Access to Chattooga River Headwaters: 00, 0, & 1, GA/SC/NC

posted July 2, 2001
by Jason Robertson

Summary . Review Issue . Proposed Solution . Endnotes

ISSUE: On July 1, 1976 the Forest Service banned legal boating access on the Chattooga River above the Highway 28 Bridge. In November 1999, American Whitewater mobilized support and submitted a proposal to the Forest Service requesting limited opportunities for whitewater boating on the beautiful Class IV-VI headwaters of the Chattooga. About 450 American Whitewater members wrote letters supporting our proposal. This should be sufficient to ensure that the issue is addressed under the on-going Forest Management Plan revisions. However this does not appear to be the case.

We expect to see a proposed draft of the new River Management Plan released for public comment in the early summer of 2001 and we believe the proposed River Management Plan will continue to ban boating access above Highway 28. The Forest Service does not perceive enough "need" or boater demand to justify changing the traditional management plan.

We have received a great deal of feedback regarding the limited nature of the original 1999 proposal (river gauge levels, time of year, etc.). Based on this feedback and further deliberation we have determined our best strategy is to press for year round access to these sections of the Chattooga without a minimum flow requirement.

GOAL (Short-term): Demonstrate enough need and boater demand to the Forest Service to justify a change to the current River Management Plan and ensure that legal boating access above Highway 28 is included as an option for public comment under the proposed River Management Plan revisions.

GOAL (Long-term): Provide legal boating access to the headwaters.

A Proposal for Allowing Whitewater Access to:

Sections 00, 0, and 1 in the Headwaters of the Chattooga River


American Whitewater recommends lifting the boater ban on Sections 00, 0, and 1 in the headwaters of the Chattooga River. We propose allowing kayak and canoe access. However, we do not propose construction of any new facilities or opening these sections for commercial rafting. The river runs at boatable flows about 30 days each year and two-thirds of these days occur during January, February, and March. In other words, Sections 00, 0, and 1 are most suitable for whitewater recreation at times when they are less suitable for other recreation activities; therefore boating would complement other forest visitation and user conflicts would be naturally limited.

A Review of the Problem

On May 10, 1974 Congress identified 57 miles of the Chattooga River for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic River System.

The headwaters of the Chattooga River include some of the most beautiful and remote areas in the southeastern Appalachians. The river plunges out of the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina, through the Ellicott Rock Wilderness, and between the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia and Sumter National Forest in South Carolina. The boating community commonly identifies these portions of the river as Sections 00, 0, and 1.

Sections 00, 0, and 1 are closed [i] to whitewater recreationists, yet dozens of boaters challenge the Forest Service ban every year. In a way, the Forest Service predicted the importance of these river segments as long ago as 1985, when they stated that "This river corridor has the potential to become one of the most significant areas in the east providing a wide range of challenging outdoor recreational pursuits in a primitive setting."[ii]

American Whitewater does not condone breaking the law. However, it is a well-known fact that it is possible to run the river without getting caught by the River Rangers. In fact, there is a tacit "don't look, don't tell" policy between river rangers and boaters on these sections and boating footage has appeared regularly in promotional whitewater videos since the late 1980's. These videos have been distributed throughout the country, and most southeastern boaters can readily identify footage from the headwaters of the Chattooga. However, the tacit acceptance of boating within the headwaters by the River Rangers is not an acceptable alternative to modifying the ban and legalizing boating in the headwaters at different times of the year.

Access Director Jason Robertson has observed that "American Whitewater's members do not want to break the rules; instead, we simply seek a legitimate opportunity to visit the headwaters of this beautiful river and challenge ourselves on its waterfalls and cascades."

The fact that boaters are compelled to challenge the boating ban is strong evidence that access to the river is of national interest to the boating community.[iii]

Part of the reason for this interest is that boaters can count on these sections to have adequate flows even when many of the other regional creeks are too low or too high. Another part of the interest is fostered by the long history of river running in the southeast and the tradition of "steep creeking" which began nearly 30 years ago on the headwaters and tributaries of the Chattooga River. Other reasons for interest in accessing the headwaters, as identified by the Forest Service, include the river's unique "scenic and isolation qualities."[iv]

In the 1970's, the headwaters of the Chattooga were generally considered too dangerous for floating by commercial rafters. As a result Forest Supervisor Donald W. Eng prohibited floating north of SC/GA Highway 28 for public safety purposes at the same time he required the use of safety equipment such as helmets and life jackets on the lower sections of the river.[v]

However, private use patterns were already changing and the nature of river running was evolving. Primarily, advances in boating techniques, training, safety, and equipment were rapidly improving; and with this evolution private boaters switched from the use of army surplus rafts to specially crafted canoes and kayaks made specifically for running the waterfalls and cascades in the Appalachians.

Now, the forbidding headwaters of the Chattooga, with its remote waterfalls and dramatic whitewater, has become a desirable boating destination for mainstream whitewater canoers and kayakers. A quick look at the number and caliber of visitors on Section IV provide even more evidence that the boating ban has reached an age where it is no longer necessary for purposes of public safety. In fact, the USFS River Rangers have acknowledged in private conversations that the ban is not useful for purposes of public safety.

However, as the private boaters were making well-documented advances in safety equipment, and techniques, the ban was reaffirmed in 1985 when the Forest Service released the Land and Resources Management Plan (LRMP) for the Chattooga. As in 1981, the LRMP limited floating to Sections I, II, III, & IV in the Sumter and Chattahoochee National Forests. However, no mention of safety was made in regard to the boating ban; instead, the ban was described as a tool for providing "quality trout fishing."[vi]

In other words, the ban was altered in order to prevent possible conflicts between fishermen and floaters. In some ways this change was understandable; after all, this river has long been recognized as one of the finest stocked-trout fisheries in the region. In other ways, the ban violates customary Forest Service practices and does not meet the straight-face-test and simply does not make sense. It should be possible to set appropriate limits on use that would maximize the public's opportunity to visit and enjoy this beautiful setting whether they are fishing, hiking, or floating.

In retrospect, the closure does not appear consistent with the purpose of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act or the Forest Land and Resource Management Plan.[vii] After all, whitewater kayaking and canoeing are consistent with wilderness management, represent two of the oldest and most primitive forms of human-powered travel in North America as well as two of the most uniquely American pastimes, and do not damage the environment or leave a detectable trail.

Regardless, the Forest Service does not require a total ban on floating in the headwaters of the Chattooga in order to perform its duties and exercise its responsibilities.

The Forest Service can let Mother Nature be the judge and arbiter of appropriate uses. Simply put, Sections 00, 0, and 1 are most suitable for whitewater recreation at times when they are less suitable for other activities such as fishing, hiking, or swimming. Therefore floating could, and should, be allowed as it would complement,not conflict with, the use patterns of other visitors.

Whitewater boaters can only run the river when there is sufficient water to float and negotiate the rapids; whereas most fishermen and other river users tend to avoid the river at higher flows when boaters would be present.[viii] [ix] The corollary is that boaters would avoid the river at lower flows when fishermen and hikers would be present. There would be limited opportunities for encounters between the different users, and, as the Forest Service emphasizes, "Numerous people may use the river at the same time, but bends and rapids prevent long sight distances, and falling water mutes sounds."[x]

A Logical Solution that Makes Sense

On behalf of our members and the boating community, American Whitewater recommends lifting the boater ban on Sections 00, 0, and 1 of the Chattooga River.P> We recommend requiring boaters to self-register at the put-in launch sites for Sections 00, 0, and 1. Self-registration is already conducted on Sections I, II, III and IV. Therefore it should not be difficult or unreasonable to implement the same system on Sections 00, 0, and 1. If use exceeds the limits of acceptable change (LAC[xi]), then use may be restricted. However, it is unlikely that access will need to be artificially limited given the difficult nature of the whitewater and the proposed limited opportunities for adequate flows.

Use should be managed within the Land and Resource Management Plan under the relevant Wild & Scenic classification for each section (wild or recreational)[xii]. Both wild and recreational status conveys USFS responsibility to manage for and provide "water-oriented recreational opportunities in a primitive setting."

Given the degree of difficult whitewater and congested nature of the river corridor in these sections, we recommend limiting use to canoes, kayaks, and small inflatable kayaks (such as "Shredders" or "duckies").

These river sections are not well suited for rafting or commercially guided activities. However, the rivers are very suitable for other forms of whitewater recreation (kayaking and canoeing) as demonstrated on regional creeks such as the Stekoa, Overflow, Tallulah, and Horsepasture.

Concerns for safety, rescue, & emergency evacuation can be addressed. Whitewater recreation carries certain identifiable risks. The use of appropriate safety gear such as helmets, life jackets, throw ropes, spare paddles, and first aid kits mitigates these risks. Furthermore, training in first aid and CPR can also help to reduce the risks associated with outdoor activities such as, but not limited to, boating.

The river managers and rangers on the Chattooga are already well-versed and trained in the management of whitewater recreation[xiii]; therefore we do not anticipate a need for additional training or staffing to manage use on Sections 0, 00, and 1. Furthermore, the River Rangers are under no false expectations regarding their ability to help with river safety . As the river managers are aware, most boating teams are able to conduct their own rescues when accidents occur.[xiv]


i Appendix M, page 2, part I of the 1985 LRMP states:

Use patterns on the river have stabilized on the river, although use continues to rise. Floating is limited to the 26 mile portion below Highway 28 Bridge and the West Fork's lower 4 miles in Georgia. Sections of the river designated I-IV are open to boating with each section providing progressively more difficult white water than the preceding one.

ii Appendix M, page 1 (Introduction), of the 1985 LRMP states:

This Plan provides detailed management direction for resources and people using the river under the guidance of the Forest Land Management Plan. The Plan will be reviewed annually and revised as needed.

iii Appendix M, page 1 (Introduction), of the 1985 LRMP states:

This river corridor has the potential to become one of the most significant areas in the east providing a wide range of challenging outdoor recreational pursuits in a primitive setting. Managers will have to evaluate carefully all actions to ensure that decisions are based on a national perspective rather than on a more limited scope.

iv Appendix M, page 3, part II, subsection A (Management Objectives) of the 1985 LRMP states:

Only 3 other rivers were found in an analysis of 48 rivers within a 250 mile radius of the Chattooga that provide quality white water rafting in a natural setting where a governmental agency could protect the scenic and isolation qualities. Since 99% of shoreline for the Chattooga's main stream in Georgia and South Carolina is federally owned, this may be the only stream in the south where these experiences may be retained, as developments change other rivers.

v See Appendix M, page 32 of the 1985 LRMP for this letter and an analysis on Appendix M, page 20, part III, subsection H (Safety) which states:

The Chattooga has very dangerous white water for inexperienced or poorly-equipped floaters. Numerous fatalities occurred during the early 1970s before safety programs were implemented. The Regional Forester prescribed equipment needed to float certain sections, and this is made a condition of floating when trip leaders complete a self-registration slip before starting their trip [life jacket, helmet, floatation, two or more people].

vi Appendix M, page 16, part III, subsection C of the 1985 LRMP states that:

The Chattooga is considered to be the best trout stream in South Carolina and one of the best in Georgia. It has the size and volume to permit quality fly fishing in a very attractive setting. This is especially true on the undeveloped section north of Highway 28 Bridge where floating use is not permitted to provide quality trout fishing. The upper portion has colder water and is more conducive to natural regeneration. Fishing pressure, especially near the bridges where access is good, is heavier than natural reproduction can replace. These areas are stocked by the states using hatchery grown trout.

vii Appendix M, page 3, part II, subsection A (Management Objectives) of the 1985 LRMP states:

Management will be geared to feature challenging, semi-primitive experiences in the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River Corridor. Management will provide a range of recreational opportunities characteristic of, and in harmony with, the nature of the individual river segments.

viii Levels below 2.6 feet are generally too low for canoeing and kayaking on these sections, though the river can be floated as low as 2.2 feet.

ix The USGS gauge located at Highway 76 is identified as Station Number 02177000, (Chattooga River near Clayton, GA). The web site for this gauge is:

viii Appendix M, page 3, part II, subsection A (Management Objectives) of the 1985 LRMP.

xi The LAC is a USFS term. It is generally used to provide a semi-scientific justification for restricting impacts to the environment based on specific, monitored criteria.

xii Appendix M, page 4, part II, subsection A (Management Objectives) of the 1985 LRMP describes how the Forest Supervisor will:

Manage WILD sections to (1) preserve the river and its immediate environment in a natural, wild, and primitive condition essentially unaltered by man's effects, and (2) provide water-oriented recreational opportunities in a primitive setting.
Manage RECREATION sections to provide (1) compatible outdoor recreational opportunities and water-oriented recreational facilities, and (2) utilize other resources and permit other activities which maintain or enhance the quality of the wildlife habitat, fisheries, scenic attraction, or recreational values.

xiii Appendix M, page 5, part II, subsection C (Personnel) of the LRMP states:

Efficient administration of the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River requires employees knowledgeable in (1) the river's characteristics; (2) regulations and policy; (3) floater and other user group use patterns, capabilities and desires; (4) special use permit administration; and (5) ability to administer a program designed to balance public needs for a limited river resource in the spirit of the Congressional legislation.

xiv Appendix M, page 5, part II, subsection C (Personnel) of the 1985 LRMP states:

River Rangers will be briefed on rescue procedures but will not be expected to be equipped or proficient.
River Rangers will lead search and rescue efforts until relieved by Rescue Squad or Forest Service personnel.

Jason Robertson
635 Joseph Cir
Golden, CO 80403-2349