article photo 1

Paddlers Take Chattooga Issue to Federal Court

Posted: 10/15/2009
by Kevin Colburn


Wild and Scenic Chattooga River, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia


Conservation-oriented kayakers and canoeists sought protection in federal court on Wednesday from an illegal decision by the United States Forest Service involving the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River.  The USFS decision, which was the culmination of a 2004 administrative appeal by American Whitewater, makes it a federal crime for paddlers to float the northernmost 21 miles of the River and its tributaries except on a limited seven-mile section during 6 or fewer days per year.


These severe restrictions are the only of their kind in the entire Unites States, and are intended to benefit anglers who pursue heavily stocked non-native trout.  The artificial fishery created by the USFS-sanctioned stocking has significant impacts including hatchery pollution, backcountry helicopter disturbances, near elimination of native brook trout, user created angling trails, and the elimination of nature based paddling from the upper Chattooga River. Ironically, the USFS decision actually harms anglers across the Country by creating potential competition for wild rivers that are currently shared by all forms of backcountry recreationists, and by degrading the rights of anglers to fish from a boat.


The complaint challenges the USFS decision because it imposes the harshest possible limits on nature-based paddling while artificially increasing angling use and inequitably allowing all other uses of the river corridor to occur in unlimited numbers.  The USFS decision violates the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and other environmental laws and policies. 


The complaint references Forest Service data that shows if paddlers were managed like all other uses (i.e. unrestricted) they would comprise only 2% of the total visitors to the area and would only contribute 1 ½ % of the days on which encounter standards are exceeded.  In four years of considering this issue, the Agency has failed to document a single adverse impact of paddling on the river corridor or on other users.   Like all regional headwaters streams, the Chattooga’s flows naturally separate angling and boating uses, with anglers and other users having the river to themselves on more than 300 days annually when boating cannot occur due to insufficient stream flows.   


“To ban the smallest, slowest growing, and lowest impact use while allowing all other uses access to the river in unlimited numbers not only violates the law, it is poor resource stewardship and management,” contends Kevin Colburn, American Whitewater’s National Stewardship Director. “It is irrational to ban paddling merely to reduce paddler-angler encounters when the two uses seldom overlap and are compatible.  We are confident that any objective reviewer of this issue will restore nationally consistent river management.”


Don Kinser, American Whitewater’s President adds “The Agency’s own review bears out what we have been telling them for years: that paddling will be self regulating based on rainfall, use will be low and that there is no adverse effect on fishing. Despite the facts to the contrary, the Agency continues to pander to a small group of elite anglers who want a private playground on public land - even though this decision will harm anglers, paddlers, and all Americans that enjoy visiting rivers on public lands.”


The complaint follows fourteen years of stewardship work by American Whitewater and other groups to restore nationally consistent river management to the Chattooga River through the USFS’s administrative process. “Litigation against an agency partner is always the last resort for our organizations, and is an extremely rare action for any of us to take,” notes Paul Sanford, Stewardship Director for the American Canoe Association, “While our organizations and members work extremely well with the USFS at the national level and literally on every other river, we simply can’t allow this bad decision by local Forests to stand.”


Kevin Miller, a representative of Foothills Paddling Club agrees, “The Forest Service does a commendable job of managing rivers across the Country in a manner that is generally equitable, rational, legal, and protective. We are simply asking that they manage the Chattooga like they manage all other rivers.”


Bruce Hare, a local South Carolina paddler who regularly floated all sections of the 52-mile Wild and Scenic Chattooga River prior to the original USFS decision making it a federal crime to do so, has joined in the Complaint to make sure others can experience this river as he once did. “The upper Chattooga River is a challenging river that rarely has enough water to float, but when conditions are right it provides an incomparable and unique paddling experience.  I and other paddlers supported federal wild and scenic protection of the Chattooga specifically to protect and enhance the river and the paddling experiences it provides.  I cannot believe the local Forest is trying to make boating a criminal act on any part of a Wild and Scenic River.  It is contrary to everything the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act stands for.”   


“The one silver lining in the recent decision is that the USFS is finally going to protect the river from rampant user-created-trails and sprawling campsites.” notes Colburn. “Had we not challenged USFS mismanagement of the river these significant ecological impacts would have gone unnoticed and unmanaged. We have helped protect the river, now if only we could enjoy it.” 


The Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include American Whitewater, American Canoe Association, Atlanta Whitewater Club, Foothills Paddling Club, Georgia Canoeing Association, Western Carolina Paddlers, and three individuals. The kayakers and canoeists are being represented on a pro bono basis by the law firms of Patton Boggs, LLP, and Nelson Galbreath, LLC.

Kevin Colburn
Asheville, NC