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Protecting the Nolichucky River

leah kirk

Southern Trout along with residents along the Nolichucky River and others are working to “keep the Nolichucky free-flowing.” Only about one-third of one percent of rivers are federally protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. With next year marking its 50th anniversary, activists and local outdoor enthusiasts say “there is no better time to build a movement around the iconic Nolichucky Gorge.”

Tennessee has already recommended that the seven-mile stretch between Poplar, North Carolina, and Unaka Springs, Tennessee, be recommended by the U.S. Forest Service for protection under the act. Years after US Nitrogen constructed a pipeline along the river in Greene County, some residents believe more needs to be done to protect the river’s ecosystem.

John Grace, a kayaker from Asheville, recently produced a short film that called on residents in North Carolina and Tennessee to contact their senators and urge them to protect the river and surrounding gorge. He said the campaign to federally protect the river will “need a little push.”

Grace said the Nolichucky, which is one of the last remaining free-flowing rivers in the southeastern United States, must be protected — not only to preserve the ecosystem but to encourage economic growth through outdoor recreation and tourism, which he said could be lost if a dam or other developments were constructed.

Matt Moses from Mountain River Guides agreed that keeping the river untamed is essential to the outdoor recreation industry around the Nolichucky. In Grace’s video, he talked about how important that industry is to Unicoi County. The Nolichucky River gorge and the Appalachian Trail are the two big tourism draws here in Unicoi County.

                Outdoor sports enthusiasts come from all across the country to enjoy the Nolichucky and its ecosystem. The first consequence would be the loss of habitat. When you put in a dam, parts (of the river) become dewatered, and it becomes a dry stream bed.  Woody Callaway, co-founder of Liquid Logic Kayaking, said the Nolichucky River is an “iconic place.” He too supports protecting the river under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act due to its ecological value and location.

“What I think is really cool and unique about the Nolichucky is that this is a natural river — there’s no dams,” he said. “If you look on a map, and you look at the topography, the Nolichucky headwater starts at two of the highest points on the East Coast, Mount Mitchell to the south and Roan Mountain to the north.”