Why is the Chattooga an important precedent setting case?
Keeping Americans connected with our public lands and waters is vital to the long term protection of those natural resources. The Wilderness Act and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, among others, are intended to both protect special places and the public's connection to those places. The USFS's actions threaten that connection and violates these bedrock environmental laws. Arbitrarily granting unlimited access to large, artificially-increased, and higher-impact groups while totally banning smaller, lower-impact, nature-based groups is bad policy. This management would create competition for exclusive access to rivers among compatible groups where there is currently shared enjoyment. We are seeking to eliminate a bad precedent and restore nationally consistent river management to the Chattooga River, and in turn protect other rivers from similar bad management.
Will opening the upper Chattooga to paddling allow commercial use?
No. Paddlers are requesting access for non-commercial use only. Commercial permits for use of public lands and waters are an entirely different matter. More importantly, the upper Chattooga will not support commercial use due to its flashy hydrology, stream size, and difficulty. Commercial outfitters have openly stated that they have no interest in rafting on these sections. There are thousands of whitewater streams on USFS lands, all of which are open to boating except the Chattooga, but commercial boating occurs on only a small fraction of those streams, when permission is granted.
Will opening the upper Chattooga to paddling allow tubers to navigate the Chattooga?
Not necessarily. Paddlers are requesting access for whitewater boating, which requires specific craft designed for the activity. Paddlers have never requested that craft not designed for whitewater be allowed on the Chattooga. Furthermore, the reaches are likely not desirable for floating in tubes.
Why are paddlers requesting “unlimited use” of the upper Chattooga?
Paddlers are requesting equitable access and treatment. Currently hikers, anglers, swimmers, campers, and other wilderness compliant uses are all “unlimited.” Our request is standard management for similar streams. We agree with the Chief of the USFS that currently there is no basis for limiting uses in this area. The default policy for the USFS is to allow unlimited Wilderness compliant uses unless data suggests that use should be limited (at which time it must be limited equitably). No such data exists on the Chattooga. Paddlers support use limits on many other rivers where data suggests limits are necessary, and limits are equitable and reasonable. Likewise, upon completion of the user capacity analysis, if it is sound, paddlers will support use limitations on the Chattooga if the data indicates limitations are needed to protect the river corridor and limits are equitably imposed. USFS estimates reveal that paddling would make up by far the smallest use of the river corridor.
Can “unlimited use” be expected to have ecological impacts on the Chattooga?
No. Unlimited use by noncommercial paddlers is occurring on almost every floatable river in the entire USFS system – and on every river in the region. Paddling is a very low impact activity, and the small amount of use the upper Chattooga is expected to receive will have negligible impacts. There are no other similar headwater streams in the region with any limits on use by non-commercial boating because use numbers are low enough to have negligible impacts. There is no reason to expect the Chattooga will be any different.
Will paddling the upper Chattooga violate private property rights?
No. There is one portion of the upper Chattooga that flows through private lands and it is in North Carolina. The river is navigable under NC law since it is capable of being paddled in a kayak and thus paddlers have the right to navigate the river. No other river in NC is off limits to paddlers. More importantly though, the USFS has the right (and the obligation) under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to allow the public to traverse the Wild and Scenic corridor. That they have not yet done so is a significant failure on the part of the US Forest Service.
Is it true that the upper Chattooga is the only river in the entire Forest Service system that is banned to boating?
Yes, with one caveat. There is one river reach in Oregon that flows through lava tubes on which paddling is reportedly not allowed but the prohibition is on paper only. The prohibition is not enforced and is not on a viable paddling run and thus we do not consider it a functional prohibition of paddling.
Do kayaks, canoes and rafts belong in Wilderness areas?
Yes. The Wilderness Act explicitly states that non-motorized boats are wilderness compliant uses. The Wilderness Act is clear that Wilderness areas are to be managed to allow and encourage backcountry recreation on foot, in boats, and on horseback. As Aldo Leopold wrote in “Wilderness” from A Sand County Almanac in 1949, “Wilderness Areas are first of all a series of sanctuaries for the primitive arts of wilderness travel, especially canoeing and packing.” The right to paddle down Wilderness rivers is at the very core of the Wilderness Act and the concept of Wilderness.
Plastic and rubber boats are modern inventions, are they primitive enough to be used in Wilderness?
Yes, the Wilderness Act does not prevent use of modern non-mechanized recreational equipment in Wilderness areas. Modern synthetic boats, paddles, boots, fishing poles, fishing line, clothing, backpacks, guns, bullets, saddles, tents, and other recreational equipment are used in designated Wilderness Areas across the country.
Do kayaks, canoes and rafts belong on Wild and Scenic Rivers like the Chattooga?
Absolutely. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act specifically requires agencies to protect and enhance recreational uses recognized as valuable during the designation process. Paddling was formally recognized by congress as a public value associated with the upper Chattooga. The USFS, in recommending the river for designation claimed boating was the best way to view the river, and proposed boat launch sites at all bridges over the upper Chattooga, and specific portage trails around major rapids.
Shouldn’t there be some place for people to go and not see boaters?
There are many places one can go and not see boaters since boaters are rarely present on any headwater streams. The small percentage of headwater streams which are desirable for boaters are only floatable occasionally, after strong rains. On those few days, paddlers may or may not actually choose to paddle a specific river, and even then will only pass an area once for a brief period of the day. In short, backcountry enthusiasts have ample opportunities to experience headwater streams without paddlers present: on streams not preferred by paddlers, on all streams at flows too low and too high for paddling, and on all streams when paddlers are simply not present.
Is the boating ban illegal?
Yes, the US Forest Service is breaking the law. The office of the Chief of the USFS determined that the ban was totally unjustified and thus violated the Wilderness Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. We agree. The Chief’s office then decided to allow the illegal ban to be continued for 2-5 years. This decision to allow an admittedly illegal action to continue is what paddlers are challenging in court because it is arbitrary and capricious. The greater legal issues remain: primarily that the USFS has been breaking the law for thirty years by banning a use they are mandated to protect and enhance under both the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the Wilderness Act.
Is the river currently “zoned” so that boaters have two thirds of the river and other users have one third?
Absolutely not. Anglers, hikers, swimmers, and other backcountry users can access and enjoy the entire Wild and Scenic Chattooga River. Only boaters are restricted. An unjustified ban on boating is not zoning – it is illegal and discriminatory management.
Has the boating ban worked for the past 30 years?
No. The illegal ban has denied a generation of Americans their right to enjoy and experience floating the Wild and Scenic upper Chattooga River, including the section flowing through a designated Wilderness Area set aside for uses like paddling. The ban has fractured the recreational and environmental community, and diverted massive resources away from environmental initiatives on the Chattooga. The ban has accomplished nothing but negative things. It has not worked and is not working today. It is a management anomaly and a management embarrassment.
Did paddlers request the user capacity analysis?
No. Paddlers appealed the illegal boating ban, and on appeal the Chief of the USFS’s office discovered that the Sumter National Forest had never conducted a user capacity analysis, which is a standard management tool on Wild and Scenic Rivers. The Chief asked that a user capacity analysis be carried out so that responsible management could begin on the Chattooga. While paddlers did not request a user capacity analysis, we are glad that our efforts will bring more responsible management to the Chattooga River.
Will paddling require new river access roads or construction? No. AW is requesting no new access areas or roads and would oppose any such suggestions. Existing bridges and trails provide adequate access to the upper Chattooga River.
What is the role of fish stocking on the Chattooga? Over 70,000 exotic trout are stocked on the Chattooga each year to attract anglers. Many are stocked via helicopter in a roadless area. This practice has lead angling groups to oppose Wilderness designation for these areas. The stocking program attracts significant use and has lead to streambank erosion, many miles of user created trails, significant vegetation impacts, and obviously major impacts on other current and historic visitors (eg paddlers). The stocked fish have driven native brook trout out of the river, and the USFS currently is poisoning Chattooga tributaries in an attempt to protect brook trout from the invasive fish they are stocking in the mainstem.
Do you still have questions?
If you still have questions about AW's efforts on the Chattooga River either email them to Kevin Colburn