From CPP: How support for protecting Nolichucky River collapsed

Boat launch in Poplar, NC
A boat launch on the Nolichucky River in Poplar. The unincorporated Mitchell County community hosted a contentious meeting over the future of the river in August 2020. Photo by Jack Igelman, courtesy of Carolina Public Press

By Jack Igelman, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.

Editor’s note: This article is the second in a two-part series about tensions over whether the Nolichucky River should receive federal Wild and Scenic designation. Part 1 discussed the background of the Wild and Scenic Rivers designation, the community-based initiative to give this designation to a stretch of Nolichucky in Mitchell and Yancy counties, as well as Unicoi County, Tenn.; and objections to the designation that surfaced in Tennessee.

The push to designate a 6-mile stretch of the Nolichucky River as Wild and Scenic under federal law hit a snag in mid-2019.

A key turning point came after the Unicoi County, Tenn., tourism committee’s July 2019 meeting, at which the board tabled a resolution to recommend that the full Unicoi County Commission support the designation.

Kevin Colburn, national stewardship director for American Whitewater, had pushed for the designation since 2017. Even after the setback in mid-2019, he thought there was still a path to earn the trust and support of elected officials in Unicoi County.

“The county went through a healthy process of fact-finding,” he said.

“They did a great job of convening the right folks for discussions and listening. I certainly hoped support would emerge based on shared understanding of the facts.”

To that point, open opposition to the designation had come primarily from individuals in Tennessee. But things were changing on the North Carolina side of the line as well, as opposition to the designation began mounting upstream in Yancey and Mitchell counties.

A letter obtained by Carolina Public Press, dated Jan. 29, 2020, from Mickey Duvall, the executive director of the Mitchell County Economic Development Commission, suspended his previous “personal support” for the designation.

In the letter, Duvall cited calls received from members of the community concerned that the designation would limit citizens’ rights to use the river and its tributaries as they do now.

“Since this issue has now become somewhat controversial in our county,” Duvall wrote that he would invite Halley Burelson, a Spruce Pine resident, to address the Mitchell County Economic Development Commission to consider a formal letter of support.

Duvall did not comment or respond to questions about which citizens and how many had contacted him.

In February 2020, opponents of the designation addressed both Mitchell and Yancey county commissioners asking them to suspend support for the designation.

Allen McMurray, a local resident, spoke at both commissioner meetings. He said he represented interested citizens whom the river designation could affect.

In both meetings, McMurray asked commissioners to withdraw support.

McMurray said the designation would impact private landowners and he was concerned about the possibility of allowing the government to acquire private land through eminent domain, according to the Feb. 3, 2020, Mitchell County meeting minutes.

According to McMurray, the federal government could potentially enforce the use of fertilizers, spray material and restrict irrigation.

At the meeting, the Mitchell County Commission voted to “hold off” on supporting the designation and committed to hosting a public hearing, which eventually took place in August 2020.

McMurray did not respond to an interview request from CPP.

On Feb. 10, 2020, four members of the public addressed Yancey County commissioners during the public comment portion of the meeting. Kevin Wilson, a resident of Yancey County, requested that the commissioners rescind their letter of support.

Wilson, a farmer and employee of a mining company, told CPP he was contacted by Farm Bureau regarding concerns with the designation.

Objections to the Wild and Scenic Rivers designation that first surfaced in Tennessee also stemmed from Farm Bureau. Nationally, Farm Bureau has positioned itself in opposition to these river protections. Advocates in North Carolina have characterized the fears voiced in this opposition as contrary to fact and purely motivated by politics.

However, Wilson said he did his own research to understand the pros and cons of the designation.

According to an email sent to the county manager, the Yancey County Farm Bureau opposes the designation.

“The stretch of water is already managed by the Forest Service as a Wild and Scenic river,” Wilson said. “I feel there’s no need for duplicative regulation to be in place and opens us up for further regulation that may have unintended consequences down the road.”

He’s concerned that the Wild and Scenic designation will restrict the future operations of farmers in the Nolichucky watershed, which includes the Cane and North Toe rivers.

Wilson, who grew up on a tobacco farm in the Jack Creek community, currently raises cattle and harvests hay on a small farm. He considers the Nolichucky and its sources a “treasure.”

“Historically, the river was a dumping ground,” he said. “I would say in the last 50 years the water quality has improved dramatically. It’s a success story. Farmers want a clean river more than anyone; it’s our most important asset.”

Renea Jones of the Tennessee Farm Bureau attended the February Mitchell and Yancey county meetings but said she was not in contact with elected officials in either county.

Jones said both meetings had standing-room crowds, most of whom, she thought, opposed the designation.

“(The proponents of the designation) railroaded it right in without giving the opponents an opportunity to show that it’s not as good as it sounds,” she said. “They presented it to the commission that (the designation) was low-hanging fruit. That it was this great thing.”

Burelson disagreed: “I provided the information to make an educated decision. I did my due diligence. I wanted to make sure that my hands were clean and that I was operating with integrity.”

Withdrawal of support

On March 9, 2020, the Yancey County Commission voted unanimously to rescind its letter of support.

“At first, it sounded really, really good,” Yancey County Manager Lynn Austin told CPP. “I guess we should have held off until we learned more and then weighed the pros and cons. We just need to find out more about it and dig a little deeper for ourselves.”

Austin said Yancey County’s position is “neutral.” None of the Yancey County commissioners responded to a request for comment from CPP.

Jamie McMahan, director of the Yancey County EDC, said the agency’s original support letter still stands as the official record; however, the EDC board has not “revisited the conversation.”

“I certainly wouldn’t contradict the position of the County Commission from a public policy point of view,” he said.

“I recognize that there is an economic benefit associated with (the designation) and tourism is a growing sector of our economy,” said McMahan, who does not have a personal position on the designation. He indicated that economic development as a result of tourism is guided by the county’s Chamber of Commerce.

In August 2020, Mitchell County hosted a public meeting in Poplar, an unincorporated community near a public access facility at the proposed Wild and Scenic boundary.

Mitchell County Commissioner Brandon Pittman estimated that more than 100 people attended the meeting, with “overwhelming opposition to the project from the Poplar, Bradshaw and Tipton Hill communities.”

“I have no personal opposition to this project; however, I’m not willing to ignore my constituents who live in the communities around the Nolichucky River,” he said. “Regardless of my personal feelings, my job is to be their voice.

“I believe that the Nolichucky River is a beautiful asset to Mitchell County, and it deserves protection,” he said. However, he questioned whether it needed additional protection since the U.S. Forest Service already manages it.

“I would be willing to entertain further discussion on the topic granted there was new information that hasn’t already been presented,” he said, including “concrete data” supporting the hypothesis that the designation would provide economic benefits to Mitchell County.

Matthew Vern Grindstaff, chairman of Mitchell County Board of Commissioners, did not attend the August 2020 meeting, but based on reports from fellow board members and phone conversations, he said that “it was abundantly clear that the community did not support the designation. Unless the community had a change of heart, I would be in opposition.”

Grindstaff said it is accurate that the previous board did not support the designation but said the current board does not have a position.

Colburn commended Mitchell County for hosting the August 2020 meeting but said there wasn’t a meaningful discussion due to “disruptive” attendees. The meeting was described by a report in the Mitchell News-Journal as “contentious.”

According to the News-Journal, supporters of the designation who spoke were interrupted, and the moderator struggled to maintain order.

Hard questions

The sudden turn in support in Mitchell and Yancey counties stunned Colburn after several years of working on the river designation.

“I understand the fear when someone says the government is coming to take your land,” Colburn said. “I’d be freaked out, too. I would be angry and I would be asking these hard questions. But the facts don’t support their concerns.”

In November, Colburn sent letters to county commissioners in Yancey and Mitchell counties asking that they renew their support.

“I’ve spent 20 years working with the (Wild and Scenic Rivers) act, and when someone says, ‘This is the way it is,’ and provides false information, how do you argue with that?” Colburn said.

“It came as a surprise and was demoralizing because we spent years building this idea based on reams of information. And it just got shredded in a matter of weeks because of something that has nothing to do with our campaign and, frankly, nothing to do with reality.

“This designation was and remains a simple, good and popular thing for the area’s people and the river. It has no downside. We hoped that all three counties would be supportive, and that is the path to designation that we saw and have been working toward.”

Colburn said he’s made peace with the counties’ neutrality.

“Right now, that means the designation is not going to happen in the near term,” he said. “I think it passes up a great opportunity, but I respect that it’s their choice.”

Burleson has taken a few punches, too, for her advocacy, although she expected that her position would be controversial.

At the Poplar meeting, she was accused of profiting from the designation effort and was supported financially for her advocacy. Burleson works part time for the nonprofit conservation organization Wild South and as a contractor for American Whitewater.

Despite meaningful support dispersed across the counties, state and nation, she recognizes that the views of those who live near the river transmit a hefty weight.

“Everyone has their own beliefs and values,” she said. “I’m standing up for mine. Even though I support it and would like to see it happen, at the end of the day I respect the decision of my community.”


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