9,814-acre state park complete
Published 9:10 am Thursday, September 3, 2015
U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, U.S. Representative Phil Roe, Conservation Fund Chairman Mike Leonard, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch and other federal, state and local officials, and private partners met Tuesday to celebrate the protection of the last 100 acres of the 9,814-acre Rocky Fork property. Rocky Fork is the largest unfragmented section of forest in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, and the protection of its final section insures generations of wildlife conservation, recreation and tourism.
“My hope and my prediction is that Rocky Fork State Park will be the most visited state park in the Tennessee state park system,”said Alexander. “No other state park will have this kind of elevation. The trout fishing here is as good as anywhere you’re going to find, but more importantly, it’s the easy access to millions of Americans looking for a great American outdoors experience. So I commend the Conservation Fund for its foresight in acquiring the property and then I commend Mayor Lynch and all the other local officials for seeing that this is a way to take Federal ownership of land, which has in some ways been a burden for Unicoi County and turning it into an asset.”
Alexander spoke about the economical benefits of improving accessibility and recreation in natural areas like Rocky Fork.
With this new funding and partnership, the local officials, the Conservation Fund and the Bureau of Parks and Conservation plan to add a visitor center, parking, improved road systems, a ranger station, gift shop, campground, and hiking, mountain bike and horseback riding trails.
“This is a great example of public-private partnership that has succeeded beyond anybody’s wildest expectations,” said U.S. Representative Phil Roe.
The first phases of Rocky Fork were acquired in 2008, with other sections added until its completion with the added ninth phase in July 2015. Thanks are due in large part to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal program that uses a percentage of proceeds from gas and offshore drilling to help preserve natural resources elsewhere.
The Conservation Fund acquired the land in 2006, working hand-in-hand with Unicoi County officials, to make plans to protect and improve the existing natural resources. Lynch thanked the Conservation Fund, contingents in Washington for making sure the funds were available to procure the land, and the efforts of Rocky Fork State Park, named Tennessee’s 55th state park in 2012.
Rocky Fork is home to Appalachian Cove Forest, one of the most biological diverse habitats in the world, a habitat for hemlock, oak, hickory, beech, pine, Fraser fir and rhododendron, Pink Lady’s Slipper, Michaux’s Lily and Yellow Fringed Orchid. The park is currently rather underdeveloped, consisting of unmarked forest roads, limited parking and no permitted camping.
“Unicoi County is ready for the challenge to take this and make sure that we create an economic development tool here without ruining our county,” said Lynch. “We’ve been coached by the Conservation Fund in many meetings and strategic planning sessions, and not only have they procured this land, but they’ve also taught us to get on track as to how to go about making the community a livable community and then accepting all the tourists that we hope come.”
He said it was not just a purchase by the conservancy, that it taught them about the conservancy and how to balance nature and commerce. After a number of workshops and receiving a grant to hold a local workshop, they developed a sustainable tourism initiative and established the Rocky Fork State Park. Now with funding and guidance, they will be able to make it more accessible and will be able to cultivate a stronger appreciation for this wilderness refuge that characterizes Unicoi County.
The Appalachian Trail skirts the west side of Rocky Fork, and plans are in place to add a future connecting route, so that visitors to Rocky Fork and hikers on the AT can experience both sites.
Rocky Fork is laden with streams, cascades and creeks flowing into South Indian Creek and later the Nolichucky River and is known for its brook trout fishing. Rocky Fork Creek flows through the park along with Lower Higgins Creek, Edwards Branch and Big Branch. Within Rocky Fork, visitors can spot the Peregrine Falcon, the worlds fastest bird, the Woodland Jumping Mouse, black bear and the Yonahlossee Salamander.
Resources like these draw sightseers and hikers, but they also draw revenue. According to Brock Hill, Deputy Commissioner of the Bureau of Parks and Conservation, Tennessee State Parks generated $37 million dollars in revenue, about $1 million more than it earned the previous year, and said it seems like it will continue to grow.
“What that means is that we’re creating jobs inside the park, we’re creating jobs outside of the park, we’re collecting sales tax, occupancy taxes, and we’re paying those taxes to local governments like Unicoi County so that they can do important things for their citizens,” said Hill. “There a lot of really good things that are coming about because state parks all over the State of Tennessee, particularly in rural communities.”
He said the University of Tennessee did a study that revealed that for every dollar invested in the Tennessee state park system, there is $17 of economic activity that we are generating.
Hill commended Alexander, the U.S. Forest Service, Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency, Governor Bill Haslam, state leadership, local leaders, non-elected leadership within local communities, Roe, U.S. Senator Bob Corker for working to get the funds from the LWCF, which was a key component in convincing the state to invest money through the Heritage Conservation Trust Fund to make this property preserved for the citizens of Tennessee and for the world.
“As of today, Rocky Fork, with this 100-acre addition that we’re celebrating today is whole,” he said.