Over the past year, the upper Chattooga River has been home to a tug of war between paddlers who want the ban lifted and fishermen, hikers, swimmers and environmentalists who want to keep the paddlers out. Paddlers claim their sport is an accepted form of wilderness recreation, while their opponents claim a paddling free-for-all would ruin the solitude and damage the ecosystem of the upper reaches of the Wild and Scenic River.
The National Forest Service is in the midst of a two-year study of the ban to determine whether it’s justified. The study was prompted at the behest of American Whitewater, a national paddling organization headquartered in Cullowhee.
American Whitewater felt the Forest Service wasn’t taking the study seriously enough, so it simultaneously sued the Forest Service to lift the ban. Several other paddling organizations were party to the lawsuit as well.
The lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge last fall, ruling that American Whitewater was jumping the gun and should wait for the outcome of the study first. American Whitewater appealed, but has now withdrawn that appeal.
“By dismissing our lawsuit as untimely, the judge gave the Forest Service one more chance to do the right thing,” said American Whitewater’s Executive Director Mark Singleton of Swain County. “By withdrawing our appeal, we are giving them that same chance. We are setting aside our legal challenge so that we can work together with the Forest Service to bring nationally consistent river management to the Chattooga, which includes allowing paddling.”
If the outcome of the study doesn’t go their way, paddling organizations are willing to go to court again to gain access to the Chattooga, according to the parties involved in the suit.
American Whitewater withdrew its case following court-ordered mediation sessions with the forest service. A coalition called Friends of the Upper Chattooga is concerned the forest service could have made inappropriate concessions during mediation to get American Whitewater to drop the case.
“American Whitewater’s decision to drop its appeal sounds like good news. But Friends of the Upper Chattooga needs to hear more details about what led them to that decision,” said Joe Gatins, a spokesperson for the group. “The Friends are particularly concerned that the U.S. Forest Service might have had to negotiate this action in the secret mediation sessions that were being held with American Whitewater’s lawyers.”
Despite dismissal of the lawsuit and the withdrawal of the appeal, American Whitewater and its partners in the suit view the case as a success for jumpstarting a more serious study by the forest service.
“Our lawsuit triggered the first environmental review of recreational user capacity on the Chattooga River in more than 30 years,” said Kevin Colburn, AW’s National Stewardship Director. “The Forest Service now has the data it needs to appropriately manage hiking, camping, fishing, paddling, and other wilderness-compliant uses of the river corridor. We will now work with the Forest Service to make sure their new plan allows appropriate recreational enjoyment of this national treasure, while maintaining protections for the river.”