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Wednesday, 26 October 2016 17:11

Mapping the Tuck: ‘Blue’ Trails project kicks off along the Tuckasegee River

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Western North Carolina is rife with trails and maps to facilitate exploration of the mountain landscape, but an effort is underway to add a new kind of trail to the mix — a blue trail.  

“A hiking trail is a great way to help people explore and discover and connect to the land. A blue trail is a way to allow people to discover and explore and connect to rivers,” explained Mandi Carringer, river conservation associate for American Rivers. 

American Rivers, a national nonprofit organization, is working to create a blue trail along the Tuckasegee River, employing a $65,000 grant it recently landed from the Community Foundation for Western North Carolina to get the process going. The money, paid out over two years, will allow American Rivers to gather stakeholders, create a vision for the river, identify goals for recreation and conservation, and implement a plan that promotes riverside communities. 

By the end of the grant cycle, Carringer — who was hired in April to focus on conservation work along the Tuck — expects to have a completed map detailing exactly what is where along the 50 miles of river included in the project area, which stretches from the Tuckasegee community in Jackson County to Fontana Lake in Swain. The map would identify which areas are best for fishing, where you’re most likely to spot wildlife, prime snorkeling locations, campsites and more. 

The project involves more than just mapping what’s already there, however. It could also include creating new amenities. 

“Part of the process is working with our stakeholders to develop a plan to improve the existing recreation points and create new ones where this community decides they need to be created,” she said. 

The process will be a community-led one, Carringer said, bringing a variety of folks to the table before any action is taken. Currently, she’s working to gather a stakeholder group to “really dig deep” into the process, and she doesn’t expect it will be hard to find people who care enough to be part of the process. Already, more than 10 organizations are involved with discussing the idea.

“The Tuckasegee River is really a diverse and ecologically diverse area and beautiful area,” she said. “There is so much momentum already going on along this river.” 

That’s part of what drew American Rivers to the Tuck. The organization has brought its Blue Trails initiative to rivers across the country, from Arizona to Colorado to South Carolina. The Tuck is part of the Little Tennessee river basin, which is one of American Rivers’ priority river basins. The Tuck is also ecologically important, sees substantial recreational use and is close to the growing Asheville area. 

And it’s already been the subject of discussion when it comes to recreational development. The homegrown Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor — known as CuRvE — has been working for years to create a river park along the Tuck’s path through the old Cullowhee community located behind Western Carolina University. The dream is that a greenway would be built, picnic tables and benches would be installed and the corridor along Old Cullowhee Road would be beautified, resulting in economic stimulation and increased recreational opportunity. A 2014 economic impact study, funded through a grant from the Blue Ridge Natural Heritage Partners, found that creating the river park would bring $1.2 million in new spending to Jackson County each year. 

“The Tuckasegee River is one of our greatest assets, so it’s great timing to ensure that the Tuckasegee River remains one of our greatest assets here in WNC and that we can protect it,” Carringer said. 

The Community Foundation grant will fund the two-year planning process, but the job won’t be done once the two years are up, Carringer said — American Rivers will continue to seek additional grant funding to further the vision. Some goals, such as protecting property alongside the river, could prove longer-term than the initial two-year phase of the project. 

One of those longer-term goals is removal of the Cullowhee Dam. Spanning the river just above its intersection with Old Cullowhee Road, the nearly century-old dam is currently the subject of a feasibility study from Western Carolina University to determine whether it should be taken down and what would be involved in doing so. The university is negotiating with Asheville-based McGill Associates to determine a price and scope for the study and expects a final report sometime in February. 

In 2005, the university commissioned a study from Asheville-based Sutton-Kennerly and Associates to find out what it would take to do a thorough inspection of the dam. September 2004 had seen extensive flooding in the area from hurricanes Ivan and Frances, and the university wanted to know whether the flooding had caused any hazardous damage to the dam. The report concluded that the dam — which has not been used for power generation since the 1950s — had likely been inspected only once in its lifetime and showed “evidence of severe deterioration.” Failure would not pose a “significant threat to life safety,” but the “magnitude of infrastructure damage and loss coupled with loss of water supply to the University would pose a significant economic and operational loss.” 

However, full inspection would cost more than $155,000, with renovation carrying a price tag of $300,000 to $500,000. The university opted not to follow through with Sutton-Kennerly’s recommendations for inspection, said the university’s communications director Bill Studenc, because the river park idea began to be discussed around that same time. 

“We are asking ourselves, ‘Do we invest that kind of money in inspection and renovation, or do we take a serious look at removing the dam or other option?’ Studenc said. 

As Carringer sees it, “the quickest way to bring a river back to life is to remove a dam,” and so American Rivers is hoping that the feasibility report reveals a smooth path forward for removal. 

“If the Cullowhee Dam becomes a candidate for removal and we’re able to move forward with that process, we will open up new, unimpeded river miles,” she said. “The entire project area would be completely undammed.”

That would be good for recreation, for wildlife and for tourism, she said. 

However, the future of the Cullowhee Dam remains to be seen. So for now American Rivers’ focus is on charting the future of the Tuckasegee Blue Trail, dam or no dam. 

“The point of this project,” Carringer said, “is really to bring everybody together who has concern for the Tuckasegee River and move together in creating a unified vision.”

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