Should paddling be allowed on the upper Chattooga River? Ben Van Camp of American Whitewater thinks so. He’s eagerly awaiting the U.S. Forest Service boating-impact study on the headwaters of the Chattooga. Van Camp was a panelist at an April 17 seminar held at UNCA and sponsored by the Mountain Sports Festival. The panel, moderated by Mark Hamlin, assistant director of recreation at UNCA, answered questions from the audience on access and recreational use of public lands.
Steve Hendricks, program manager for the U.S. Forest Service in Asheville, said that this area has the highest recreational use in the nation. “The country has less and less people and dollars to deal with this growth,” he added.
A trail runner in the audience felt that people would pay for use, while others pointed out that “I’ve already paid with my taxes.” Hendricks explained that revenues generated by national forests and parks are not returned to specific recreational purposes, as they are with hunting and fishing licenses.
Recreational users include more than 50 summer camps in our vicinity that take their campers climbing, hiking and camping. Marty O’Keefe, who teaches in the Warren Wilson Outdoor Leadership Department, said he sees a need for an educational component to these outdoor trips. Campers and their counselors should make a connection with the places they visit, he argued. “There should be coordination among camps so they don’t all get to the same trailhead at once.”
Sometimes access issues are solved by simply buying the land people want to access. That’s what the Carolina Climbing Coalition did when it bought Laurel Knob in the Panthertown area, which offers some of the most dramatic exposed climbing in the region. Sean Cobourn, a lawyer for the group, said that the coalition received donations to purchase the site from all seven continents, including Antarctica. “Now we are land managers as well as an advocacy group,” he explained.
One student mentioned that UNCA students cannot go into the Pisgah Forest, a statement that puzzled many in the audience. Hamlin later explained that student groups at UNCA, organized by the recreation department, are led by student leaders on work-study programs. Because these outdoor leaders are paid, the federal government considers them commercial groups, subject to liability laws. The state of North Carolina could potentially be liable for a fire or other problem caused by a student in the woods. Therefore the state does not allow state-university groups to plan outdoor trips on federal land. Such groups can only go to state parks or private land, which can provide less of a wilderness experience and challenge.
Hendricks emphasized that “the nation makes choices in our political process. We are gradually reducing our effectiveness on the ground. We [the Forest Service] don’t lobby, but the public can.”
The Mountain Sports Festival will be held on May 4, 5 and 6 at Carrier Park in Asheville. For more information, visit www.mountainsportsfestival.com