Georgia ForestWatch, the Georgia Sierra Club and Wilderness Watch have filed two formal legal challenges to the U.S. Forest Service’s accelerating efforts to send kayakers and rafters onto the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River, which has been banned to boating for more than 35 years.

The headwaters at issue include the wild Chattooga Cliffs area in North Carolina, all of the Ellicott Rock Wilderness and the pristine Rock Gorge backcountry.

Although it is duty bound under federal law to make protection of national forestlands and their valuable natural resources, a priority that takes precedence over the desires of Americans to use those resources for recreation, the agency this week (Wednesday, March 14, 2012) issued a press release purporting to approve boating along 17 miles of the 21 miles of the Upper Chattooga. That announcement followed hard on the heels of a January 31 “final” decision that would open the 17 miles at issue to unlimited numbers of kayakers and “creekers” five months of the year (December through April) at high water. The federal agency would almost immediately permit use of currently unauthorized (user-created) access trails and boater put-in points, and develop damaging new trail ways for the small boating elite. One of the proposed boater access pathways to the Upper Chattooga is neither an official Forest Service road or official trail — and beginning this past week, was widened and carved up by bulldozers as part of a simultaneously timber sale.

Also that same Wednesday, the lawyer representing the three conservation organizations, Rachel Doughty of Greenfire Law, filed a comprehensive and formal (and masterful) appeal of the Forest Service decision, and a subsequent supplemental notice, asserting that the agency in doing so was violating the Wilderness Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the National Environmental Policy and many internal Forest Service standards and guidelines. The next day, March 15, 2012, she filed a renewed request for a stay of implementation of the pro-boating decision.

The issuance of the companion release to the media was particularly egregious, the lawyer said, in that it encouraged boater-created access trails under “interim” plans of unspecified duration. The appeal called on the Forest Service to simply abandon its current plans and actually work to accurately determine in a formal Environmental Impact Statement whether or not boating should be permitted on one or the last truly wild places in the Southeast.

The appeal pointed out that more than 89,000 boaters, both private paddlers and commercial rafters, already possess virtually unlimited boating access to the 37 miles of the Wild and Scenic Lower Chattooga, as well as the adjacent West Fork and Overflow Creek, displacing many of those interested in less extreme sport: Hikers, hunters, anglers, photographers, picnickers and those interested in interaction with nature as a solitary pursuit.

But urged on by a squad of lawyer-lobbyists from Washington representing the American Whitewater special interest group and various paddling associations, the Forest Service has been bending over backwards since 2005 to accommodate the boaters and “creekers” who act like they want it all, all the time. That escalating effort has already cost the budget-pressed agency millions of taxpayer dollars so far in expert studies and consultants, staff time and a true mountain of paperwork aimed at satisfying a small, elite minority of the public.

“We’ve take this action to appeal the decision not to be cantankerous, but because the agency that is supposed to protect our national forests and their waterways is simply making the absolutely wrong decision for a precious natural and national resource,” said David Govus, a member of the Georgia ForestWatch board of directors and an active hunter and angler who has spent decades in the Chattooga corridor. “We are going to contest this decision as best we can, although it has many characteristics of a David and Goliath fight.”

Our joint appeal pointed out that the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act requires federal agencies managing such waterways to prepare comprehensive management plans, which has not been done for the Chattooga river since 1986. The appeal pointed out that even one of American Whitewater’s expert witnesses urged that such plans were key to Wild and Scenic river management in a companion legal case involving the U.S. Park Service and Yosemite National Park. The appeal pointed out that the Forest Service has apparently not consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over another companion legal case that will likely add a number of sensitive (and one endangered) aquatic species to the federal list of species requiring special protection

Enough! That is why Georgia ForestWatch teamed with the Georgia Sierra Club and the Wilderness Watch conservation organizations and Greenfire Law to try to challenge the decision and prevail on the U.S Forest Service to reverse their pro-boat aims. To that end, the partners have helped to widely distribute the following announcement from Greenfire Law to the news media, which explains our stand. Go here to review Georgia ForestWatch previous comments on the Forest Service proposals.

Georgia ForestWatch previously filed a motion in U.S. District Court in Greenville, S.C. to intervene in a court suit brought by boating lobby groups to try to entirely circumvent the Forest Service environmental analysis process and immediately open the 21 miles of affected headwaters.

Georgia ForestWatch believes it important to try to give non-boaters a say in this important court proceeding. Although the U.S. District Court judge is permitting the case to go to trial, lawyers for the federal government have now asked the court to stay the case until the administrative review, and any possible appeals, are finally decided. Georgia ForestWatch is represented separately in this case by the Atlanta-based law firm of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP.

Leave a Reply