Not out of the woods
BY BUZZ WILLIAMS
Since the early 18th Century, scientists have recognized the unparalleled biological richness of the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment. For those of us who grew up here, this Eden was for a long time our well-kept secret. There simply weren't that many people out there.
We celebrate the acquisition of the Jocassee Gorges from the Duke Energy Corporation; now it is time for the public to help design a management plan for these 32,000 acres, which comprise one of the most significant wildlife areas left in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Without a strong public voice advocating a mandate to manage the area for that single quality that sets the Jocassee Gorges apart, I am concerned that the richness of life there will be significantly degraded.
The greatest damage to the area has been done by the most recent owner, Duke Energy Corporation, which buried many sections of the area's rivers under Keowee and Jocassee lakes. Then came Bad Creek, the "pump storage" impoundment which destroyed pristine wildlife habitat and fragmented the native forests. Crescent Land and Timber Company severely damaged other parts of this forest with their "industrial strength" timber management.
I am not ashamed to admit that, at times, I shed tears with the encroachment that slowly and methodically degrades the Gorges, which goes on almost unnoticed by a public placated with promises of greater economic prosperity.
In my high school and college years, we watched as little orange stakes appeared in our favorite hunting and fishing areas around the Musterground. These stakes marked the roads that soon carried away the ancient forest. I remember one picture of a small girl standing full height in the heart of an old poplar tree that was five feet across. The foresters said it was a dying tree that needed to be harvested.
The lakes brought more residents, tourists and fisheries. The Gorges were not our secret any more. This wasn't all bad; it also helped protect the pristine quality of the area.
In the 1980s, when Carasan Power Company threatened to build a power plant on the Horsepasture River, the courthouse in Brevard, N.C., was packed with hundreds of people demanding the developer's permit be denied. The Horsepasture was subsequently designated as a National Wild and Scenic River.
Then, when Duke Power announced it would build another pump storage site at Coley Creek, the public rebelled. Today, the acquisition of the Jocassee Gorges is backed by overwhelming public support.
Unlike in days gone by, we must recognize both the inherent opportunities and the dangers that accompany this new turn in ownership and management of this special place. There is great danger that the Jocassee Gorges area is about to be yet further degraded in by "progress" and greater economic prosperity.
Let me explain. Gov. David Beasley, while basking in applause after announcing the acquisition of the Jocassee Gorges during the State of the State address, neglected to mention that he has removed all of the scientists from the Department of Natural Resource's Board of Directors and the Heritage Trust Advisory Committee.
He has replaced them with individuals such as a real estate agent and a timber procurement officer for Stone Container Corporation, a company that has been cited by the Environmental Protection Agency for over 1,000 violations of federal laws. The lack of scientific expertise will make the Jocassee Gorges vulnerable to those now in power who hold a vested interest for extraction and development.
The alternative is to designate the Jocassee Gorges area as a Heritage Trust Preserve. This designation will do two things. First, it will place the land in a category of management reserved for lands "considered the most outstanding representatives of our state's heritage." This designation would still allow hunting and camping, and forest management. Secondly, this designation places the area in the hands of DNR's biological diversity section, which has the expertise to manage the area for its outstanding natural resources.
The decision whether to designate the Jocassee Gorges as a preserve will be made by the DNR Board of Directors and the Heritage Trust Advisory Committee. Sadly, Gov. Beasley has stacked the deck against such a designation.
It has been reported that the Jocassee Gorges stand a "snowball's chance in hell" of receiving the designation. But I choose to think that a well-informed public will demand that the area receive the designation of a Heritage Trust Preserve to protect it from heavy timber harvesting and overdevelopment. The public should demand that qualified scientists have input on a management plan to restore the native forest.
The Jocassee Gorges could be managed as a great legacy for future generations -- but only if a loud voice from the public demands it. I urge you to act swiftly to make your voice heard.
Buzz Williams is executive director of the Chattooga River Watershed Coalition.
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To find out how you can help preserve the Jocassee Gorges, contact Butch Clay at South Carolina ForestWatch by calling 864-647-8804 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.