On March 30, 2013, the U.S. District Court in the District of South Carolina rejected American Whitewater and other boaters’ arguments that the Forest Service must allow more boating on the upper section of the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River. These boating groups sued the Forest Service over 7 years ago, seeking boating on the entire Upper Chattooga River, without flow or season limits. They have argued that the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, other resource protection laws, and the U.S. Constitution require the Forest Service to allow virtually unlimited boating. The recent court decision supports the Forest Service’s ability to manage recreational activities in the Wild and Scenic Corridor. As this issue goes to press, the boaters have not filed an appeal. If they decide to appeal, a decision in favor of the boaters by a higher court could result in placing the management of particular recreational pursuits above conservation as a priority on Wild and Scenic Rivers and in wilderness areas – not just on the Chattooga and in the Ellicott Rock Wilderness Area, but nationwide. Consequently, Georgia ForestWatch will remain involved if the boaters’ groups appeal the court’s decision.
But for now, we should celebrate. We should celebrate that over seven years ago, Georgia ForestWatch decided this was an issue worth fighting. That this upper section of the Chattooga River that winds its way through the Ellicott Rock Wilderness Area, Chattooga Cliffs, and the Rock Gorge Roadless Area should be protected because of its remarkable biodiversity, which includes rare spray cliff communities. We should celebrate the dogged tenacity of Wayne Jenkins and the late Joe Gatins for not giving up and leading the fight with our just as tenacious legal teams, Rachel Doughty from Greenfire Law, and Susan Richardson and Alex Bullock from Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP. We should celebrate that our conservation partners, the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club and Wilderness Watch, also recognized how special the upper 21 miles of the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River is, and joined us in our administrative fight.
Finally, we should celebrate and thank the many Georgia ForestWatch members, staff, volunteers, donors and foundations who have supported us in our effort to protect this very special place.
In reading through early articles on Upper Chattooga, Georgia ForestWatch believed the three decades plus boating closure remained the best option for protecting the experience of most users, the fragile aquatic ecosystem, and the forestland through which the river runs. Joe Gatins, the Georgia ForestWatch District Leader who most closely monitored this issue also felt there was a matter of fairness: the Forest Service already restricts use of these well-loved public lands by other user groups – so why should boaters have unfettered access? Judge Lewis also raised this question at the U.S. District Court hearing on February 27, 2013.
Since our Spring Forest News issue went to press, the judge issued her opinion supporting her decision. All parties involved have had some time to better understand the arguments supporting her decision, and how these arguments may guide next steps. For Georgia ForestWatch, we are assessing what impact this decision may have on our separate case challenging management of the Upper Chattooga more generally. In December 2012, Georgia ForestWatch lawyers filed a complaint and a motion to enjoin boating on the Upper Chattooga, challenging the Forest Service’s failure to protect the exceptional natural resource values which caused the Chattooga to be designated a Wild and Scenic River. Our arguments cite the Forest Service’s failure to appropriately plan access to the Chattooga Corridor, including their failure to complete a visitor capacity analysis, reliance on user-created access trails, self-registration by boaters at locations prohibited by federal regulations, and lack of a single comprehensive management plan for the Chattooga Corridor.
But for now, let’s take time to celebrate that Georgia ForestWatch – its leadership, members, volunteers, legal teams and supporters – believed in protecting this very special place we call the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River, and will continue to do so.