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Wednesday, 02 August 2006 00:00

My Chattooga?

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Controversy over a paddling ban on the upper Chattooga River attracted more than 125 people to a public meeting in Highlands last week held by the U.S. Forest Service.

Paddlers are challenging the 30-year-old ban, while fishermen, hikers, birdwatchers and other wilderness solitude seekers are lobbying to keep the ban in place. The forest service is conducting a two-year study to determine whether the ban is justified.

At the meeting, the forest service mapped out its plans for conducting the study. The centerpiece will be two focus groups: a panel of expert paddlers and a panel of expert backcountry fishermen. Both panels will go on data mining excursions along the Chattooga and provide feedback to the forest service. The expert panel of boaters will get an exemption from the ban allowing them to conduct trial runs.

The forest service is primarily interested in how much water the paddlers need to paddle, and how much water is too much for fishermen. Along the upper Chattooga — a section with numerous shallow and narrow areas as it tumbles off the Cashiers Plateau — paddlers need high water following heavy rains. Fishermen, on the other hand, don’t like higher water.

“There’s a magic number when it’s too high for fishermen and it’s becoming possible to descend the river in a boat,” explained Jon Clark, a paddler from Jackson County.

Talk of water levels cropped up repeatedly during the forest service’s presentation of the study. The forest service could be attempting to orchestrate a compromise by opening the river to paddlers only during the occasional periods of high water following storms, when fishermen generally stay away anyway. The forest service recently installed a gauge on the upper Chattooga to begin monitoring water levels.

But the idea of selecting panels of expert paddlers and fishermen to serve as focus groups didn’t sit well most at the meeting.

“There’s hikers, photographers, birders, swimmers. There should be a panel of those kind of people, too,” said Doug Odell who lives on Lake Glenville near Cashiers.

Following the presentation, a crowd gathered around Doug Whitaker, a consultant hired by the forest service to oversee the data collection, to complain about the study format.

“You guys are framing this as boaters against anglers,” said Buzz Williams, director of the Chattooga Conservancy. “All these other user groups are legitimate uses, but they’re being treated like red-headed stepchildren.”

“You’re acting like there’s no interest other than from anglers and boaters,” said Patrick Sanders, a second-home owners in Highlands who likes to hike.

Whitaker said the forest service needs a specific type of feedback from paddlers and fishermen, namely on water levels. The expert panels will hit the river during specific conditions and report back on their experience. Both panels will also be engaged in a joint roundtable discussion.

“They are two groups that are very sensitive to flows,” Whitaker said. Other forms of recreation aren’t contingent on water levels and can simply submit comments to the forest service about recreation along the upper Chattooga at any time.

That didn’t satisfy the crowd, however.

“By not having a panel you aren’t going to have the same caliber of information from others users as you do boaters and anglers,” said Bill Rethorst, a resident of Highlands and avid hiker with the Over the Hill Gang.

To collect data on patterns of other recreational users, the forest service will count cars in parking areas along the Chattooga River. That will not, however, tell the forest service how many people per car are using the wilderness area that day or what they are doing out there — whether it is sunbathing or backpacking.

The forest service asked for volunteers from people willing to help count cars and document recreational uses along the river, such as taking pictures of campsites.

Amy Chase, who lives in Cashiers, said input should be sought from more than just the avid outdoorsmen, but should also include those in the local area who may never even venture to the river.

“It is a community resource in Cashiers and a community issue,” Chase said, suggesting mailing surveys to homeowners.

When asked whether a panel of expert hikers could be sent out the same day as the expert paddlers to provide feedback of their own — namely on whether the presence of boaters interrupts their wilderness hiking experience — Whitaker said that wouldn’t be accurate. For the purpose of the study, paddlers will be stopping frequently to take pictures, document rapids and plot GPS coordinates. That’s not how boaters would typically behave, Whitaker said.

Ideally, the study would measure real life encounters between hikers and boaters and fishermen and others in the natural course of recreation. But since boating is banned real life interactions aren’t possible.

“I’ve never done a capacity study on a use that doesn’t exist,” Whitaker said.

That’s a telling point, said Mark Singleton, director of American Whitewater, a national paddling organization based in Sylva that is spearheading opposition to the paddling ban.

“It’s American Whitewater’s position that the so-called conflict between users is contrived,” Singleton said.

Although conflicts might not be occurring on the river, they certainly did at the meeting. Heated discussions broke out between groups of paddlers, hikers and fishermen.

“When I want a wilderness experience, the only place left is the upper portion of the river,” Rethorst said.

Kevin Colburn with American Whitewater said paddlers want access to the river for the same reason. The ban on the Chattooga is an anomaly, Colburn said.

“Every other river in the entire National Forest Service Wild and Scenic River system is open to boating,” Colburn said.

“That’s exactly the point,” said Pam Simion of Highlands. “Do you have to use every resource?’

A fisherman told Colburn that boating infringes on the ability to fish.

“When a boat goes through, the fish are down for an hour,” said John Benbow, president of the N.C. Wildlife Federation.

“That’s an inherent situation on any river,” Colburn said.

Paddlers only want the river opened to individual paddlers. They are not seeking commercial rafting. They are willing to accept some limits on paddling, such as the number per day or during times of high water only.

But even that sounds like too much to those who consider the Chattooga a last sanctuary.

“We need a place of solitude in the wilderness,” said Mary Kay Moore, a wilderness photographer who lives in Highlands.

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