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Paddlers are ever-so-slightly winning a tug-of-war over the Upper Chattooga River, a Wild and Scenic River that plunges off the Cashiers plateau.
The U.S. Forest Service has agreed to allow limited paddling on some parts of the Chattooga headwaters, reversing a long-standing ban on paddlers to the chagrin of wilderness purists.
Paddlers would still be severely curtailed under the plan. They could only paddle certain segments, and only in December, January and February. Since the river is only high enough to paddle after major rains, in essence there are only a few days during that middle-of-winter window that paddling would be possible — hardly enough to declare victory, according to paddlers.
“Is a couple days better than zero? Yes, but is that the right question? No,” said Kevin Colburn, with American Whitewater, a national paddling advocacy and river conservation group. “There is such a limited number of days, I still consider this a full boating ban honestly.”
Confining paddlers to winter months and to only eight miles of the river at a time is considered a compromise by the forest service. But it doesn’t exactly satisfy wilderness lovers seeking solitude along the rugged, remote reaches of the Upper Chattooga either.
“This is one of the few areas in the Southern Appalachians where hunters, hikers, fishermen, people on foot are pretty much guaranteed a solitude experience,” said Joe Gatins, an avid hiker who frequents the Chattooga headwaters. “The solitude is paramount in this wild area and should be protected.”
Gatins pointed to the lower Chattooga, which is like Grand Central for paddling and rafting.
“Why can’t we as Americans, taxpayers and citizens basically decide ‘you can have your side of the Wild and Scenic River and we can have our side,’” Gatins said.
“It’s not like there are no other paddling opportunities in this region.”
Indeed, Colburn said the Chattooga is the only river they are banned from. But he questioned why paddlers should be discriminated against to satisfy a handful of exclusive and intolerant hikers and fishermen who want to keep the river for themselves.
“These anglers claim if they see a paddler, their whole day and experience is ruined,” Colburn said.
But Buzz Williams, director of the Chattooga Conservancy, said the last vestige of solitude is worth fighting for, and he plans to do just that.
“It would like be putting an arrow through the faintly beating heart of wildness on the Chattooga River and that’s what this is about,” Williams said.
The new plan would allow paddling in the fragile Chattooga Cliffs area, a stretch environmentalists wanted to safeguard above all else.
“As evidenced by the name it is a steep and remote reach of the river. It is very biologically rich. It is extremely beautiful,” Williams said. “We are in a fight to the death over that one.”
Williams has been a paddler himself for decades and a fairly good one. But he personally wouldn’t attempt the Chattooga Cliffs. It has numerous class IV and V rapids, larger vertical drops, major undercuts and massive log jams.
“It is one death trap after another up through there,” Williams said.
Paddlers were banned from the upper 21 miles of the Chattooga more than 30 years ago, mainly as a gesture to fishermen and hikers feeling overrun by the newfangled sport of whitewater paddling taking over the lower reaches of the river.
The forest service was pushed to reconsider the long-standing ban by American Whitewater, which filed both appeals and lawsuits at the federal level to get the ban reversed in 2005.
“Here we are, better than six years later. The process has been so drawn out, frankly the system does not work correctly,” Gatins said. “People are tired of it.”
“It is so hard to rally any support any more because people are just sick of it and fed up,” Williams added.
The study has taken so long that half of the forest service staff who were involved in the study originally have either retired or been promoted to new positions.
The debate has pitted paddlers against fishermen, hikers, backpackers, nature lovers and solitude seekers.
Colburn regrets that the environmental community has been fractured over the Chattooga, and he blames the forest service.
“They have fractured and distracted the environmental community to the point of us being completely dysfunctional in the watershed,” Colburn said. “They have created one of the most ugly divisive controversies in river management history. It is fear mongering by the forest service, telling people boaters will ruin the place that they care about.”
Paddlers are part and parcel of the fight to protect and save wilderness and wild places. Yet somehow, in this debate, they have been framed a lunatic, fringe sport that would ruin the Chattooga — the very Wild and Scenic River that paddlers, just like everyone else, want to protect, Colburn said.
“American Whitewater is a conservation group,” Colburn said.
Mysterious do over
This is the second attempt by the forest service to orchestrate a compromise.
Two years ago, the forest service came out with a long-awaited plan for solving the Chattooga paddling debate. But it was mysteriously tabled a few months later.
After rolling out the plan and soliciting the requisite round of public comment, the forest service withdrew it and returned to the drawing board.
The forest service offered little in the way of explanation, other than needing to study the issue some more. The agency had already spent four years studying it. There were reams of public hearings and workshops — even an invite-only focus group and a trial run of the river by a hand-picked group of paddlers.
Neither side in the issue understands exactly why a plan was rolled out and then reeled back in two years ago.
The forest service had analyzed a dozen options at the time — options that ran the gamut from unlimited paddling on any stretch of river at any time to the status quo ban.
It has now written an entirely new 500-page document again analyzing the issue, which Colburn sees as a colossal waste of time and money.
Paddlers came out ahead, however. This latest iteration makes additional concessions to paddlers, albeit small ones. Williams thinks he knows why.
“Any time they hear a saber rattler from American Whitewater, they back up and yield more to them,” Williams said. “Rather than base it on what is fair and best for the river, they are trying to appease AW. It is obvious what is going on.”
American Whitewater’s lawsuit against the Forest Service has been percolating on the back burner in the federal court system as the forest service carried out its protracted analysis of the issue.
“My guess is they are trying to appease American Whitewater and get rid of the court suit they are facing,” Gatins said.
Under the new proposal, paddlers would get access to twice as much river as initially proposed two years ago. They also won’t be limited by water levels. The last proposal allowed paddling on high flow days only tracked with a gauge in the river, theoretically to keep paddlers out of the river except under such high water conditions that fishermen wouldn’t be out there anyway.
But how the gauge would be monitored and who would make the call that paddling was a go seemed complicated.
“Logistically it would be a total nightmare, so I think it was a good choice to get rid of that,” Colburn said.
The proposal would allow paddlers on 16 miles of the Chattooga headwaters, but not all at once. Paddlers could run eight miles during December and the first half of January, and a different eight miles from mid-January through February.
The forest service estimates there would be more than a dozen days with enough rainfall to make a run doable during that window.
There would be no cap on the number of paddlers who run the river each day to start with. But the forest service would monitor the number of paddlers, and if it seems like too many are showing up, then it would impose a permit system with caps at that point.
By shoehorning paddlers into such a short window, however, Colburn fears it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“It would compress everybody that wants to paddle the upper Chattooga on one reach to just a few days,” Colburn said. “They basically have set us up to fail.”
American Whitewater has been portrayed as lobbying for a boating free-for-all, conjuring up images of hordes of unruly paddlers denigrating the wilderness.
Colburn said American Whitewater would be the first to advocate for limits on paddling if that was the scene.
But on the Chattooga, a ban has been imposed to address an imaginary problem, which Colburn labels as a “unicorn management plan.”
Colburn wants a full lift of the ban, with limits imposed only if warranted.
“If there is a problem, should we be limited? Sure, of course,” Colburn said. “We support limits on rivers all over the place.”
Opponents are not concerned about the paddlers themselves as much as the new trails created to ferry paddlers down to the riverbank to the main put in just above the Chattooga Cliffs.
Colburn said if paddlers supposedly harm the environment by walking down a trail, hikers must as well.
“On land, we are just hikers. Why do they want limits on boaters but not hikers?” Colburn said.
Gatins said paddlers are different than hikers, however. They will drag their boats down the trail to the put-in, creating a wider footprint.
“It is like a pig trail now. If you had boaters going down there three months of the year it will turn into a highway to the river,” Gatins said.
When they come to log jams or waterfalls, they will get out and skirt the bank, trampling moss and rare plants that grow in the spray ecosystems on the river rocks.
Most of all, it is the access itself.
“It creates a brand new access which will hurt the wildness of that area,” Gatins said.
The forest service said a new trail would need to be built, but plans to do a separate environmental analysis for that later. But since the paddling proposal is predicated on a new trail upstream of the Chattooga Cliffs, it makes the trail to get there a fait accompli, and thus makes the analysis moot, Williams said.
“What if at that time we present enough evidence not to do it?” Williams said.
The new access will bring not just paddlers, but their friends, photographers and hikers on their heels.
“It will bring a tremendous amount of people in there and destroy the last little place where you can have solitude,” Williams said.
Williams cited from the old-school environmentalist and pioneers of conservation, the likes of Al Leopold and Bob Marshall, founder of The Wilderness Society.
“They all recognized that it is access that kills wildness. That’s the only place left that there is no real access,” Williams said.
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