My conclusion? The upper Chattooga watershed area is a unique biological and cultural resource that is likely to suffer significant degradation through the human impacts associated with boating. That the watershed is a valuable biological resource is beyond question. It is a rare example of a wild, high-gradient river coursing through a sizable tract of intact eastern deciduous forest.
Its “wilderness” designation in the Ellicott Rock Wilderness Area also makes the upper Chattooga a valuable cultural resource, an equally rare example of a vast and relatively unimpacted forest that now represents an island in a landscape in various stages of impact and degradation. As a cultural resource, such wilderness areas give people the opportunity to realize profound solitude and contemplation.
Biologically speaking, the landscape of the upper Chattooga provides an astoundingly diverse mosaic of habitat types, from cove and upland forest to rock outcrop and spray cliff communities. The rugged and wet conditions that prevail in this area provide a haven for an assemblage of plant and animal species, including rarities such as tropical-affinity ferns. The area in general, but especially large intact tracts such as the Chattooga watershed, boasts peak or near-peak biodiversity in North America for many taxonomic groups. Most notably, the area is world-renowned for its salamander diversity, and that of its flowering plants.
Opening this area to boat traffic and, more importantly, the related human activity in shuttling boaters, in portaging and in picnicking, will have the inevitable consequence of introducing significant biological threats to the integrity of the forest despite the best intention of many such users. There will be direct degradation by establishing high-use trails (and the elevated incidence of litter and refuse associated with such trails) and indirect degradation through the unintentional introduction of pest species that will secure a foothold in the forest.
Aggressive exotic pest plants like Japanese knotweed, plantain, privet and others tend to be dispersed along trails by human vehicular and foot traffic. Elevated human traffic in the upper Chattooga will almost certainly introduce such pests, ultimately creating “edge effects” via degradation that eats into the adjacent forest. At present, the upper Chattooga watershed can be seen as an ecological core area that acts as a refuge and source population. The fragmentation and edge effects stemming from intensive visitation and use will erode this core area.
A parallel degradation occurs with respect to the cultural value of the upper Chattooga watershed. This “Wild and Scenic River” area holds immense value for what it symbolizes and what it can offer low-impact visitors. The Wilderness Act of 1964 gained wide support because citizens and government leaders recognized that “wildness” and solitude were becoming scarce commodities. The spiritual and aesthetic benefits to be gained from such restricted-access areas are incalculable; opening the upper Chattooga to intensive boating use immediately undermines its value as a place of solitude and contemplation.
I have boated on other rivers in the Southern Appalachians. The outfitters I boated with were conscientious about litter and other matters, but the noise and well-worn portage trails made it clear this was no wilderness experience. Must we leave our footprint absolutely everywhere? I believe that an intent of the Wilderness Act and the Wild and Scenic River Program is to save us from ourselves as much as to preserve the biological integrity of our environment.
We are fortunate to have an abundance of rugged and exciting river stretches in our mountain region, nearly all of which are open to boating. It is far from unreasonable to ask that this now-pristine and biologically significant area remain closed to boating traffic and the related impacts associated with boating.
At a time when the natural landscape of the Southern Appalachians is experiencing accelerated fragmentation through development and recreational pursuits, it is only sensible to safeguard the integrity of the few genuinely large and intact tracts of land remaining. The biological and cultural value of such tracts as the upper Chattooga watershed demand that we act responsibly for ourselves and future generations. Once our forests and rivers are degraded, their recovery is an exceedingly slow process.
(James T. Costa is executive director of the Highlands Biological Station and the H.F. and Katherine P. Robinson Professor of Biology at Western Carolina University, where he has taught genetics, biogeography, environmental biology, bioethics, evolution and conservation biology.)