Some 4,000 Acres
Of The Pristine
In Greene County
BY KEN LITTLE
ERWIN -- Uncommon cooperation among traditional adversaries and years of persistence paid off Tuesday when Rocky Fork was formally proposed as Tennessee's 55th state park.
Everyone will benefit from its creation, Gov. Bill Haslam told an enthusiastic gathering at the I-26 Welcome Center here.
The property is part of the 10,000-acre tract acquired by The Conservation Fund and U.S. Forest Service in 2008, and will be conveyed to the state in 2013.
About 4,000 acres of Rocky Fork are in Greene County, and the remainder is in Unicoi County.
"Today's announcement at Rocky Fork comes on the heels of a multi-year effort led by a coalition of both public and private partners," Haslam said.
"In Tennessee, we want to protect those things that make Tennessee special. This is an incredible story of how things can and should work," the governor said.
Haslam was joined at the ceremony by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., along with members of the state legislature, local elected officials and members of the public who have long advocated for the park.
DECADES OF WORK
"This is really kind of the culmination of decades of hard work by more groups and individuals than I can possibly name," said David Ramsey, a nature photographer whose family connections to Rocky Fork go back several generations.
Rocky Fork is named for a stream that runs through the property. Unicoi County was covered in a dusting of snow Tuesday, but passion for the creation of the Rocky Fork Park has heated up over the years.
Ramsey said the park will become a reality because of an unlikely combination of public and private groups working together.
"It's an important area," Ramsey said. "I think the real story here is how for the last 16 or 17 years, groups have come together and stood shoulder-to-shoulder to get this land protected. Many times anywhere else they were adversarial groups."
The ceremony announced the future conveyance of 2,036 acres in Unicoi County that will eventually become part of the Rocky Fork Park. U.S. Forest Service lands previously purchased since 2008 total 7,677 acres.
Haslam, who took a brief tour of the park before the ceremony, offered congratulations "to the citizens of Northeast Tennessee who rallied in support to preserve this beautiful property."
He also praised Alexander and The Conservation Fund for ongoing efforts to make the park a reality.
PARK A 'GATEWAY'
The park will not only serve as a "gateway" to the Appalachian Trail, it will also draw people to Unicoi and Greene counties, Haslam said.
"This is a special place," he said. "We have 54 state parks in Tennessee and it is my pleasure to announce it will be the 55th state park."
WHERE IT'S LOCATED
Rocky Fork is located along the Appalachian Trail corridor and the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
The property is adjacent to more than 22,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service-designated wilderness, including Sampson and Bald mountains.
Prior to Rocky Fork's acquisition by The Conservation Fund and the U.S. Forest Service, it was one of the largest unprotected tracts in the southern Appalachian Mountains.
"A Tennessee state park in the Rocky Fork area will attract anyone who enjoys the Great American Outdoors to come to beautiful Unicoi County, have a good time, and spend some money to build up the tax base," Alexander said. "We have seen this happen in Maryville, Sevierville and Asheville, and there is no reason it can't happen in Erwin."
Alexander congratulated Haslam, The Conservation Fund and other state and local officials "for their vision and leadership."
"I think we've got the whole thing in this part of Tennessee," Alexander said.
Federal funding for the Rocky Fork land acquisition was made possible through the efforts of Alexander and the Tennessee Congressional delegation to secure support from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, along with private contributions of more than $4 million, said Meg Lockhart, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC).
Lockhart said other key partners in addition to TDEC include the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), Tennessee Heritage Conservation Trust Fund, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, Appalachian Conservancy, and Unicoi and Greene counties.
Among elected officials at the ceremony was state Rep. David Hawk, R-5th, of Greeneville.
"In my role as chairman of the Conservation and Environment Committee, I've been working with state (officials) for a couple of years now to help make this a reality," Hawk said. "This is a great opportunity for citizens all over the world to enjoy the beauty of Northeast Tennessee."
The park proposal is "unique," said Ed Carter, TWRA executive director.
"It's going to kind of lie in the middle of U.S. Forest Service land," Carter said. "Lands directly inside the state park will also be part of a wildlife management area. We will be able to protect some of those species that are unique to this area."
Because 10 species of "greatest conservation need" have been recorded on the property, Rocky Fork scores in the highest conservation value category in the State Wildlife Action Plan, Lockhart said.
Ramsey said Rocky Fork includes a section of the Appalachian Trail, and 3,500 acres of Rocky Fork are within the "viewshed" of the trail.
A 'COMMON CAUSE'
"This is really rare to have groups from all over this area come together for a common cause," he said. "Rocky Fork is one of the single-most important parts of the state of Tennessee for nature."
Prime brook trout and black bear habitats are just two examples, Ramsey said.
"If we had allowed Rocky Fork to be developed into a gated community that habitat may have been destroyed," he said. "It's very important to keep that corridor intact."
The 2,000 acres to be conveyed by The Conservation Fund "offer a low-impact, financially feasible proposal for a new state park, which would serve as a catalyst for economic activity in Unicoi County and surrounding areas," Lockhart said.
While discussions are under way regarding the development of the proposed park, budgeting and appropriations first need to be reviewed and approved by Haslam and the state General Assembly.
Lockhart said preliminary plans for the "park in progress" include an access road, ranger station, primitive campground, picnic areas and trails.