Submarine, a rapid on the North Fork of the French Broad River in Transylvania County, forms as water flowing from the high peaks of the Balsam Range gushes between two giant boulders to create a sluice, then plunges 10 feet into a churning pool.
“What’s unique about this river is that it runs a lot,” said Kevin Colburn, the national stewardship director of American Whitewater. “I was paddling here last weekend and saw multiple groups on the river.”
But in place of descending the river in a kayak today, the third Friday of January, Colburn is discussing national forest planning and river protection while walking along the banks of the popular fishing and boating tributary that flows into the French Broad near the town of Rosman.
Colburn has a stake in the future of the North Fork and the conservation of other rivers throughout the region’s 1 million acres of national forest. Currently, the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests are undergoing a plan revision that will guide the management of the forests for the next two decades.
Colburn said the North Fork, and other streams with special qualities throughout Western North Carolina, are worthy of higher protection.
“We want to make sure that water quality remains a central focus of the plan,” he said. “We all drink the water and we want to make sure that all communities that live downstream continue to be supported by clean water.”
Forest process and WNC rivers
At two public meetings last fall, the U.S. Forest Service presented 53 rivers to the public for comment that could become eligible for inclusion in the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers system. While special land designations, such as wilderness, have taken center stage in the plan revision process, protecting watersheds hearkens back to the federal forest agency’s earliest objective.
The passage of the Weeks Act in 1911 gave the federal government the ability to purchase private land from willing sellers in order to protect the headwaters of rivers and watersheds. The first purchase under the legislation was an 8,100 acre tract in the Curtis Creek watershed in McDowell County from the Burke McDowell Lumber Company.
The North Fork is one of the South’s most popular and accessible steep creek runs, said Colburn, who represents the interests of whitewater paddlers on access and conservation issues. Rapids such as Submarine, he said, are dependent on a sufficient union of gradient, water flow and constriction.
They are also the prerequisites for hydroelectric dam sites. Nearly 400 dams exist along WNC waterways, Colburn said.
While many provide a significant public benefit, their footprint has an impact. For instance, although impeding the flow of a narrow stream such as the North Fork may create a relatively small reservoir, this can alter the river’s downstream ecology significantly.
Josh Kelly of MountainTrue said the rivers of the Southern Appalachians have some of the richest aquatic diversity in the temperate world. Flow disruptions been a major cause of population declines of imperiled aquatic species, he said.
“Wild and Scenic river status is the only way to ensure that our cleanest and wildest rivers are never dammed,” Kelly said.
Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968 in response to the proliferation of dam building and river diversion projects throughout the nation during the previous several decades. The purpose of the legislation was to create a system “to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreation values in a free-flowing condition.”
Colburn said that while some regions of the country have capitalized on the act to create a protected system of rivers, the Eastern U.S. has fallen behind.
“(In) Western North Carolina the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is underutilized compared to the vision that people had of a protected system of rivers,” Colburn said.
Across North Carolina, five rivers are classified as wild and scenic — roughly 0.4 percent of North Carolina’s nearly 40,000 miles of riverways. Among them, four have portions in western North Carolina, the South Fork of the New River, the Horsepasture River, Wilson Creek and the Chattooga River.
To be eligible, a stream must be free flowing and have one or more “outstandingly remarkable value.”
Although forest planning cannot designate a stream as wild and scenic — it requires an act of Congress and the president’s signature — Colburn said the revised Pisgah-Nantahala forest plan can set aside rivers that are eligible for protection.
Based on public comment and the best science available, the Forest Service is currently evaluating the characteristics of the rivers in the wild and scenic rivers inventory and will ultimately present a list of recommended eligible streams in the draft environmental impact statement due to be unveiled later this year, the next major milestone in the 3-5 year forest planning revision process.
“Once rivers are eligible, we view it as a menu in which the public can choose from,” said Colburn, adding that federal protection is impossible without grassroots support from local communities.
His wish list includes the headwaters of the Tuckaseegee River in Panthertown Valley, Santeetlah Creek, Spring Creek near Hot Springs, the West Fork of the Pigeon and the North Fork of the French Broad.
Yet even without congressional protection, listing rivers in the final draft of the forest management plan provides interim protection. They must be protected until Congress acts or the next time the forest plan is revised in roughly 15 years.
The list would be added to a current list of eligible rivers in North Carolina, among them the Nolichucky River and Big Laurel Creek in Madison County.
While wilderness designations have been divisive, Colburn is hopeful that river protection will stay clear of the contention that has often dogged discussions of wilderness designation in the mountains.
“When we talk to people we find that the wild and scenic rivers concept crosses political and ideological lines. We don’t see the kind of fierce pushback that you get from wilderness,” Colburn said.
David Whitmire, who represents the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council in the plan revision process and is the owner of Headwaters Outfitters in Rosman along the banks of the North Fork said he’s generally weary of congressional designations, but that federal river protection is one he’s willing to consider.
“You look at what Wild and Scenic has done for the Chattooga River and it kept the Horsepasture from a hydroelectric project,” he said. “I supported both of those.”
Whitmire was also behind a movement to protect the North Fork in the 1990s when interest arose in building flood-control dams on the stream.
“We’ve learned so much about leaving our rivers alone,” he said. “We appreciate free-flowing water more than we ever have.”
Yet Whitmire isn’t certain that wild and scenic designation is as crucial as it once was. “I don’t see as it as a problem as it was 40 years ago when people thought that damming rivers was a recreational benefit,” he said.
Among Whitmire’s concerns about special designations that surround forest planning are restrictions this may place on the ability to manage resources, such as prohibiting timber harvesting that could benefit wildlife habitat in wilderness areas or addressing the loss of hemlocks along stream banks.
Colburn said the wild and scenic rivers designation does not limit restoration unless it degrades the river’s protected value. In addition, timber harvesting and road construction can occur in wild and scenic corridors.
However, the designation does prohibit damming protected streams.
Colburn worries that, as the U.S. phases out coal and explores renewable sources of energy, hydroelectric power will be near the head of the the list of future energy production, since it’s a century-old proven alternative and one that’s currently promoted by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Indeed, a feasibility study is underway to restore a hydroelectric power plant on the Cullasaja River near Highlands. The Cullasaja River is among the 53 rivers listed in the wild and scenic rivers inventory of the forest plan revision process.
While the North Fork has been protected for decades within the Pisgah National Forest, traces of human industry are still present in the steep river gorge: the footpath along the waterway follows a defunct logging rail grade with palm size chunks of coal still evident. And on the riverbed there are pieces of rebar drilled into boulders, remnants of splash dams a century old.
“Where we’re standing there were trains rolling by and undoubtedly the entire forest was clearcut,” Colburn said. “It’s great to envision the amount of restoration that’s happened in this river bed in the last 100 years and to think about what it can look like 100 years from now if it stays on this trajectory.”