BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
It's finally official -- the undeveloped wilderness of Rocky Fork will remain a protected, public domain for years to come with the purchase this week of 1,200 acres of the nearly 10,000-acre tract by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS).
USFS officials at the Cherokee National Forest said Thursday that the agency's four-year effort, in cooperation with The Conservation Fund, to protect the Rocky Fork property is now complete.
"This final Forest Service acquisition is huge, not only in the number of acres, but in potential economic impact," said Unaka District Ranger Terry Bowerman.
"It will also help conserve and protect many outstanding natural and scenic resources.
"This is truly a dream come true for many people," he said.
LOCATION OF PROPERTY
Conservation Fund Field Representative Ralph Knoll has estimated that about half of this final 1,200-acre acquisition is in Greene County and half in Unicoi County.
The USFS retained $5 million in the 2011-2012 federal budget through the Federal Land and Conservation Program for the purchase of this remaining portion of a total of 9,624 acres.
In addition, the Conservation Fund obtained a $500,000 grant from the Acres for America program, half of which allowed for this final conveyance of Rocky Fork from the Fund to the USFS.
The Cherokee National Forest previously purchased a portion of Rocky Fork in September 2011, including 1,429 acres for $6 million. All but 19 acres of that tract was in Greene County, Knoll said.
The Rocky Fork property is located along the Tennessee-North Carolina border in Unicoi and Greene counties.
Approximately two-thirds of the total 10,000 acres is located in Unicoi County, with about a third in Greene County.
Knoll has described the location of Rocky Fork as adjacent to the Sampson Wildlife Area, and visible on the right for drivers on State Rt. 107 (the Erwin Highway) as they head toward Erwin from Greeneville.
The Rocky Fork property, which takes its name from the stream that flows through it, has been acquired by the USFS in increments over a period of several years with the assistance of The Conservation Fund.,
Knoll has been involved in the acquisition process since 2006.
Before 2008, a privately-owned company, New Forestry, LLC, owned more than 9,700 acres of the pristine area.
In 2008, after considerable discussion, the Forest Service was able to pay $8.4 million for a 2,237-acre tract of Rocky Fork, while The Conservation Fund purchased the majority of the land from the private landowner for $31.6 million.
Of that amount, $6 million came from a state grant and another $3 million from private sources, allowing for the immediate transfer of 2,036 acres to the USFS.
Altogether, the $40 million purchased 9,624 acres from New Forestry, LLC, Knoll said.
The private company retained about 100 acres of mountaintop property. As of March, conversations were continuing for the purchase of this remaining small portion, according to Knoll.
Over the years, The Conservation Fund has held its part of the purchased land and sold it to the Forest Service in increments as federal money became available for the USFS to buy portions of the acreage from the Fund.
The eventual goal of both the Forest Service and The Conservation Fund has been complete federal or state ownership and protection of all of Rocky Fork.
The federal government's purchases from The Conservation Fund have included:
* 1,278 acres for $5 million in 2009;
* 1,533 acres for $6 million in 2010;
* 1,429 acres for $6 million in 2011; and,
* 1,111 acres for $5.25 million this week.
These purchases were made using funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a federal land protection program that receives funds from the development of federally-owned offshore oil and gas resources, according to the news release.
"You can tell that Rocky Fork is a special place because of the unwavering dedication and determination of so many individuals and groups to preserve its natural heritage," Knoll said.
"We are especially grateful for the support of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and Appalachian Trail Conservancy, who have been instrumental throughout this landscape-scale conservation effort."
"Thanks to the foresight and support of a host of public-private partners and local, state and federal elected officials, such as Senator Lamar Alexander, Senator Bob Corker, and U.S. Representative Phil Roe, public ownership of Rocky Fork is a reality," Bowerman said in the release.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., was also quoted in the release.
"Tennesseans are enthusiastic protectors of the great outdoors, and I am pleased that the efforts at Rocky Fork will preserve this remarkable place for future generations," he said.
Motivation for this four-year project came largely from the rare, pristine quality of the land and streams within Rocky Fork.
Approximately one mile of the Appalachian Trail crosses the land.
Rocky Fork also includes about 16 miles of native brook-trout streams.
Such streams are among only a few remaining pristine brook-trout streams in the Eastern U.S., according to rankings by fisheries biologists.
"Conserving Rocky Fork also protects the water quality in neighboring communities," Bowerman said.
"We will continue to manage this area in an appropriate manner to maintain its natural character."
Rocky Fork is home to an array of rare wildlife such as the peregrine falcon, eastern hellbender, and the Yonahlossee salamander, according to the news release. At least 10 species of greatest conservation need have been recorded on the property.
Rocky Fork is also part of the Unicoi Bear Reserve and contains prime bear breeding habitat, according to the release.
The wilderness area is open to recreational hunting, fishing, camping and hiking.