (“Tug of War over the Chattooga River,” May 31 Smoky Mountain News), I would like to thank you for reporting on an issue that is important to me and I think your coverage was balanced and fair.

I operated a canoeing, kayaking, and rafting business on the Chattooga River for 28 years, and I am familiar with all aspects of the case. I am also a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service to secure access to paddle the headwaters of the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River.

Paddling occurred on the headwaters before the ban was arbitrarily imposed in 1976 and I know because I was one of the people that boated those sections of the river. I grew up on the Chattooga River and I fished and boated with my father and grandfather all my life and ‘the two sports are not incompatible. I took my grandfather boating and fishing on the Chattooga every year until he was 81 years old. He passed away at age 83.

He loved the river and during the last few years of his life he would not have been able to fish the river if I had not been able to take him in my raft. I learned some of the most important lessons in my life out there on the river with my grandfather, and it led me to a life as a guide, outfitter, and explorer. I have paddled all over the United States and from Alaska to South America, and I have fished on most of the rivers I have paddled.

Paddlers appreciate solitude and scenic beauty as much as anyone, but we are no more responsible for the shortage of wilderness and wild places than any other user group. Users blaming other users is not a solution to anything, it is a symptom of an over-crowded world and the shrinking of habitats that can provide solitude and awareness of nature. That is what we are all looking for no matter how we pursue it.

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It is unreasonable to expect much solitude nowadays anywhere in the lower 48 states. Many of the largest wilderness areas and national parks are suffering from over-use and overcrowding during the peak seasons, but that does not mean they have been ruined, or locked up, or taken away from anyone. It just means that we all have to share some of the things we love most in this world.

Some days when I go kayaking I do not want to see anyone else. And at other times I enjoy paddling with old friends and making new friends with other paddlers who love the river just as much as I do. I feel the same way about my time fishing.

It would be impossible for paddlers to cause more environmental damage than other user groups because paddlers spend less time on the banks and in sensitive riparian areas than hikers or fishers. I have hiked the entire length of the USFS trails in the Chattooga headwaters and many spots are badly eroded and some were constructed through areas that are home to rare wildflowers, but I don’t blame the hikers because they just wanted to enjoy the beauty of nature. Fishers often wade in the river for considerable distances and they stir up the sediments and disrupt the aquatic ecosystems, but I don’t blame the fishers because they just want to enjoy the challenge of their sport.

A few years ago Don Kinser from American Whitewater and I did a series of surveys on the most common fishing access points and along the backcountry hiking trails in the headwaters of the Chattooga River to observe current use impacts. Since no paddlers were allowed we assumed most of the impacts would be from fishers and hikers.

What we found was easy to document. There were small trash piles at most of the campsites and “illegal” fire rings within a few feet of the river’s edge. Analysis of the trash showed that most of it was from food and beverage containers and the packaging and advertising from manufactured fishing tackle. Most fishers don’t litter, but the evidence that some do is irrefutable on the headwaters.

Before the Chattooga was designated a National Wild and Scenic River, many of the banks and campsites were virtual garbage dumps. Before the Chattooga was protected, old appliances, tires, car parts, household garbage and other locally generated trash was common along the banks of the river. For 30 years paddlers have organized clean-up trips on the river to make it more beautiful and enjoyable for everyone.

Historically, local people have fished the river with dynamite and seine nets and currently some locals take great pleasure in driving their four-wheel-drive vehicles into the river at Earl’s Ford and at Sandy Ford and tearing up the river bed and polluting the water with motor oil. This wanton destruction of the aquatic ecosystem harms the fishery and demeans the community I grew up in.

The Chattooga River is a “national” river. It does not belong to the state and it does not belong to the county, it belongs equally to every citizen of the United States so long as they do no harm. And paddlers do no harm.

The gist of this 30-year-old conflict is that fishers don’t want to see other users on the river. From Grimshaw Bridge to Tugaloo Lake is a little over 50 miles and paddlers can only use the lower 27 miles and fishers can use all 50 miles plus all the tributaries. In the tri-state area there are almost 10 times as many miles of fishable water as there are boatable waters. According to the original U.S. Forest Service feasibility study, the main reason the Chattooga River was recommended as a Wild and Scenic River was because it offered such outstanding opportunities for whitewater paddling, and that included the headwaters sections.

Paddling on the headwaters requires well-above average water flows, and most of those flows cause the water to be turbid or muddy. Those are the least desirable times to trout fish. There are many more low-water days than high-water days in any year in the Chattooga River watershed.

Not all paddlers will want to paddle the headwaters, just as not all fishers are backcountry anglers, but to exclude one group based on cultural bias and rhetorical conflict is unreasonable and a clear violation of federal regulations implemented to manage the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River.

Paddlers did not “ambush” anybody in their efforts to gain access to the headwaters. Instead, there has been a continuous effort for 15 years to regain access to an area that was originally designated for the purpose of whitewater paddling. The lawsuit came about because the local ranger districts have refused to follow the directives of the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C. The Chief confirmed American Whitewater’s appeal and said “the ban on boating above Highway 28 is not consistent with USFS policy.”

The whole reason this unfortunate situation has developed to a point of antagonism is because the U.S. Forest Service did not follow the Federal law and its own regulations when it decided to ban boating on the headwaters in 1976. Federal regulations require public involvement, environmental analysis, and peer reviewed science before taking any action to deny public use of public resources. None of that was done in 1976 and it has still not been done, which means that the decision was arbitrary and capricious.

And in spite of all the hoopla and vituperation on the issue, no one has ever been able to document that paddling is harmful to the environment.

The harm done during the 30 years the headwaters have been closed to boating is the fact that it gave fishers the impression that they had a “right” to the upper sections of the Chattooga. In fact, no one has any more rights on public lands than any one else.

It’s time for the good citizens of this country to regain control of a runaway government and demand accountability for our tax dollars and our public lands resources, and American Whitewater’s lawsuit to open the headwaters to boating is one small step in the right direction.

I respect fishers, hikers, campers and birders because I participate in all of these activities, and I also demand their respect for me as a paddler because it is my heritage and my right and was passed on to me by my father and my grandfather and I have passed it on to the younger generation. Frustrated wannabe environmentalists who have characterized other user groups as “yahoos” are merely reflecting their own inadequacies and their lack of acceptance of differing points of view.

In a world teeming with conflicts ranging from religion to oil to property rights, this Chattooga headwaters issue is a minor one that should be resolved without resorting to the federal courts. An irresponsible Forest Service decision, however, has brought us to that point.

My final suggestion to all parties concerned in this issue is to follow the Golden Rule and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Paddlers have never requested that anyone not be allowed to fish or hike on any portion of the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River and we respectfully request that same consideration from other river users.

(Hare lives in Long Creek, S.C.)

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