A Bright Future For Rocky Fork
Rocky Fork creek. Photo by Greg Hutson. To order prints email: LRTM@bellsouth.net.
Before And After
Check out the before and after photo of a stream at Rocky Fork that once ran murky but now is clean thanks to the efforts of the Fund and USDA Forest Service. "Conversion At Rocky Fork",Johnson City Press. November 21, 2011.
“If I had time, I could write a book about The Conservation Fund and its impact on our county. The Conservation Leadership Network workshops advanced our efforts toward sustainable tourism by several years. I think the majority of our citizens now look at our public land as an asset...which is almost an about-face compared to just a few years ago.”
— Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch
"It has been a real pleasure to work on a project that resulted in not only the protection of 10,000 acres of prime wildlife habitat and places for recreation, but because it will also result in creating a positive impact on the economies of the surrounding communities."
—Ralph Knoll, The Conservation Fund
After nearly five years of hard work, we were thrilled to convey the final piece of Rocky Fork, the largest tract of unprotected land in the southern Appalachian Mountains, to the U.S. Forest Service in September 2012.
Located along the Tennessee-North Carolina border in Unicoi and Greene counties, Rocky Fork offers unparalleled beauty, with nearly 10,000 acres of forest, blue-ribbon trout streams and recreational opportunities that attract visitors and support the local economy.
Saving Rocky Fork took dedicated partners, multiple funders and plenty of community involvement.
Along the way, our Conservation Leadership Network® worked with leaders from across the community to highlight how Rocky Fork’s natural assets, community character and quality of life, could be emphasized to grow sustainable tourism. You can read about this effort here. We recognize that community-driven change takes time, and we invest for the long-term. Working together, we saved this one-of-a-kind place.
Tennessee’s Newest State Park
In October 2012, Tennessee’s leaders came together to propose designating Rocky Fork as the state’s newest state park. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau announced a low-impact, financially feasible proposal that would make more than 2,000 acres more accessible and serve as a catalyst for economic activity in Unicoi County and surrounding areas. Preliminary plans for this “park in progress” include an access road, ranger station, primitive campground, picnic areas and trails, in addition to interpretive efforts to share the historic Revolutionary War-era battles site.
What Are The Benefits Of Saving Rocky Fork?
At The Conservation Fund, we know that our land conservation work often has benefits beyond just the protection of a special place. Rocky Fork is a perfect example of that. Rocky Fork will offer tremendous benefits for the surrounding communities—like clean air, thriving wildlife habitats, recreation destinations and a revitalized tourism base.
Rocky Fork, named after the cool waters of the creek that runs down its center, lies within Cherokee National Forest and abuts the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina, creating a vast unfragmented haven for rare wildlife such as the peregrine falcon, eastern hellbender and the Yonahlossee salamander, which has never before been found south of the Nolichucky River Barrier (TN/NC). In all, 10 species of greatest conservation need have been recorded on the property. Rocky Fork is part of the Unicoi Bear Preserve and contains prime bear breeding habitat. Preserving Rocky Fork also protects the water quality in neighboring communities.
Rocky Fork’s many resources provide a range of world-class recreational opportunities that have been attracting generations of visitors from across the country. About 1.5 miles of the popular Appalachian Trail crosses the southwest border of the property, and half the property can be seen from the trail. Sixteen miles of pristine blue-ribbon trout streams, including the waters of Lower Higgins Creek and Rocky Fork Creek, harbor exceptional populations of native brook trout. Rocky Fork also boasts habitat for game animals such as bear, turkey, deer and grouse.
With its focus on the community, the Fund has partnered with local leaders to seek diverse economic benefits in conserving Rocky Fork, including a possible land exchange with the Forest Service and increasing Rocky Fork’s and the region’s importance as a top nature-based recreation and tourism destination.
The Conservation Effort: How Rocky Fork Was Saved
The years long effort had its first success back in December 2008, when the Fund acquired just over 7,460 acres and simultaneously the Forest Service acquired another 2,237 acres of the Rocky Fork tract. Since that time the Forest Service through additional acquisition and conveyance from the Fund and with more than $30 million in funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a federal land protection program that receives funds from the development of federally-owned offshore oil and gas resources, has a total of 7,677 under management. A grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, through Walmart’s 2012 Acres for America program, enabled the completion of the final phase.
The remaining 2,036 acres are protected with previous state and private funds and will be held by The Conservation Fund. The total cost of the Rocky Fork property was $40 million.