AW fights for paddling access on Chattooga headwaters

American Whitewater (AW) is going head-to-head with the U.S. Forest Service to open access to the headwaters of the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River for paddlesports enthusiasts, and plans to submit an appeal on April 29.
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American Whitewater (AW) is going head-to-head with the U.S. Forest Service to open access to the headwaters of the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River for paddlesports enthusiasts, and plans to submit an appeal on April 29.

At issue is a 20-mile section of the Chattooga above the Highway 28 bridge which has been banned to paddlers since 1976. Since the mid-90s, AW has been requesting access and has been continually denied. Recently, a new forest plan for the area was being drawn up and the non-profit felt the time was right to make paddlers part of the user groups allowed access to the river. Despite 1,000 letters of support, the Forest Service upheld its ban based on possible search and rescue expenses, environmental impact and the potential loss of solitude for other users -- mainly anglers.

Regional Forester Robert Jacobs said in his report: "Remoteness and solitude are both integral values associated with experiences above Highway 28, particularly in the Ellicott Rock Wilderness Area. Achieving solitude in these areas has become increasingly difficult for hikers, backpackers, anglers, and others as use increases. Adding a new user group would make this even more difficult to achieve. It is likely that boating above Highway 28 would disturb users who have become accustomed to or who have come to expect the absence of boaters."

Kevin Colburn, eastern conservation and access director for AW, said the Forest Service performed a lengthy, but unreferenced study of paddling and angling on the headwaters, essentially saying that the two activities are incompatible.

"The Forest Service is going to great lengths to lay down a lot of rhetoric into the public record without any substantiation whatsoever," Colburn said. "The primary reason they gave, really at the heart of their argument, is about conflicts with backcountry anglers. The conflict they say is a loss of solitude for this group. That's their statement: Paddling reduces the solitude of this user group."

Colburn disagrees with the Forest Service's assessment and said anglers and paddlers are both good river stewards who work together all the time. Last November, AW sponsored a conference with Trout Unlimited in Los Angeles to foster more partnerships on rivers.

"The Forest Service has created the very conflict they're attempting to manage against. There is no conflict on rivers where boaters and anglers co-exist and share the resource. On this one river it's very contentious and a wedge has been driven between these two user groups," he said.

More important than the issue of the continued ban of paddlers on the Chattooga's headwaters is the ramification it may have in other areas.

"Basically, what this (ban) says is that it's OK -- acceptable -- to ban one use while allowing another. If they make this case and it passes into public policy, other land/river managers are going to say, 'Oh, wow, these aren't compatible uses,' and start banning them. Anglers are going to lose because they'll get banned from rivers where managers think paddling is more important and (vice versa). What you'll have land managers doing potentially is divvying up the rivers across the country."

AW is filing a 70-page document, which will include legal and scientific arguments, equitability and ethical arguments, on April 29 to the chief of the Forest Service in Washington, D.C. The Forest Service has 160 days to review the document and issue a recommendation to the original forester to either re-do the decision or let it stand.

Colburn said AW is very confident that the ban will be lifted. "One, the entire Forest Service 'analysis' of the issue is unreferenced, undocumented and it's only opinions. They have no data. Second, we're certain they broke multiple laws in making the decision, including violating the Wilderness Act. Thirdly, it's just discriminatory. Look at the inequalities of it: why should one group of American citizens have total access to a river while another is banned? There's no reason."

Colburn said that if the ban isn't repealed, AW will take the case to court.

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