ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Following an appeal by conservation groups, the regional office of the U.S. Forest Service ruled that the Nantahala National Forest must consider alternative routes outside of a sensitive watershed to access a private development surrounded by Forest Service land in the Fires Creek watershed. The Southern Environmental Law Center filed an administrative appeal on behalf of the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition, the Wilderness Society, Wild South and the Western North Carolina Alliance.
“We must make a commitment to protect the special places in our region,” said D.J. Gerken, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The Fires Creek watershed is a unique place and we shouldn’t carve a roadway through it without considering reasonable and affordable alternatives.”
Fires Creek is designated an Outstanding Resource Water, the highest designation available in North Carolina, and is home to exceptional aquatic habitat – which is increasingly rare in the state. Streams in this exceptional watershed are especially sensitive to sediment and other runoff from road construction and other disturbances.
“The water quality and aquatic habitat of streams in the Fires Creek watershed is exceptionally high,” said Callie Moore of the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition. “We’re hopeful that with further consideration the Forest Service will choose a route of access that safeguards this special area.”
In June, Forest Service staff approved a developer’s proposal for road construction adjacent to Fires Creek, without giving full consideration to alternative routes that would avoid the high quality watershed altogether. The developer’s proposed access route required new road construction and reconstruction of existing roads, several of which are within feet of Fires Creek. The watershed is within the Nantahala rock formation which can produce acid runoff when disturbed by construction activities. Conservation groups appealed the decision based on an inadequate consideration of alternatives under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The Forest Service’s decision was unpopular with conservation groups, hunters, hikers and fishermen. The popular Fires Creek Rim Trail is a hiking trail that once crossed the private land that would be accessed by the new road, but the property owners posted no trespassing signs and forced the Forest Service to reroute the trail, as a pressure tactic to advance their project proposal. The trail now descends 2,000 feet before climbing back to the Rim to bypass the property. There is potential to reroute the Rim Trail around the private land to avoid this long detour, but the proposed road to access the inholding would permanently impact recreational users.
“The Fires Creek Rim Trail is one of the most pristine hiking experiences in western North Carolina,” said Bob Gale of the Western North Carolina Alliance. “Rerouting the access to the inholding will help ensure that hikers, fishermen and hunters can have a unique wilderness experience, unspoiled by road construction and use while in the watershed.”
“The Fires Creek Watershed represents one of the few remaining undeveloped watersheds of its size in Western North Carolina,” said Ben Prater of Wild South. “The Forest Service has a responsibility to protect water quality and forest resources above all else. We as a conservation community must always be vigilant to remind the agency of their priorities.”
“We’re pleased that the Forest Service is going to go back and take a look at alternatives that don’t involve significant road building and reconstruction in the watershed,” said Brent Martin of the Wilderness Society. “These streams are largely untouched by development and an increase in sediment entering the streams or runoff from acid-bearing rock could have devastating consequences for the area.”
About Southern Environmental Law Center:
The Southern Environmental Law Center is a regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC’s team of nearly 60 legal and policy experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use. www.SouthernEnvironment.org
About the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition:
The Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition is an 18-year-old nonprofit organization dedicated to sustaining good water quality in streams, lakes and rivers that flow into the Hiwassee River. The Coalition works with local landowners, governments, schools and businesses to recognize and address threats to water resources. The Coalition’s staff of knowledgeable professionals plans and implements volunteer-powered projects to solve problems before water quality is beyond reasonable recovery.
About the Wilderness Society:
Since 1935, the Wilderness Society has been the leading national organization working to protect our nation’s shared public lands and to inspire Americans to care for our wild places. Through our conservation and public engagement efforts, we work to preserve our nation’s rich natural legacy for future generations.
About Wild South:
For over 20 years Wild South has inspired people to enjoy, value, and protect the wild character and natural legacy of the South. As a conservation leader on public lands we have protected over half a million acres, numerous species and counting.
For 30 years, the Western North Carolina Alliance has been a trusted community partner, marshaling grassroots support to keep our forests healthy, our air and water clean, and our communities vibrant. WNCA empowers citizens to be advocates for livable communities and the natural environment of Western North Carolina.