From CPP: The battle for wild and scenic status, part 2

David Whitmire, owner of Headwaters Outfitters, at his business near Rosman on May 21. Photo: Jesse Barber/ Carolina Public Press

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

“A River’s Destiny” is a two-part investigative project reported by Jack Igelman. The project tells the history of the North Fork, how conservationists have long advocated for its special federal protection, and the process to achieve wild and scenic status for its preservation. This is part two of the investigation.

In late April, Harrison Metzger, perhaps one of the North Fork’s fiercest advocates, and around 60 others gathered in Brevard. They talked about protecting a 3.2-mile stretch of the North Fork of the French Broad River by adding it to the National Wild and Scenic River System. This move would shield the river from the threat of damming.

The Transylvania Natural Resources Council held this session to increase awareness and support for giving this stretch of the North Fork the highest level of national river protection. The council advises the Transylvania County Commission on managing the county’s natural assets. Owen Carson, the current chair of the TNRC, shared that they tried to draft a resolution supporting the designation of several rivers in 2019 and 2020. However, the effort was halted due to the pandemic. But last spring, the TNRC revived this initiative.

Despite one objection at the April meeting, Carson said “there was overwhelming support” from community members who attended the meeting.

Getting a river “wild and scenic” status is a balancing act between conservation and various group interests. Many oppose this designation, fearing government overreach. Some believe that lands within the national forest are already sufficiently protected, while others feel the designation may restrict landowners who rely on water access for farming or ranching.

This designation aims to protect natural rivers from threats like damming, but achieving it can be a long and challenging process. The  Wild and Scenic Rivers Coalition advises supporters of the “wild and scenic” designation to understand areas of opposition. The group recommends clearly explaining the purpose and advantages of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to the community.

A protected system of rivers

While it can seem like paddling upstream to get a river federally recognized as wild and scenic, North Carolina has had some success. Earlier this year, nine Western North Carolina rivers were added to the list of waterways eligible for wild and scenic status, including the North Fork, according to the final Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest Land Management Plan.

In all, 19 rivers are eligible for wild and scenic status in the Pisgah and Nantahala  National Forest Plan. This recommendation is key but not the final step in the designation process.

Kevin Colburn, stewardship director of American Whitewater, or AW, mentioned that while some parts of the country have used federal law to protect their rivers, the Eastern U.S. hasn’t kept pace.

“In Western North Carolina, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is underutilized compared to the vision that people had of a protected system of rivers,” he said.

To be eligible for wild and scenic status on national forest land, the river must be recognized for its “outstandingly remarkable value,”such as scenic, recreational or historical values among others.

The Forest Service’s draft plan didn’t label the North Fork as wild and scenic due to power lines, logging, unattractive campsites and limited access points. But after river supporters voiced concerns, the Forest Service changed its decision this year. Now, a 3.2-mile section of the river is eligible, acknowledging its special paddling opportunities in the isolated gorge.

While the Forest Service reversed its decision, the journey toward official designation is just beginning. Local grassroots movements and community backing are vital. Typically, it’s up to a North Carolina congressional member to then introduce the necessary legislation. For example, legislation to designate Wilson Creek in Caldwell and Avery County as wild and scenic was proposed by U.S. Rep. Cass Ballenger of Hickory and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 2000.

But until an official decision is reached, federal planning guidelines require the Forest Service to manage the North Fork as if it’s already earned its wild and scenic title. The agency will ensure its protection and management align with this status for the life of the new forest plan, whether it’s eventually designated as such or released from further study.

Balancing river protection with community concerns

David Whitmire represents the town of Rosman on the TNRC, which helped organize the April 20 public meeting.

He supports the wild and scenic designation but knows that federal land and water management laws, like the Wild and Scenic Act, can face opposition. Farmers, property owners and river communities often feel these laws interfere with their livelihoods and rights.

“We don’t want any surprises. The purpose of the meeting was to be upfront with the community,” said Whitmire to identify potential consequences of designation.

At the April meeting, Kevin Colburn from AW attended with his colleagues Erin Savage and Grace Hassler. AW has spearheaded national campaigns for Wild and Scenic Rivers and helps craft proposals.

Savage, the vice president of AW’s board from Mills River and a regular boater on the North Fork, believes in a team approach for consideration. She values the North Fork for its beauty and its unique whitewater challenges close to a populated area.

“We want to see a decision that meets the needs of the general public. There’s room to work within communities to make sure the designation isn’t just serving special interests,” she said.

AW’s role, she added, is to share accurate information about what a designation does, or doesn’t do.

One question raised at the meeting, said Whitmire, is whether wild and scenic status could lead to more stringent state water quality standards, impacting land use practices in the watershed.

The state of North Carolina has a suite of classifications used to protect and manage surface water. The “outstanding resource water” classification, or ORW, is “intended to protect unique and special waters, including rivers, having excellent water quality and being of exceptional state or national ecological or recreational significance,” according to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality website.

Colburn said that increased state water classifications and regulations must come via a request from local communities and are not mandated or initiated by a state agency or by wild and scenic river status.

“Wild and scenic rivers” vs. “wilderness”

While wilderness designations have been divisive, Colburn is hopeful that river protection will stay clear of the contention that has often dogged discussions of wilderness protection. Wilderness designation is the highest form of land protection in the U.S.

During the forest plan revision, several county commissions, including Transylvania, passed nonbinding resolutions opposing the addition of wilderness status in their counties.

“When we talk to people, we find that the concept of wild and scenic rivers crosses political and ideological lines. We don’t see the kind of fierce pushback that you get from wilderness,” Colburn said.  It’s a concept that bridges divides and garners more widespread support.

Colburn’s observation touches upon a broader issue of land use and perceptions of environmental protection. “Wild and scenic rivers” often gain broader support due to their tangible benefits like clean water and recreation, whereas “wilderness” designations can be more contentious due to stricter land use restrictions and past conflicts.

Wild and scenic legislation is often bipartisan, Colburn said. However, support for federally designated wilderness has been politicized.

In counties where a significant portion of the acreage is under federal oversight, residents feel as though they are constrained from accessing forest land. The Wilderness Act bans motorized vehicles, timber harvesting, mining, road construction and commercial projects. However, specific recreational activities like camping, fishing, and backpacking are allowed in designated wilderness areas. Many locals also feel left out of decisions and think outside views matter more than theirs.

This is why Colburn wants a diverse group of river supporters to join together.

In January 2022, Carolina Public Press reported that a multiyear effort to protect an iconic 7-mile stretch of the Nolichucky River stalled despite widespread support.

Typically, wild and scenic designation follows a campaign to build community support and backing from local governments. It’s customary, Colburn said, that members of Congress wait for approval from local governments before initiating legislation.

His role, he said, was to help share information with the press and decision-makers about the designation.

Colburn said the Nolichucky designation effort was community-driven, with significant support from regional recreation enthusiasts, businesses and economic development professionals. American Whitewater’s approach to designation includes the support of campaigns led by local advocates that build an extensive and diverse base of support. While there was strong community support for the Nolichucky, the effort failed to earn support from county officials.

Local government action and climate concerns

While Congress creates the legislation to add each river to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, in practice, local residents and a few elected officials mainly decide if they’ll support it.

At first, local governments were keen to protect the Nolichucky. But after the Tennessee Farm Bureau voiced concerns, some locals and officials from Unicoi in Tennessee, and Mitchell and Yancey counties in North Carolina, withdrew their support for designating that river section.

“The designation was positive, popular and a universally good thing,” Colburn said. “But the counties are the decision-makers and ultimately decide on the future of this river.”

Grace Hassler, a University of Pennsylvania master’s degree candidate, is working with AW to draft a support campaign for designation.

Among her projects is building an interactive map that shares the history of the river and its outstanding qualities for wild and scenic eligibility.

Hassler said AW is first gauging the reaction of people who live near the river and other stakeholders.

“Everyone needs to be able to understand the impact of designation,” she said. “We want to address people’s concerns factually and transparently.”

In her book “The French Broad,” Wilma Dykeman wrote that a unique feature of the river is that “it begins with four large tributaries flowing from the four cardinal points of the compass and all called by the river’s final name.”

Colburn believes the naming convention of the French Broad’s four forks — North, South, East and West tributaries — will help people recognize their geographic connection to the environment. By linking these names to their physical locations, people might feel a more tangible connection to the environment, understanding how these waterways fit into the larger landscape and their place within it.

“I think it speaks to a very large number of people that live downstream that we have exceptional, pristine headwaters,” said Colburn. “Whether you’re new to Western North Carolina or have lived here for generations, you are aware of the French Broad River.”

His sentiment underscores the deep emotional and cultural connections communities often have with their natural landscapes.

“It’s a distinctively western North Carolina story of citizens speaking out for a river and for their community,” Colburn said. “It’s an expression of who we are and that we value clean water and we value our history.”

An uncertain future

The threat of a future dam is perhaps a remote one, but it’s why Metzger is focused on the opportunity to protect his favorite stretch of wild river and elevate the North Fork to the highest level of river conservation.

The Wild and Scenic River Act, enacted in 1968, stands as a formidable safeguard for American rivers, preserving their natural and free-flowing state.

The North Fork remains undammed today due to local opposition to two federal plans to dam that part of the river.

If advocates have their way, the previous effort to alter its flow in the late 1980s will be the last.

An undammed river will certainly benefit paddlers, such as Metzger, and its wild and scenic status will further boost the outstanding recreational assets sustaining the thriving tourism sector of Transylvania County.  Whitmire’s outfitter business, for example, depends on beautiful scenery.

It might also be sensible environmental and social policy. Free-flowing rivers protect water quality, enhance biodiversity and increase resilience to the impacts of climate change. While political partisanship has shaped Americans’ view of environmental protection, an ethos around river conservation often crosses political boundaries.

Carson is hopeful, however, that the county’s natural resources council will soon recommend wild and scenic status for consideration by Transylvania County commissioners. Local support from elected officials is the first step before a legislative proposal by a member of Congress. Legislation can be proposed by a U.S. senator or by a local member of the House of Representatives. The North Carolina delegation in Congress includes U.S. Rep. Chuck Edwards, whose 11th District covers Transylvania County.

On Aug. 22, a TNRC subcommittee met to finalize a draft resolution proposing wild and scenic status for the North Fork. Carson indicated that the council will discuss the resolution at its next public meeting on Sept. 8.

“The goal is to get a passing vote and then present it to the Board of Commissioners at their meeting,” Carson said.

Carson added that the council will also seek support from the Rosman Board of Alderman and the unincorporated community of Balsam Grove.

CPP reached out to Rosman Mayor Brian Shelton for his position on wild and scenic status. Shelton did not respond.

“It’s a matter of people being comfortable at every stage as we elevate the river towards designation,” Colburn said. “That just takes time, but we’ve heard a lot of support for the North Fork. People are excited about it. That’s encouraging.”

Metzger’s legacy

The gravel driveway leading to Metzer’s house in Mills River in Henderson County is lined with sleek and colorful whitewater boats, evidence that paddling rivers continues to be an important aspect of his life.

Harrison Metzger at the confluence of the North and West Fork French Broad, which turns into the French Broad. Photo: Jesse Barber/ Carolina Public Press

Metzger’s time-worn manila folder of articles documenting the last effort to dam the river is a testament to a history of activism to protect beloved natural resources in Transylvania County.

He said that because of a dry winter and spring, paddlers could only boat the North Fork on a few days. Typically, he said, between January and April, he’ll run the North Fork a half-dozen times. This year, he’s descended the gorge just once. Metzger estimates that in a “good year” with abundant rainfall, there are perhaps as many as 60 days of the year to paddle the stream.

From his point of view, even if wild and scenic status is awarded to the North Fork, its remoteness, difficulty, and rainfall requirements will likely limit demand from recreational users and retain its remote quality.

“It’s just an incredibly secluded little place. You feel like you’re absolutely in the middle of nowhere,” he said.

The real payoff of designation is a river whose future obstructions remain boulders and dislodged tree trunks rather than a dam. Without designation, he believes, a free-flowing North Fork isn’t guaranteed.

“There hasn’t been a lot of dam building going on in quite a while,” Metzger said. “But with climate change, who knows what the future holds?”

You can read part one of the investigation click here.


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