Ecology meets economy

North Carolina is home to some of the nation’s last great rivers, lakes and streams—from the whitewater rapids in the mountains to the coast’s tranquil sounds.

Flowing through Jackson and Transylvania counties, the Horsepasture River is one of North Carolina’s most pristine waterways. Known for its spectacular waterfalls, it’s a popular hiking and rafting destination. Residents from across North Carolina and beyond flock to the Horsepasture to enjoy its world-class recreational opportunities. Named a Natural and Scenic River by the state and a Wild and Scenic River by the federal government, it is home to diverse fish species, including the redeye bass, turqoise darter and blackbanded darter.

But the Horsepasture and other rivers like it aren’t just ecological wonders: They’re also vital to the region’s economy. Tourism dollars help support hotels, restaurants, gas stations, gift shops and recreation-based businesses such as bike stores, outfitters and rafting companies. According to the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, domestic tourism there generated an economic impact of $61.7 million in 2005—a 10.8 percent increase over the previous year. More than 670 jobs in the county were credited to travel and tourism that year.

Unfortunately, uncontrolled development puts the Horsepasture and other Western North Carolina rivers at risk. An analysis by Environment North Carolina found that 2,800 acres in the Savannah River basin (which includes the Horsepasture) were developed between 1982 and 2002. Commercial resorts as well as retirement and vacation developments are being built, and significant growth is expected in the future.

Too often, more development means more polluted runoff, which is created when rain falls on paved surfaces and washes pollutants such as fertilizers, pesticides, dirt, oil, grease, bacteria and sediment into waterways. This polluted runoff constitutes the greatest single threat to North Carolina’s rivers and streams—responsible for nearly 40 percent of the known impaired stream miles statewide.

But it doesn’t have to be that way: Done properly, development can boost the local economy without harming the natural resources that attracted it in the first place.

North Carolina has rules in place that are designed to preserve and protect unspoiled waters like the Horsepasture without halting growth and development. Accordingly, officials with the state Environmental Management Commission are considering designating the Horsepasture an Outstanding Resource Water—one of North Carolina’s highest levels of protection.

The ORW classification would not limit development. Existing property owners would still be able to build on their land (including expanding existing facilities). What the classification would do is limit new pollution discharges into the river: New developments would be required to control their polluted runoff and create vegetative buffers along the river and its tributaries to filter pollutants.

Of course, reclassifying the Horsepasture is only one step toward preserving WNC’s water quality. Dozens of streams in the region—including West Buffalo Creek, the Cheoah River and Walnut Creek—are still in pristine condition but lack high-level protections. Let’s make sure state leaders do all they can to ensure that Western North Carolina boasts spectacular waters for generations to come.

[Margaret Hartzell is field organizer for Environment North Carolina, a statewide, citizen-based environmental-advocacy organization. She can be reached at margaret@environmentnorthcarolina.org.]

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