Outdoors advocates seek protection for Nolichucky River

Rafter in the Nolichucky Gorge
WILD OPEN SPACES: A rafter pauses to take in the Nolichucky Gorge, which outdoors advocates hope to protect through Wild and Scenic River designation. Photo by A.J. O'Leary

Although the Nolichucky Gorge lies just under an hour’s drive north from Asheville, straddling the border between Western North Carolina and East Tennessee, its dramatic slopes and the free-flowing waters of the Nolichucky River give it the feel of another world altogether. Trees and rough slabs of rocks seem to cascade down the hills until meeting often turbulent whitewater, an environment more akin to the remote reaches of the American West than the rest of Appalachia’s rivers.

Marc Hunt, a former vice mayor of Asheville and an avid paddler, sings the praises of the river many call the Noli. “Not just around here but in the Eastern U.S., a river of that size that is remote like that, and that scenic, with the water quality, the biodiversity and everything that goes with it — it’s very rare,” he says. “Once upon a time, before the 1800s, the French Broad was that way for its entire length.”

Whitewater aficionados like Hunt flock to the Noli for a taste of those wild and scenic surroundings. Now, those outdoors advocates are reaching out to Congress in the hopes that lawmakers might formally designate the section of the river flowing through the Nolichucky Gorge as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. A petition to that end, started in 2017 by Nantahala Outdoor Center guide Curtis England, had nearly 21,000 individual signatures as of press time.

Asheville-based filmmaker John Grace, who has directed several short videos in support of the new designation for the Noli, says it’s crucial to keep the river in its present state. “The big deal with the Nolichucky is just that there’s no free-flow rivers around here, and you just never know when a dam project is going to come up,” he says. “All of our goals are just to keep it the way it is. That’s what Wild and Scenic [designation] does.”

Let it flow

The Nolichucky Gorge is already protected as part of the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. But the additional Wild and Scenic designation would require the U.S. Forest Service to develop a specific watershed management plan for a half-mile corridor along about 7 miles of the Noli running from Poplar, N.C., to Chestoa, Tenn. According to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, which established the designation, the Forest Service would have to preserve the “scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values” of the river.

Perhaps the most important additional benefit the Nolichucky Gorge would enjoy under the Wild and Scenic designation is the permanent prohibition of federal support for dam building and other actions that could change the river’s flow. Paddlers value the natural variability and wildlife habitat of the Noli compared to other rivers in WNC, including the Green and Nantahala, that are managed by the release of water from hydroelectric dams.

Kevin Colburn, a spokesperson for Cullowhee-based conservation nonprofit American Whitewater, points out that WNC currently hosts over 400 dams but only four Wild and Scenic rivers (the New River South Fork, Wilson Creek, Chattooga River and Horsepasture River). He suggests that designating the Noli could be a turning point for the region’s river conservation.

“Rivers really, more than a lot of things, cross political lines both on land but also ideologically,” Colburn says. “There’s lots of great opportunities to celebrate and protect some of our last best rivers in this area, and the Noli should just be the first step of Western North Carolina saying, ‘We value wild rivers and we want an insurance policy that these beautiful places that make up our identity remain special in perpetuity.’”

Tennessee talks

Not everyone involved with the Noli, however, is ready to push for the Wild and Scenic designation. On July 12, county commissioners in Unicoi County — the Tennessee jurisdiction that includes much of the Nolichucky Gorge — tabled a resolution that would’ve officially asked Congress to protect the river after the local farming community raised concerns.

Renea Jones, president of the Unicoi County Farm Bureau, says her organization’s members worry that the federal government could use eminent domain to easily expand the designation downstream or infringe on their property rights. The watershed management plan associated with the Wild and Scenic protection, she adds, is of particular concern.

“We’d rather have all our questions answered and be safe than sorry,” Jones says. “We want to see it protected, but we also want to see it not overregulated, and I think it’s a fine line.”

Unicoi County Commissioner Matt Rice says the limitations of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act should allay the farmers’ worries. The section of the Noli currently under consideration lies totally in national forest land, he says, and broadening the protected area couldn’t be accomplished through eminent domain.

“It would literally take another act of Congress to create a new section of Wild and Scenic river,” Rice explains. “So it’s kind of like starting this whole process over again.”

Rice also emphasizes that the Wild and Scenic designation only limits the government’s own actions and doesn’t grant it power over private property. Existing uses, including the CSX railroad that runs through the gorge, would be allowed to continue. “Even if there was private land that was defined within the corridor, any additional regulations or management practices wouldn’t apply to the private land,” he says.

Nevertheless, Rice says the commission will hold off on formally endorsing the Wild and Scenic designation until further information is available. He says another meeting will be held in the near future at which officials from the Forest Service and someone from the offices of Rep. Phil Roe, Sen. Marsha Blackburn or Sen. Lamar Alexander, who represent the county in Congress, will be able to answer residents’ questions.

River riches

Beyond its environmental benefits for the river, Rice says, a Wild and Scenic designation could bring an economic boost to the surrounding area. He cites a study conducted by Asheville-based consultants Equinox Environmental that found that limited signage, information and marketing improvements for the Nolichucky could grow the region’s outdoor recreation industry by nearly $4.7 million; protecting the river would ensure a stable future for that ecotourism.

Businesses in both North Carolina and Tennessee, 36 in total, have also endorsed the effort. Asheville-area firms that have signed on include Astral Designs, AMONGSTiT, New Belgium Brewing, Pisgah Map Co., Brown Trout Fly Fishing, Southwings and Darby Communications.

“[Wild and Scenic designation] seemed like something that we could do to try to protect the resource that we have, the Nolichucky River — basically the golden goose,” Rice says.

Individuals and businesses can learn more about the campaign to designate the Nolichucky and sign the petition at noliwildandscenic.org.


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