Big water: Retiring American Whitewater director reflects on 18 years of conservation leadership
Mark Singleton was mingling with Outdoor Industry Association colleagues at a 2004 reception in Washington, D.C., when he heard that American Whitewater was looking for a new executive director. It was a moment of destiny. Singleton, now retiring after 18 years leading the organization, had an instant gut response to the news.
“My initial reaction was, ‘Yeah, that’s a hard job. I’m glad I’m not it,’” he said.
In 2004, American Whitewater was entering its 50th year of working to protect and restore America’s whitewater rivers, but it was in serious financial trouble and owed more money than it had in the bank.
“The American Whitewater job was like taking on a struggling 50-year-old startup,” Singleton wrote in an open letter announcing his retirement.
Singleton, meanwhile, had a fulfilling position managing retail operations and marketing at the Nantahala Outdoor Center , where he’d worked since the early 1990s. He didn’t need a new job.
But then David Ennis, an American Whitewater board member, urged him to consider applying. Singleton declined, but when Ennis brought it up a few weeks later, Singleton agreed to at least spend some time going over the organization’s financials.
“We got together a couple of afternoons at his place and sat down and went through organizational financial records,” Singleton said. “I could start to see a way to make things fit together that would work. At the end of the couple days I said, ‘OK, I’ll throw my name in the hat here, and you guys can consider me.”
That fall, Singleton became the leader of American Whitewater.
Righting the boat
Singleton learned to be comfortable with risk from a young age. Born in Micronesia while his parents were working for the U.S. Agency for International Development, his earliest experiences took place on the water.
“My first memory is going out in Truk Lagoon in a foldboat with my dad watching the hammerhead sharks swim below us,” Singleton recalled. “My dad said, ‘Don’t tell your mom we’re doing this.’”
Decades later, the newly minted executive director of American Whitewater faced an entirely different genre of challenge from that proffered by sharks or churning river passages. Instead of a paddle, he held the fate of an organization that had been advocating for the nation’s rivers since before he was born.
Soon after his tenure began, Singleton announced two major changes that he hoped would guide American Whitewater toward financial sustainability. First, the organization would move its headquarters out of the pricey Washington, D.C. area. Secondly, the structure would shift from a staff charged with overseeing projects nationwide. The nonprofit broke its programmatic work into regions, each of which had a staff member located there.
“It makes such a huge difference when people are seeing you shopping in the local grocery store or picking up your kids from school,” Singleton said. “The things that make you part of a community help to build some basis of trust in what you represent.”
The decision to leave D.C. is what eventually led to American Whitewater’s national headquarters landing in Sylva. Soon after taking the job, Singleton reached out to various economic development entities and universities that he thought might be interested in bringing the nonprofit and its river conservation efforts to their community.
The reply from Western Carolina University proved the most compelling. The university offered American Whitewater a year of free office space co-located with its economic development unit. When the university had to reclaim the space for other programs, American Whitewater found a new spot in downtown Sylva, a sublease from The Smoky Mountain News, and has remained there ever since.
Singleton makes on-the-water memories with his daughters. Donated photo
Staying the course
The timing was fortuitous. In 2004, American Whitewater was heavily involved in negotiations surrounding the relicensing agreements Duke Energy was brokering with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for hydroelectric projects on the Nantahala and Tuckasegee rivers, and it was also leading efforts to get rid of the dam that once spanned the Tuckasegee River at Dillsboro.
“It made a lot of sense in terms of our project work to overlap where we had a really active mix of projects that were taking place at that time,” Singleton said.
Relicensing talks had already been going on for half a decade at the point Singleton joined American Whitewater, but the process was less than halfway over. FERC approved a 30-year relicensing agreement for the Tuckasegee River in 2011 and for the Nantahala in 2012 — countless public meetings, private conversations and courtroom back-and-forth preceded those decisions.
Recreational river access was at the forefront of those discussions. The purpose of a hydroelectric project is to produce energy and profit for the electric company, but people need rivers for more than just energy generation. The final relicensing agreements stipulated a set of mitigations to offset the dam’s impact to the river and downstream communities. These included a string of river put-ins along the Tuckasegee where before there was no access at all, a 0.8-mile hiking trail from Lake Glenville down to High Falls, special whitewater releases to create unique paddling opportunities on both rivers and removal of the defunct Dillsboro Dam.
American Whitewater was a key participant in that process, a stakeholder negotiating in good faith with Duke Energy and other parties to advocate for river flows and accesses. It was a contentious process at the time, but Singleton is proud of the outcome. While some people — including the Jackson County Commissioners, who sued over the issue — were opposed to removing the dam, Singleton says that these days, he never hears anybody say they wish they had the dam back. Instead, they talk about how great the Tuck is for fishing .
By negotiating for the string of put-ins and other access points that now dot the river, he said, American Whitewater helped create a new tourism product that the county’s tourism industry now profits off of.
“The whole string of the Tuckasegee is now connected with access points and paddling opportunities, a county greenway , hiking trails,” he said. “It’s this whole integrated mix of outdoor recreation products. It goes beyond just paddling.”
As the relicensing wrapped up, a new public process began. For the last decade, American Whitewater has focused on ensuring its goals for the region’s rivers are reflected in the final Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan .
“It’s really challenging work,” Singleton said. “You spend a decade in a room with other constituents and stakeholders trying to hammer out what appropriate management of public lands looks like in the region. And then when you get to something that you think is workable, you give it to the Forest Service and they then cherry pick what they want to do.”
American Whitewater, like other members of the Nantahala Pisgah Forest Partnership, was disappointed in multiple aspects of the final forest plan, issued in January. It differed in important ways from the proposal the partnership, made up of diverse and oftentimes oppositional interest groups, had agreed to support. In addition to the objections put forth by the group as a whole, American Whitewater issued its own specific set of objections, mainly pertaining to paddling rules on the Chattooga River and the Forest Service’s decision against recommending several high-quality waterways for Wild and Scenic Rivers designation.
The Forest Service is currently going through an objection resolution process, in which it will meet with stakeholders and attempt to resolve issues with the final plan. Singleton said he feels “a combination of cautious optimism that the Forest Service will see what the right thing to do is and genuine concern about the planning process and what it takes to go through these things.”
At the end of June, Singleton will retire after 18 years with American Whitewater. Donated photo
Tricky waters ahead
With the relicensing effort in the history books, the forest planning process all but done and American Whitewater in financial working order, Singleton had a “clear off-ramp” toward retirement. But there are plenty of issues waiting in the wings for the next executive director to tackle.
Chief among them are dams and water rights.
Nationwide, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has inventoried more than 92,000 dams. Of those, about 6,000 no longer serve a viable economic interest, Singleton said. Many are what is referred to in the trade as LDDs — little dinky dams. These small, aging structures aren’t typically fulfilling any economic purpose and, in Singleton’s view, should be removed.
“But who’s going to pay for it? This is the real problem,” he said. “These things are expensive to remove, and who pays the cost?”
On a national level, American Whitewater has long advocated for increased public funding for dam removal projects, and the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act last year marked a “big, lasting legacy” in that effort, Singleton said. The law appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars — more money than ever before — for dam removal.
It’s not a discussion relegated to small dams, or to dams in Western North Carolina and the Southeast.
In the Colorado River Basin, Lake Powell at Glen Canyon is currently well below capacity and expected to drop even further, to the point that there won’t be enough water in the reservoir to produce power, Singleton said. Below Lake Powell is Lake Mead, which is also well below capacity. The situation is not predicted to improve in the foreseeable future, leading to some big questions for society to consider in the years ahead.
“Do you remove one to fill the other to a level that’s more like what it was designed for? These are huge, huge societal questions that organizations like American Whitewater will play a part in, but we’re not going to be able to answer the question,” Singleton said. “Society has to answer the question.”
The related topics of water allocation and water rights are also likely to become increasingly important in the coming decades, Singleton said. The Colorado River Basin, for example, is becoming increasingly arid, and as that basin continues to dry up, conversations about who gets to use water and what they can use it for will become increasingly critical.
Right now, these are questions that mostly affect the western states. But Singleton believes they’ll eventually interrogate the east, too.
“While these are western conversations primarily now, they could very easily become a national conversation moving into the future,” he said.
The challenges are real, and addressing them will require a light-on-the-feet attitude from the organization’s next director — whomever that may be. But if Singleton has learned anything in the last 18 years, it’s the danger of letting challenge be a deterrent to opportunity.
“If I had known what I learned quickly after taking the job when I was looking at the job, I never would have applied. And not applying for the job, I would have missed out on the greatest career opportunity of my life,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a real gift not to know what you need to know.”
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All the best to Mark and family!