Long-awaited whitewater runs to debut on the upper Tuckasegee

Paddlers are salivating over the first-ever whitewater releases offered on the west fork of the Tuckasegee from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., April 13 and 14.

Paddling springs eternal

out frWhitewater fanatics wait in line for their chance to do tricks, flips, spins and somersaults with their play boats on the Tuckasegee River near last Saturday for annual Kayak Demo Day. The day was unseasonably sunny and warm. It featured a full lineup of freestyle practice sessions, kayak instruction and top-of-the-line equipment for anyone to use.

The range of skill sets was also apparent, from first-time freestyle kayakers struggling to stay upright to seasoned experts honing their skills. But the common denominator is connecting with the river, and reveling over the latest boats, said Jenna White, a graduate student at nearby Western Carolina University and one of the event’s organizers.

Float, boat or fish the Tuck

out frThis spring, rolling down the Tuckasegee River will be, for the most part, as it has been in years past — but getting onto the river is becoming a whole lot easier.

As canoers, kayakers, fishermen, college-aged tubers and other water recreationists dust off their paddles, poles and life jacket in anticipation of the approaching thaw, they will find that their options have multiplied.

River park could catapult Old Cullowhee revitalization

Champions of Cullowhee revitalization are chipping away at a lofty plan to create a vibrant college downtown centered on the banks of the Tuckasegee River in Old Cullowhee.

Tuckasegee River revival: Demolition of Dillsboro dam restores aquatic life

In the two years since the Dillsboro Dam was torn down, the Tuckasegee River has become home to a growing number of aquatic species, from mussels to insects to fish, as natural river habitat has been restored.

“We’re certainly glad that it’s gone,” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Mark Cantrell said last week. “The response was immediate.”

Duke Energy demolished the 12-foot high, 310-foot long dam in February 2010 as environmental mitigation for several other larger dams it operates in the region. Jackson County battled for seven years to keep the dam. It wanted to make the dam a centerpiece of a new public park and promenade, complete with walking paths, benches, fishing areas and river access. Plus, the county argued the dam was historically important to the community.

Duke, however, succeeded in removing the small and ancient dam as compensation for using the Tuck in its lucrative hydropower operations, which net the utility millions annually.

Duke’s contention that the river would be better off environmentally without the Dillsboro dam does seem to have come true, according to Cantrell.

“What we’re seeing now is the rebirth of that section of river and a confirmation of the decision to remove it. There’s no question about it — if you are an angler, boater, fish or bug, the Tuckasegee River is better with the Dillsboro Dam removed,” he said.

Jackson County trout fisherman Craig Green said that he supported the removal of the dam and has been happy to see the river return to its natural free-flowing state.

“Recovery is a strange word — it wasn’t that things were bad, but clearly the dam removal has enhanced the flow for the fish to move back and forth,” said Green, who is a past president of the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River.


A tourist attraction

Cantrell described the physical shape of the former river as coming back in “a really impressive” manner.

The dam had turned a nearly mile-long stretch of the river behind it into a slow-moving backwater. The backwater was 310 feet wide — the same width as the dam — but the natural river bed is just 50 or so feet wide.

To Mark Singleton, a paddler in Sylva, the removal of the dam “was like unwrapping a big old Christmas present.” He couldn’t wait to see what the river’s natural contour would be like once it returned to its true form.

With the dam gone, boaters discovered a natural rock ledge below the surface where the dam used to be. The ledge doesn’t deter experienced kayakers, he said, but it is a bit too challenging for beginning boaters to use, so most bypass that section.

“It doesn’t get paddled a lot,” said Singleton, the director of American Whitewater, a national paddling and river advocacy group based in Sylva.

As part of the mitigation, Duke Energy was required to build a public river access just upstream from the former dam site. On one side of the river, there is a parking area, restrooms and a boat put-in. On the other side is a more primitive parking lot used mainly by fishermen.

James Jackson, owner of Tuckasegee Outfitters, said the removal of the dam and the subsequent growth in visitors coming to raft has been measureable. He estimated yearly business growth of 10 to 15 percent in terms of visitation.

“I think it is one of the larger tourist attractions in Jackson County,” Jackson said of rafting on the Tuckasegee.


The recovery to date

By removing Dillsboro Dam, river species that had vacated the mile-long backwater behind the dam have now returned.

“One of a dam’s great impacts on a river is changing the area behind it from a free-flowing river to a reservoir, typically unsuitable habitat for most native stream species,” Cantrell said.

Cantrell said the dam acted as a barrier for a number of fish species, some that needed to go upriver to spawn. The sluggish water previously held behind the dam also acted as a barrier to certain fish, he said.

Twice a year in 2008, 2010 and 2011, biologists such as Cantrell monitored fish and other aquatic life, providing a before-and-after picture of how dam removal affected the river, especially at the site of the former backwater.

A species considered foremost during dam removal discussions was the Appalachian elktoe, a federally endangered mussel found only in Western North Carolina and a sliver of East Tennessee. The elktoe did not exist in the pooled-up backwater behind the dam, but monitoring has now found more than 140 elktoe mussels in the stretch, a sign the previously bisected population will reconnect, strengthening its long-term viability.

Before removal, the reservoir area was home to a diminished variety of macroinvertebrates. These insects, crayfish, and other animals without backbones form much of the life in a stream ecosystem. Just more than a year after the removal, macroinvertebrate diversity had increased, on par with sites upstream and downstream of the reservoir site. Among macroinvertebrates, biologists often pay special attention to mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies, which tend to be sensitive to water quality and are indicators of stream health.

Following removal, the diversity of these three insect groups increased dramatically in the former reservoir area — from a monitoring low of only two types in October 2008 to a high of 40 in May 2011. Using macroinvertebrate numbers and diversity as a measure of stream health, their return lifted this stretch of river from a “poor” quality rating in 2008 to a “good” ranking in May 2011.

“It all seems to be right on track,” Cantrell said.

As expected, fish diversity has responded somewhat more slowly to the dam removal, though biologists have noted the fish community is shifting to one typical of a Western North Carolina river, and the number of fish species dependent on flowing water is increasing. Additionally, in May 2011, biologists found an olive darter, a species of conservation concern for state and federal biologists, upstream of the dam site for the first time. The discovery could mean the fish took advantage of the dam’s removal to expand its range into upstream habitat.

Biologists also made an encouraging discovery downstream of the dam site. For several days in 2008 and 2009, biologists scoured the river downstream of the dam searching for mussels. They uncovered 1,137 Appalachian elktoes, which were all systematically tagged and moved upstream, away from potential harm from the demolition.

“Regarding the health and well-being of the Tuckasegee River, removing Dillsboro Dam has been a success,” said Hugh Barwick, Duke Energy biologist who managed the dam removal and biological monitoring. “The removal was a positive step in improving aquatic life in the Tuckasegee River in the vicinity of the former dam and reservoir.”

When the kingfishers return

Belted kingfishers are one of my favorite birds, so much so that I wrote a poem years ago about anticipating their return to our creek each spring titled “Kingfishers Return.” A pair fishes along the small creek on our property during the breeding season. In winter they move downstream to the Tuckasegee River and Lake Fontana, although the male will make infrequent appearances, probably to maintain control of his hunting territory. Each March they return for good, raising a ruckus as they fly over our cove with rattling calls that are a part of their mating ritual.

With most bird species, the male is usually the more conspicuous. The female kingfisher is an exception, however, having a chestnut breast band in addition to the gray one shared by the male. Because she broods her young deep in the ground, the female’s maternal duties don’t make her an easy target for predators. She has no real need for the sort of subdued protective coloration characteristic of female cardinals, towhees, and numerous other bird species. Her decorative breast band makes her one of the few female birds in the world with plumage more colorful than her mate.

If you have kingfishers that are active in your vicinity from March into early summer, look for their nesting dens. Situated in a steep bank, the entrance is about the size of a baseball. If it’s being used, there will be two grooves at the base of the hole where the birds’ feet drag as they plunge headfirst, in full flight, into the opening. The tunnel leading to the nesting cavity may be from three to 15 feet in length. Kingfishers have toes that are fused together, which help them excavate more efficiently. Obviously designed to prevent access by predators, these nesting dens can be located some distance from water, often in roadway cutbanks or where there has been excavation around a building site.

It’s not surprising that such a conspicuous bird would have a place in Cherokee bird lore. They composed stories that accounted for the kingfisher’s fishing tactics and incorporated the bird into their medicinal ceremonies. One can learn about the natural world by direct observation or from scientific studies. Or you can come to another sort of understanding by paying attention to the lore handed down by the Native Americans.

When James Mooney was collecting Cherokee lore here in Western North Carolina during the 1880s, he recorded two accounts of how the kingfisher (“jatla” in Cherokee) got its bill. Some of the old men told him the animals decided to give the bird a better bill because it was so poorly equipped to make its living as a water bird. “So they made him a fish-gig and fastened it on in front of his mouth.”

A second version Mooney recorded was that the bill was a gift from the benevolent Little People, the Cherokee equivalent of Irish leprechauns. They had observed a kingfisher using a spear-shaped fish as a lance to kill a blacksnake that was preying upon a bird’s nest. So they rewarded him his own spear-shaped bill.

This outsized bill accounts for the kingfisher’s success as a fisherman. One of the prettiest sights in the bird world is that of a kingfisher hovering over the riffles in a small stream before plunging headfirst underwater after its prey. Its success rate is phenomenal.

Before going fishing, the Cherokees evoked the kingfisher in magical formulas that would hopefully insure equal success.

 

Kingfisher’s Return

Belted kingfishers are permanent residents of the southern mountains, wintering along the larger waterways that do not often freeze over. In early spring, they reappear on smaller creeks within individual breeding territories.

 

Rosy maple hazes tree line.

Catkins pendant over creek.

Hepatica glows in leaf-litter.

 

For days now you have been

watching & waiting.

But not till you are least prepared is she suddenly there …

sculling upstream with swift strokes

rattling the morning into being

weaving her territory with sound

painting the air blue-gray and rust-brown

as her kind has for so many thousand years.

 

She is beyond all thinking

instinctively keen to a fuller world

than you or I could ever hope …

but if she should notice she notices

that you scribble the rocky soil ...

if she should expect, she expects failure of you

for she is the intuitive gardener of those more subtle

regions: the magic water &

the clear flowing air.

 

If she ever remembers she remembers

the camps laid here so long ago and

the darker people who also worried

the dirt & also shouted with joy

into the sunrise at the glory

of those flashing wings!

 

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Add acreage to your spiritual landscape

Lots of folks like to study those molded relief maps of the region, the ones that show the upraised contours of the mountain ranges. Some have even pieced together the maps for the Southern Blue Ridge Province from Southwestern Virginia to North Georgia as wall hangings, making it possible to contemplate in miniature the glorious terrain we call home.

It’s pleasurable to sit in an easy chair on a rainy day and ponder the way the ridges join or meditate over how they might have looked before eons of erosion wore them down into their present configuration. Even more rewarding is a venture to a local vista for a panoramic look-see at the real thing.

In one sense, of course, high vistas are places that enable us to rise above our everyday humdrum existence and take in grand scenery, even when we don’t know exactly what we’re looking at. As one writer aptly phrased it, “There’s wonder and delight up there ... elbow room for the soul ... all you have to do is suspend judgment and analysis long enough simply to be there, on the mountain, experiencing it.”

Well, no one would want to fail to take in the beauty or be exhilarated, but we also shouldn’t forget that Blue Ridge vistas are windows that allow us to see and comprehend more truly. A little “analysis” from time to time won’t hurt.

On a clear day, you can observe the bare bones of the land and come to a fuller understanding of the exact lay of the land. The thoughtful choice of a series of strategic vistas in your particular section of the Blue Ridge will enable you to observe just where the major ranges abut and how the peaks, spurs, gaps, upland valleys, streams, rock cliffs, gorges, grassy balds and other topographical features fall into place. You will come away with a more precise notion of your place in the world.

Because we’ve lived in the Tuckasegee River valley on the southern edge of the Smokies for the last 40 or so years, my wife and I have concentrated our attention on the interior portion of the Southern Blue Ridge Province from the Great Smokies on the west and north, to the Nantahalas in the south, and the Balsams in the east. One of our greatest satisfactions while driving or walking is being able to look up and recognize specific peaks and ranges by name, to know how they interconnect and relate to the remote cove we live in. They have become old friends. Each new lookout visited, each new mountain range recognized by its distinctive shape adds acreage to our spiritual landscape.

Among our favorite vistas are Wayah Bald (5,342 feet) in the Nantahalas, Waterrock Knob (6,292 feet) in the Plott Balsams along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Clingman’s Dome (6,643 feet) on the high divide of the Smokies along the N.C.-Tenn. state lines. All three can be reached directly by vehicle within a single day. When it’s clear, one can easily see the 30 or so miles from each of these vantage points to the other two corners in what is a vast triangle. This triangulation technique allows an observer to view a given terrain from various directions and fit together landscape in an efficient manner.

Waterrock Knob is a fun place to visit because it attracts such a mix of visitors: drive-by tourists looking for the next overlook; thoughtful tourists savoring a special spot; plant enthusiasts seeking out species restricted to the northern hardwood and spruce-fir forests (yellow birch, spreading wood fern, mountain ash, etc.); birders looking for high-elevation species (ravens, golden-crowned kinglets, winter wrens, etc.); frisbee-catching college students; sunset and sunrise watchers; hikers, walkers, and strollers; and so on. I like remote, difficult-to-access spots, but I also like places where a diverse gathering of people are having fun. I like to watch them go about their chosen activities.

Just last week, I found out about the upcoming “Blue Ridge Parkway: Celebrating Heritage and Communities” event that will take place this coming Saturday at Waterrock Knob. Nevertheless, I wanted to support the event if possible. So I contacted BRP ranger Pam Mann and offered to do a nature walk and talk of about 45 minutes duration starting at 3 p.m. I’ll talk some about the geologic-geographic setting. I’ll have with me a handout for the field guides I use for general natural history as well as for trees, shrubs, vines, ferns, grasses and wildflowers in Western North Carolina. (And I’ll also bring copies of the actual books and source materials). Then we’ll go walking (slowly) and see what we may see. I hope that you will join me in support of one of our great national treasures.        

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

After a decade of debate, Duke’s dams on the Tuck get federal approval

Duke Energy has received a new 30-year permit to operate its five hydroelectric dams in Jackson County, which could pave the way for new economic and recreational opportunities along the Tuckasegee River.

Kayaking for several days a year on the upper reaches, for instance, with the power company agreeing to open up Lake Glenville Dam for water releases into the old streambed. New hiking on a future trail below Lake Glenville Dam down to the Paradise Falls area. Nine new river-access areas — including a portage — around Cullowhee Dam near Western Carolina University.

But don’t get too excited. The work could take years to complete, easily up to a decade or more.

“There’s tremendous work involved with the implementation of the license,” said Mark Singleton, a member of the stakeholder groups and executive director of American Whitewater, a national nonprofit headquartered in Sylva that promotes river conservation, access and safety.

Duke District Manager Fred Alexander also indicated the work isn’t over.

“We’re pleased to be at this stage, not the end, but the beginning of the end,” he said.

Duke must get new permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission every 30 or so years to operate the dams. The process, known as relicensing, spells out what mitigation Duke must conduct to offset the environmental impacts of the hydro network.

Debate raged for nearly 10 years over how much Duke owes Jackson County in exchange for harnessing the Tuckasegee River with numerous dams. And Ken Westmoreland, the former county manager who spearheaded the county’s long fight against Duke, said Jackson has gotten the short end of the stick.

“We felt Jackson County’s citizens were being shortchanged in the long run,” Westmoreland said. “We knew in comparable relicensing across the country, other jurisdictions received substantially more than Duke has offered, which is basically a pittance.”

Westmoreland led the county into a protracted and costly legal fight in hopes of exacting more from Duke. Since the centerpiece of Duke’s mitigation was tearing down the Dillsboro dam, that was what the fight centered on, but saving the dam wasn’t the county’s primary objective, Westmoreland said.

“It was trying to find a method to get Duke to ante up considerably more in funds over the long haul for multiple purposes — recreation, stream-bank restoration and other conservation endeavors the county was interested in,” Westmoreland said.

Duke prevailed in the end when Jackson gave up on its battle, and within weeks of that decision the power company took out the dam. Restoring free flowing river will help threatened aquatic species, improve river habitat and set the stage for a river shore park.

Enhanced recreation opportunities along the Tuckasegee could help the county’s economic big picture, too.

“Quality recreation opportunities drive economic opportunities,” Singleton said.

For instance, additional put-ins will cater more to the increasing driftboat fishing traffic being seen on sections of the Tuckasegee.

Re-licensing for dams on the Nantahala River area — these were for the Tuckasegee River watershed — are expected soon.

By Quintin Ellison & Becky Johnson

 

A Duke timeline

• 1964: A court case results in hydro projects in the U.S. being placed under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

• 1980-1981: The original 25-year licenses on the hydroelectric projects on the Tuckasegee and Nantahala rivers are issued to Nantahala Power and Light.

• 1988: Duke Energy purchases Nantahala Power and Light from Alcoa, a 1,729-square-mile service area, with 14 dams on five rivers serving 11 hydroelectric generating plants.

• 1999: Duke starts a public involvement process to develop a mitigation package as part of the next relicensing process. Two stakeholder teams were formed for the Tuckasegee and Nantahala, comprised of environmentalists, paddlers, fishermen and local government leaders.

• 2003: Stakeholders agreed, although not unanimously, to a mitigation package. The centerpiece is removing the Dillsboro Dam. Jackson County is among the parties who dissent. Macon County, the town of Franklin, and Dillsboro express dissatisfaction as well.

• 2004: Jackson County begins a legal fight against Duke, appealing various aspects of the relicensing at every step of the way.

• 2007: FERC sides with Duke in saying that removing the Dillsboro Dam, built in 1927, will suffice as mitigation by restoring a section of free-flowing river, reconnecting habitat and providing river recreation.

• January 2010: Jackson County concedes it has lost the battle against Duke.

• February 2010: The dam is removed, clearing the way for new licenses to be approved and promised mitigation to get under way.

• May 2011: FERC formally approves re-licensing agreements for Duke’s hydro projects on the Tuckasegee River.

Sediment foils irrigation systems at worst possible time

For farmers who rely on the Tuckasegee River to irrigate their crops, a brutal summer heat wave and dry spell took a turn for the worst this month when too much mud in the river forced them to shut down their watering systems.

During the past three weeks, tomato farmers in the Thomas Valley near Whittier have been unable at times to run drip irrigation equipment to counter drought conditions because sediment in the Tuckasegee River was clogging their pumps.

“With the 90-degree days, it’s really critical that these farms get drip irrigation,” said William Shelton, who runs a vegetable farm in Thomas Valley. “That river’s our lifeblood when it comes to these crops. Particularly during drought.”

Tomatoes are 85 percent water. When the plants are overstressed, they will actually take water back from the fruit, ruining the crop.

Kent Cochran, who farms 20 acres of tomatoes just up the road from Shelton, doesn’t understand how the river can be full of mud when there is no rain.

“When it rains, there’s going to be mud for a day or two but that’s not really an issue,” Cochran said. “We’ve been needing the water bad these past three weeks, and sometimes we go over there and it’s clear, and other days it’s mud.”

Robbie Shelton, the Jackson County erosion control officer, has been equally perplexed. Shelton’s job includes monitoring construction sites that could dump sediment into the river.

Last week, Robbie Shelton traveled up and down the river in search of an answer to the farmers’ questions. The focus of his investigation was Duke Energy’s efforts to restore the streambed above and below the former site of the Dillsboro Dam.

Shelton took pictures during the first week of July that showed the river was clear above the dam and increasingly turbid below.

“The Tuck upstream of the dam is clear. It’s downstream that it’s muddy,” Shelton said.

Shelton said during the drought, the river was increasingly muddy as it moved downstream towards Barker’s Creek.

“The closer you get to Thomas Valley the dingier it gets,” Shelton said. “It’s a progression. I’ve tried to find a source, and there’s not been one that’s been found.”

Nate Darnell, who works an 8-acre tomato field in Thomas Valley as part of his North Face Farm, has tried to bring some levity to an otherwise worrisome situation.

“As a farmer, I have to deal with a lot of runoff regulations, and it strikes me as ironic that the upstream runoff from development is causing us the problems now,” Darnell said

The restoration of the stream bank at the former Dillsboro Dam site is monitored daily by personnel from Duke Energy in accordance with the Clean Water Act and overseen by the N.C. Division of Water Quality.

Duke has been monitoring turbidity below its work zone. It has not exceeded state standards. In fact it has been well below them, according to Duke spokesperson Jason Walls.

“The turbidity and the sediment in the river are coming in from other places,” Walls said. “We feel confident that our operations aren’t increasing the levels of sediment.”

If the dam site isn’t causing the sediment, then what is?

That’s the question Cochran and Darnell are asking. Darnell has observed that on dry days the river gets turbid in the middle of the day.

“It was coming on down here about midday, anywhere between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.,” Darnell said. “I really can’t give you a good reason, but I could speculate.”

So far this summer, Darnell estimates he has lost between one and three tomatoes from each of his plants. By the end of the season, those losses could add up to $25,000 in lost crops.

Darnell said farmers are constantly dealing with loss, whether from drought or insects or crows, but having the cause be the river that is the valley’s lifeblood is mystifying.

“The river’s not always going to be clear, but we really shouldn’t have to fight it during drought,” Darnell said.

Land sales challenge basis for vested rights, some argue

When the 3,500-acre Legasus development won exemptions from Jackson County’s development regulations two years ago, it raised the hackles of residents in the Tuckasegee community who claimed the hard-fought growth protections they ardently supported had failed when needed the most.

Now the disgruntled residents have raised the rallying cry again, this time contending that the mega development should be stripped of its vested rights after selling off portions of the land, whether through foreclosure or a voluntary move to raise cash and pay off debt.

“There are so many questions that have come up recently with foreclosures and land sales that totally change the dynamics of what the county granted Legasus vested rights for,” said Thomas Crowe, a member of the United Neighbors of Tuckaseigee.

Vested rights are an exemption intended to protect developers caught mid-stream by new ordinances. When Jackson’s new ordinances came along two years ago, Legasus argued they’d already spent a great deal designing a master plan and marketing the development to prospective buyers and should be allowed to proceed. Jackson County ultimately awarded vested rights to every developer that applied for them.

The Legasus development once called for 1,800 lots on 3,500 acres between Tuckasegee and Glenville spanning five separate tracts. With lot sales falling short of expectations, the company has had to sell off portions — including part of the proposed golf course. It is unclear whether new property owners will join forces with Legasus to carry out the existing development plan or will do their own thing.

“The question arises exactly what kind of rights do the new owners have? Can they come in under the auspices of the vested rights granted to Legasus initially?” Crowe asked. “We want to be on the front end of this new situation.”

A community forum on the issue of vested rights will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 2, and will aim to answer these questions. Attorney DJ Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center will give a presentation and lead the discussion. The forum has been organized by the Western North Carolina Alliance and the United Neighbors of Tuckasegee.

“Those of us in the community as well as the county political leaders need to come up to speed on the whole issue of vested rights because of all the high-end developments here in Jackson County and in particular the Legasus development,” Crowe said.

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