The last stroke: Forest Service ruling ends Chattooga paddling debate

decades-long debate over paddling rules on the Upper Chattooga River has come to a close after the appearance of a final ruling in November 2023 took some stakeholders by surprise. 

Southside story: Bid awarded in contentious timber project

Five years after it first proposed the controversial Southside Timber Project, the U.S. Forest Service has awarded a timber bid to cut the first 98 acres of 317 acres to be harvested — earning sharp criticism from environmental groups who say the project will destroy rare old-growth forest. 

Quantifying solitude: Building a lockbox around the Chattooga River

The forest service has pledged to ensure a solitary wilderness experience on the upper Chattooga River, even if it means imposing limits on the number of recreational users who can enter the area, including day hikers.

If such steps are taken, the Upper Chattooga would join a small handful of elite wilderness settings in North America where use is managed so stringently that permits are required simply for day hiking.

The forest service doesn’t believe use has reached that level yet, but intends to monitor encounters among wilderness users and put the brakes on if a certain threshold is reached. That threshold for solitude is subjective, yet rooted in social science, said Tony White, the manager for planning and recreation in the Francis/Marion National Forest. Research has measured perceptions among hikers, backpackers, fishermen and paddlers to determine how many encounters are too many.

The upper Chattooga is hardly heavily used. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, which is exactly why it has been singled out for the rigorous management.

“We are setting the stage for maintaining that solitude,” said White. “It won’t stay the same unless we put some of those limits in place.”

It’s a noble goal, yet a difficult one, said Wayne Jenkins, executive director of Georgia Forest Watch, which has played a watchdog role along the Chattooga River.

“At what point does it no longer feel wild? We are very challenged to legally quantify experience and emotions, which are all wrapped up in how we relate to nature,” Jenkins said. “How many groups would you need to run into before you start feeling like this place is crowded, that I am not having the experience I was seeking? There is no magic number.”

Yet the forest service has attempted to identify the magic numbers, which vary among user groups (see chart).

Plans to start monitoring encounters in the upper Chattooga River corridor were borne out of a long-running debate over paddling. At the insistence of paddlers, the forest service has spent the past four years studying whether to lift a long-standing paddling ban.

Hikers and fishermen claimed their wilderness experience would be degraded if paddlers are allowed on the river. Paddlers, however, pointed out the hypocrisy of putting restrictions on them but not on other users.

The result is a plan to limit encounters for all users — paddlers, hikers and fishermen alike. While the paddling debate has captured headlines, White believes the forest service’s larger strategy of protecting solitude is noteworthy.

“I think a lot of people are missing that element,” White said. “To me, that is such a critical decision that we are drawing a line on those encounter levels.”

The forest service hasn’t figured out exactly how it will monitor encounters between users, however. A workshop with paddlers, hikers and fishermen will be held this fall to hopefully arrive at a strategy.

White said his idea is to engage a third-party to monitor recreation levels rather than relying on users themselves to report on how many encounters they are having. The debate over paddling has been so passionate, White fears opposing sides wouldn’t trust the data reported by the other side.

If hikers reported they saw five groups of paddlers — one more than the allowed threshold for maintaining a wilderness experience — the paddling community would question whether the hikers were artificially inflating the numbers in order to impose a permit system on paddlers.

“We need some independent collection. People will tend to accuse each other of making up things,” White said. “Early in this process we really need to make sure instead of creating a situation where people stay divided we create a situation where they start coming back together.”


Unprecedented limits

Only places like the Boundary Waters, a canoe Mecca in Minnesota, and Denali National Park in Alaska, attempt to impose limits on the number of people who can set foot in an area on a given day.

The concern over encounters is an asymmetrical one, according to Mark Singleton, the director of American Whitewater, a national paddling advocacy group with its head office in Sylva.

While hikers and fishermen object to spying a paddler in their midst, the feeling isn’t mutual, Singleton said.

“If I am boating and I see a hiker that has no bearing,” Singleton said. The same goes for a fisherman.

“I paddle over to the other side of the river, float by, wave and that’s it,” Singleton said.

But, if preserving solitude is a stated mission along the Chattooga, Singleton supports limits being placed on all users rather than picking one to keep out while allowing a free-for-all for the others.

“That was one of our concerns, that this resource is getting hammered but the only management in place was a ban on boating,” Singleton said.

It’s one of the few areas where opponents seem to agree.

“American Whitewater had a valid point,” said Buzz Williams with the Chattooga Conservancy, which wanted to see the boating ban stay in place. “If you are going to ban one use you have to rein in the damage from overuse by campers, hikers, et cetera.”

But Williams questioned whether the mission is possible, and whether the limits will ultimately be arbitrary. For one, the perception of encounters is constantly shifting. When Williams started paddling the Chattooga in 1968, his experience was diminished if he saw anyone else at all. The entire river probably only saw 200 paddlers a year.

“If you ask people now, the majority of which are young male boaters from Atlanta who are dying to escape the beltway, they would think 80,000 people a year going down the river is not that big a deal,” Williams said. “Carrying capacity changes and their perception of encounters changes over time and between user groups.”

Limiting encounters comes with a price, however. While those who do venture into the upper Chattooga will be guaranteed a solitary wilderness experience, not everyone who wants to go may get to go.

“People aren’t willing to give those things up very easily, but my idea of conservation is seeing the wisdom of giving up something to protect the greater good,” Williams said.

It’s especially important to protect those remaining wild places as population growth and sprawl create more and more demand for solitude, Williams said. But the answer isn’t always easy.

“How do we share the resources in a way we can break way from our hectic lives and get that renewal and then go back to our hectic lives?” Jenkins asked.

Paddlers get restricted access to Chattooga

A long-standing ban on paddling on the Upper Chattooga River will be lifted this winter, but not without a host of restrictions designed to limit the likelihood of hikers and fishermen encountering the paddlers.

Paddlers will only be allowed to paddle during high water following big rainstorms when fishermen generally stay home. Paddling will further be limited to the three winter months of December, January and February, when hikers are less likely to be around. And of the upper 21 miles where paddling is currently banned, only seven miles will be opened to paddlers, with the rest still off limits.

The forest service’s decision to allow limited paddling theoretically ends a heated debate that has pitted competing recreational uses on the Chattooga River, a Wild and Scenic river that tumbles off the Blue Ridge escarpment south of Cashiers.

As the forest service promised early in the process, no side is completely satisfied with the outcome.

“It is a narrow victory at best, but it is a slight improvement over no boating,” said Mark Singleton, the director of American Whitewater, a national paddling advocacy group headquartered in Sylva. “This is the first time the public will have legal access to that upper river in 33 years.”

Fishermen, hikers, birdwatchers, campers and environmentalists have been protective of the river, fearing paddlers will ruin the solitude currently enjoyed in the remote upper reaches of the Chattooga. Opponents further argued that an onslaught of kayakers will destroy the fragile ferns, lush mosses and rich plant diversity that characterize the remote Chattooga headwaters.

“It is going to cause a lot of damage to one of the last remote places in the Chattooga and last places you can have a remote experience in keeping with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act,” said Buzz Williams, director of the Chattooga Conservancy.

However, with the release of its decision last week the forest service disputed the notion of lasting environmental impacts by paddlers and instead said the debate boils down to maintaining a sense of solitude and minimizing conflicts between competing user groups.

That admission by the forest service was welcome news to Singleton.

“This is a tide turner to hear the forest service acknowledge that boating has no impact on the upper river,” Singleton said. “To get that recognition is a significant sea change in the dialogue around the Upper Chattooga.”

It lifted the veil off what paddlers had claimed all along: the hikers and fishermen wanted the river all to themselves.

“Specifically it becomes one type of user not wanting to see another type of user on this resource,” Singleton said.

Williams, a boater himself, disagreed. He said his concerns are rooted in protecting the river’s pristine ecology. Everyone’s desire to stake a claim to the Upper Chattooga will degrade the environmental features that make it special, Williams said.

“It’s called the tragedy of the commons,” Williams said.


How we got here

The forest service was pushed to reconsider its paddling ban by American Whitewater, which appealed to the highest level of the forest service several years ago claiming the ban was unjustified. The higher-ups ordered the local forest service to conduct an environmental analysis to assess the paddling ban. When the local forest service was slow to get started, American Whitewater further prodded them with a lawsuit.

Since the river splits three states, the analysis was a joint effort of the Sumter, Chattahoochee and Nantahala national forests. The long-awaited decision to lift the ban, albeit with stringent limits, was announced last week.

Opponents of paddling on the Upper Chattooga said the forest service kowtowed to paddling interests.

“At some point the agency has to stand and draw a line in the sand and say ‘We think this is fair, and we are not going to just react because there is one user group who wants to push that use into every nook and cranny,’” said Wayne Jenkins, executive director of Georgia Forest Watch.

Jim Whitehurst, a hiker in Highlands, said the forest service was acting out of self-preservation rather than an objective decision that puts the river and environment first.

“They know the paddlers are a litigious bunch, so the forest service has bent over backwards to accommodate them,” said Whitehurst.

But the forest service may not be out of the woods yet. Williams said the Chattooga Conservancy is contemplating an appeal of the decision, and if that doesn’t work, a lawsuit isn’t out of the question.

Williams said the forest service decision was “arbitrary and capricious” — setting the stage with key legalese. In particular, Williams questions the particular stretch that has been opened to boating.

Of the 21-mile stretch previously off-limits to boaters, the lower seven miles are the most prized by fishermen. The forest service appeased the fishermen by keeping the paddling ban along the lower seven miles, and instead opened up the middle seven miles.

But the middle seven miles are more fragile ecologically and more remote, providing a better opportunity for the solitary wilderness experience. Williams would rather see the section opened to boaters shifted down river.

Williams compared the forest service to a dealer in a card game. It had to give up just enough cards so paddlers would fold and go home satisfied, yet not relinquish so much that the trout fishermen rise up.

“They threw American Whitewater a small bone with a little bit of meat on it to see if they would back off,” Williams said. “It was two large powerful interest groups pushing around a weak agency to arrive at an arbitrary decision.”


No cap on boaters

Initially, the forest service proposed a cap on the number of boaters who could go down the river on the high-flow days. But in the final decision announced last week, the forest service removed such a cap.

In reality, the number of boaters showing up will likely be self-limiting. When a big rain hits, paddlers will have short notice to high tail it to the Chattooga, whether it’s arranging a babysitter or getting off work.

“This isn’t something you can put on your calendar,” Singleton said. “You have to drop what you are doing on a moment’s notice to be able to catch this.”

Singleton said the first couple of years will likely see bigger numbers, simply because paddlers will want to experience a new run that’s been off-limits for three decades. After that, numbers will ratchet back down to perhaps 20 or 30 boaters on those select high-water days.

The Chattooga’s long-distance from any major metro area will further limit numbers, Singleton said.

The forest service agreed.

“There really wasn’t a need to put a hard cap on the boaters,” White said. “There are no caps on any other users, so you could make an assumption that 10,000 hikers would show up on one day.”

Of course, that would never happen, White said.

The forest service plans to monitor the number of paddlers, however, and if it seems like too many are showing up, then it will impose a permit system at that point, White said.

Opponents to paddling fear the worst, however.

“Every put-in place will be flooded with kayakers and their equipment and their gear,” Whitehurst said. “There is going to be damage to the environment. They will tear up the fragile vegetation.”

The forest service believes otherwise.

“We did not feel there would be any additional impacts due to the number of boaters allowed on the river each day,” said Monica Schwalbach, acting director of Sumter National Forest in South Carolina.


Making the call

Paddlers will be allowed on the river during those three winter months when the flow reaches 450 cubic feet per second. At that flow, the river is too swift for fishermen anyway, removing the potential for conflicts.

“That is a pretty legitimate dividing line between fishing and boating,” Williams said. “There would be no reason to wet a hook.”

The forest service will install a flow gauge in the river that will transmit real time data to computers. The readings will then be plugged into a hydrology formula to predict whether the magic number of 450 cubic feet per second will likely be reached that day.

While a river begins swelling immediately with rain, it will continue rising even after a storm has quit. Runoff from headwater creeks can take hours to make its way into the main river. Each watershed behaves differently, so a hydrologist will be called on to develop a model for the upper Chattooga. Theoretically, the model will predict whether and when the river will hit the magic boating threshold, based on the river level, how much rain has already fallen and whether more is yet to fall.

But Singleton says it’s not as easy as it sounds. Such a model is somewhat unprecedented and the logistics of implementing such a system will be challenging, Singleton said. Singleton wonders how the cash-strapped agency will manage this added responsibility, especially if the high-flow days fall on the evening or weekend.

The logistics are troubling to all sides of the issue.

“Who decides the water level has hit that magic point?” Jenkins asked. “There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle once it’s out.”

Once the forest service predicts a boatable day is on the horizon and makes the call, it won’t send the eager boaters back home even if the gauge technically stops short of the mark.

“We know we can’t start and stop it once we declare that day it will be a boatable day,” White said.

As for Singleton?

“I am looking forward to a big honking rain storm on Dec. 1,” he said.

Forest Service should let boaters on the Chattooga

The U.S. Forest Service is about to release its opinion on whether to allow boating on the Chattooga River. It’s been a long and complicated battle, but here’s hoping that American Whitewater’s attempt to open the river to kayaking is successful.

Final countdown to the Chattooga decision

There are nine scenarios on the table in the debate over whether paddling should be allowed on the Upper Chattooga. They run the gamut, from a paddling free-for-all to none at all. The scenarios in between limit paddling under various conditions. The forest service most likely will chose one these “compromise” scenarios:

The Chattooga compromise: With solitude at stake, Chattooga recreation to be reined in

A long-awaited decision over paddling on the Upper Chattooga is expected within weeks by the National Forest Service.

Chattooga at the crossroads

A recurring debate between camps in the Chattooga River controversy is how many paddlers would actually come to the river.

The paddling community claims it won’t be very many, nor very often. They say they need at least two days of heavy rains to make paddling feasible — a condition that occurs only rarely, they said.

In truth, boating won’t harm the Chattooga

By Bruce Hare • Guest Columnist

I would like to respond to Mr. James Costa’s letter (March 14, The Smoky Mountain News) expressing his concern about kayaking and canoeing on the headwaters of the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River.

Upper Chattooga River will suffer from boating

By James Costa • Guest Columnist

There has been much discussion in recent weeks regarding the notion of opening the upper Chattooga River to boating. As a biologist and as a longtime resident of the Southern Appalachian region, I have studied the issue for the past several months in order to take an informed position on the potential impact that boating might have on the river and surrounding national forest.

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