A blistering fight over whether paddling should be allowed along the upper stretch of the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River has landed in court.
American Whitewater, the premier national paddling advocacy group whose headquarters are in Jackson County, filed a lawsuit two weeks ago challenging the ban on paddling as baseless and unfounded.
In the meantime, a group called Friends of the Chattooga has formed to keep the paddling ban intact. The group includes fishermen, hikers, campers, environmentalists, birdwatchers and nature lovers who want to see the upper Chattooga — one of the last stretches of river where paddling is off-limits — protected from what they consider an intrusive sport.
The Chattooga River tumbles off the Cashiers plateau and plunges down the Blue Ridge Escarpment skirting the South Carolina-Georgia border. South Carolina’s Sumter National Forest issued a paddling ban on the upper 21 miles of the 56-mile Chattooga River in the mid-1970s.
American Whitewater has been fighting the ban since the mid-1990s. They finally won a concession from the National Forest Service, which had agreed to conduct a study and determine whether the 30-year-old ban was justified.
But almost a year into what appears would be a lengthy process, American Whitewater filed a lawsuit claiming the study was a guise being used to stonewall its efforts.
This week, both sides hash out their positions.
Solitude would disappear
Opening the upper Chattooga River to paddling would ruin the experience of those seeking wilderness and solitude in one of the last such vestiges of the Southern Appalachians.
“It is the only river that could provide an experience with solitude because it’s unspoiled and remote,” said Buzz Williams, director of the Chattooga Conservancy. “There’s nothing like that left.”
A group of four river lovers gathered along the shore of the upper Chattooga this month to explain why they were opposed to paddling.
While everyone deserves access to America’s wild places, the right of one recreation group ends where another begins, they said. One need look no further than the lower Chattooga — where paddling is allowed — to see what would happen.
“It is a fair atmosphere, a zoo atmosphere,” said Joe Gatins, an avid hiker and environmentalist, of the lower stretch. “It’s not like this stretch where you can come out and contemplate the wilderness.”
Hikers, campers, fishermen, bird watchers and sunbathers alike can carve out a spot along the river and be fairly certain no one will invade their corner of wilderness for the day. Gatins calls it an “envelope of solitude.”
“Most of the time you do not see another sole on this stretch of river,” Gatins said.
A paddler, meanwhile, would slice through everyone’s envelope of solitude. While other recreation users use trails to access the river, paddlers turn the river into the trail.
For Doug Adams, that would totally blow his form of recreation. The act of fishing brings him closer to the river and the fish. Unlike front-country fishermen — those who walk a few hundred yards along the shore from the road and sit on a rock all day — Adams goes deep into the backcountry and spends hours stalking one fish until he can lure it with his fly. Adams said boaters coming by spook the fish and ruin his ability to commune with the river.
In Birds of the Blue Ridge Mountains, author Marcus Simpson tells readers that “heavy whitewater sports use” makes the lower Chattooga “less attractive for birding” than the upper section, where paddling is banned.
Williams said some of the most passionate conservationists he knows are paddlers.
“I’m one of them,” said Williams, who was a river guide in the 1970s and 80s. But the majority of paddlers are not a quiet or subdued bunch. Williams called it a “yahoo!” sport.
“I defy any of them to tell me the first thing they are going to do when they get to the bottom of a big rapid is yell ‘yaaa-hooo,’” Williams said.
Not all kayakers agree with American Whitewater’s demands to open the upper Chattooga. Mike Bamford, 42, a kayaker who lives in Cashiers, is against the idea.
“It’s another access organization saying we should be able to use every inch of public land,” Bamford said. “This is a problem across the country. There’s an increased demand for a limited resource, the limited resource being wilderness.”
But Bamford said paddlers really don’t need more rivers to satisfy the paddling demand.
“It’s about doing a river you haven’t done before,” Bamford said.
Those opposed to paddling on the upper Chattooga see it as a final stand to protect wilderness from special recreation interests.
“They are claiming that everybody — regardless of their vehicle of choice — is entitled to access,” Gatins said. “This is not a local or regional turf battle. It’s much bigger than that.”
Williams agrees the fight on the Chattooga mirrors a national debate over whether wilderness areas and national parks should permit whatever type of recreation suits someone’s fancy, citing the debate over snowmobiles in Yellowstone. When snowmobile users began pushing for access, claiming it was their right to have a wilderness snowmobile experience in the park, they were told their form of recreation wasn’t compatible with others. Just like snowmobilers had plenty of other places to use their snowmobiles and don’t really need the last vestige of Yellowstone, paddlers have every other river in the region at their disposal.
Williams said the National Forest Service is charged with protecting the unique attributes of the Chattooga under the Wild and Scenic River designation.
“The act says this is a special place. You must define the outstanding nature of every section of the river — you must identify the outstanding, remarkable values of each section and you must protect those values and balance those interests,” Williams said.
Mountain biking and ATV use are also off-limits along most of the upper Chattooga, but horseback riders have gained access in some areas and are negatively impacting the environment by eroding trails.
“There’s an example of a special interest group that pushed, and pushed and pushed and the forest service caving,” Williams said of the horse users.
Part of the upper Chattooga is wide, broad or deep, but parts are not much bigger than a narrow creek. Paddlers will have to get out and drag their boats around or over shallow rocky areas.
“Boaters say they stay in the water and cause no damage, but creek boating is an amphibious sport, not purely aquatic,” Bamford said.
Bamford said they would also create trails around big drops — either those avoiding them or those who hike back up to go over them again and again.
“The river corridor trails are extremely fragile during soggy periods after heavy rains. The soils do not support use during wet periods and start washing silt into Chattooga,” Bamford said.
Williams said he is also concerned with safety issues. He recalls 19 deaths on the Chattooga in a period of four years when paddling first catapulted to popularity on the river in the 1970s.
Those who want the Chattooga to stay like it is — the upper stretch protected from paddlers — can’t get far without talking about the Chattooga’s turning point: the release of the movie “Deliverance.”
“That introduced the river to a wide audience that otherwise never would have known about it,” Adams said
Paddling on the Chattooga spiked from just 100 a year in 1968 to 20,000 a year in 1974, according to Adams.
“The increase was so massive it was not a remote and wild experience any more,” Gatins said.
Williams was a river guide at the time and saw the transformation first-hand. Groups of fishermen frequented favorite campsites and fishing holes where they basked in the solitude.
“One by one they all disappeared. They pulled out in disgust. Their experience has been ruined,” Williams said.
They didn’t go without a protest, however. Rafters found their rafts slit. Rocks were thrown at them from the shore as they went downriver. Shots were even fired over their rafts. Williams was guiding trips on the Chattooga at the time, and Adams was one the angry fishermen. Both shared similar recollections.
The idea of zoning the river was seen as a way to end these conflicts.
“We had a place to experience our type of enjoyment and they had theirs and that worked very well until today,” Adams said.
When the forest service initiated a study on the potential impacts of paddling on the upper Chattooga late last year, Adams, Williams, Gatins and Bamford all showed up.
“We all said ‘OK, we’ll play by the rules,’” Williams said. “All of a sudden the paddlers said ‘You’re not doing this fast enough. We are going to sue you for unrestricted access.’ They’re not playing by the rules.”
Gatins said American Whitewater has blind-sided the other recreation groups who were willing to participate in what they considered to be a fair study with a fair process so far.
“Part of what is so egregious are their tactics,” Gatins said. “They are not being reasonable at this stage. Nobody likes a bully on the block and that’s how they are acting.”
Williams said the paddlers are being selfish.
“My definition of conservation is coming to the table and saying ‘This is what I am willing to give up to protect the resource we all love,’” Williams said. “They are not doing that. They want it all.”
Paddling ban is unfair
For Mark Singleton, director of American Whitewater, the paddling ban on the Upper Chattooga discriminates against a form of recreation that is no more harmful to the environment than hiking or fishing.
“It’s not OK to say you are a backcountry angler, you have unlimited access, but you are a paddler and you can’t come here,” Singleton said. “That’s segregation. That’s unconstitutional.”
Singleton said other recreation groups have made the upper Chattooga into a classic tree house.
“You’re able to pull the rope up whenever you want,” Singleton said. “For over 30 years now, there has been a ban on boating use that we feel is unjustified and illegal.”
What makes the ban worse is that the Chattooga is designated as a Wild and Scenic River. It’s one of few rivers in the region that doesn’t have dams. Its corridor is protected, unlike most rivers where farms, houses, dumps and industry dot the riverbanks.
“To be banned from one of the premier Wild and Scenic rivers in the country sits with me as a real sad day,” said Don Kinser, a volunteer and board member of American Whitewater who has a second home in the region. “These areas were put aside for people like me to use and enjoy.”
No other Wild and Scenic river under national forest management in the United States bans paddling, Singleton said. On the lower Chattooga where paddling is allowed, paddlers have to first register at a permit station. But even that is a double standard, according to Kinser.
“I’m the only user group that has to fill out a permit. I’m the only user group they have data on. They use that data to manage my use, but they aren’t managing any other use,” Kinser said. “Anglers, hikers, picnickers — those are the ones impacting the resource. Which causes more damage — feet pounding on soil or boats floating on water?”
Singleton countered the notion that lifting the ban would lead to hordes of paddlers tromping and trampling all over the river shore creating trails willy-nilly through the forest.
“There’s a reason folks are in boats,” Singleton said. At the same time, those are exactly the things Singleton said should be studied.
“If there are environmentally sensitive zones, we need to figure out what the appropriate egress and ingress around those zones are,” Singleton said.
He said paddlers want to protect the river environment as much as anyone else, and if that means limiting access points and the number of paddlers per day, that’s OK.
“The majority of the paddling community has a strong environmental ethic and land-use ethic and cares deeply about the resource and cherishes it,” said Kinser, 47, volunteer and the CEO of a technology firm in the Atlanta area.
While some opponents consider paddling as obtrusive as mountain biking, snowmobiling or even ATV use, Singleton pointed out federal wilderness rules to the contrary.
“Kayaking is a wilderness conforming use in the Wild and Scenic designation, where all the other activities you mentioned are not,” Singleton said. “If this group wishes to rewrite wilderness designation, that’s a different process.”
Paddling or floating requires no engine and no mechanized parts and is considered compatible recreation for wilderness areas. The legislation that gave the Chattooga its Wild and Scenic status back in the mid-1970s actually cites wilderness paddling as one purpose for the designation.
“This headwaters is in one of the largest roadless areas in the Southeast that is still intact,” Singleton said. “This is a true wilderness.”
While some claim the stretch is too unsafe for paddling, Singleton disagreed.
“The progression of skills, technique and equipment has all progressed in 30-plus years,” Singleton said.
Rapids classified 30 years ago as class VI are class IV today. Singleton described the Upper Chattooga as a mix of “steep drops and long flat sections,” terrain that would challenge advanced paddlers while also providing stretches suitable for those with intermediate skills.
Road to a lawsuit
The paddling ban was put in place on the upper Chattooga in 1976 — two years after the Wild and Scenic River designation. Paddlers claim the ban was done as a gift to backcountry fishermen, creating a private preserve for a handful.
“The ban is arbitrary and capricious. There was no data to support the ban. There was never a study done. This was just something that was slapped down,” Singleton said.
Kinser called it a backroom deal.
The ban went unchallenged until the mid-1990s when the Sumter National Forest began rewriting the master plan for the forest. Each national forest is required to periodically overhaul its master plan — including guidelines not just for recreation but also logging and endangered species protection.
Kinser, along with other paddlers, participated vigorously in the public input opportunities for the new master plan in hopes of getting the ban re-examined, but were quickly disillusioned.
“They went through the perfunctory motions of meeting with us as a public interest group, but they had no intentions of ever opening that river,” Kinser said. “There were a few that seemed to be honestly looking into it, but for the most part it was ‘we are going to humor you by meeting with you and hope you go away.’ The other user groups were smug to the extent they were sure it would never happen. In my opinion it was completely predetermined.”
The process dragged on for several years until early 2004, when the Sumter issued the new forest guidelines, which left the ban intact.
American Whitewater appealed the ban to higher-ups in the National Forest Service, citing the lack of data. While most appeals are turned down, the forest service officials in D.C. sided with American Whitewater and required the Sumter folks to take a second look at the ban. Sumter was told to gather data on whether and why such a ban would be justified under national forest guidelines.
“Initially we were very encouraged,” Singleton said. “We expected an honest study.”
But Sumter officials were slow to get started, and once they did paddlers got the uneasy feeling the study wasn’t genuine.
“The deck was stacked against us from the word go,” Kinser said.
Instead of giving paddlers access to the river in order to be studied and their impacts on other recreation or the environment monitored, the forest service would estimate the level of use and extrapolate impacts seen on other rivers, Singleton said.
“Our idea of solid data collection was to get boaters on the water and see what was going on. We haven’t gotten that,” Singleton said.
Singleton said if the forest service had opened the upper Chattooga to paddling for three months from January through March to study the impacts, we wouldn’t be talking about a lawsuit right now. Instead, the forest service spent most of a year thinking about the study. Another year is being spent talking about how to go about the study. The study itself could take two years. In the meantime, the ban stays.
Kinser said the forest service approach is backwards. The question is supposed to be whether a ban is justified — not whether lifting the ban is justified. Singleton also questioned why paddlers are the only ones whose impacts are being studied.
“Angling use is unrestricted. Hiking use is unrestricted. They aren’t being studied here,” Singleton said. “It goes back to this segregation of boating as the one use that has been managed out of the resource.”
Singleton attributes the clash over the Chattooga to a cultural conflict — one the Sumter National Forest officials have done little to solve.
Singleton said paddlers get along great with most National Forest Service districts. He pointed to the new whitewater releases on the Cheoah River below the Lake Santeetlah dam in Graham County. The Nantahala National Forest embraced paddlers as a new form of recreation that should be integrated, not segregated.
“Here we have a district of the forest service that is an incredible partner and understands what it takes to manage a recreational resource that provides value to the community and the region,” Singleton said of the Cheoah district of the Nantahala.
Lawsuits are not modus operandi for American Whitewater, Singleton said.
“Ninety-nine percent of our relationships are what you see on the Cheoah. This is the 1 percent that is so far off the charts it is hard to establish a base line,” Singleton said. “We have an anomaly here.”