1,429-Acre Rocky Fork Tract Purchased By Forest Service

Almost All Of The Mountain Acreage Acquired Thursday Is In Greene County

The pristine forests and mountains of Rocky Fork, an almost 10,000-acre tract of undeveloped wilderness, is another step closer to full governmental ownership following a new $6 million purchase by the Cherokee National Forest.

The purchase last Thursday, Sept. 29, through the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) includes acquisition of 1,429 acres, all but about 19 acres of which is located in Greene County, according to Conservation Fund Field Representative Ralph Knoll.

The tract is adjacent to the Sampson Wilderness Area, Knoll said.

The mountain land is visible on the right for drivers on Tennessee Rt. 107 (the Erwin Highway) as they head toward Erwin from Greeneville.

Approximately two-thirds of Rocky Fork is located in Unicoi County, with the remaining one-third in Greene County.

"The light is at the end of the tunnel in terms of the end of this project," Knoll said. "I think we're all excited and looking forward to that day when we say it's completed."

INCREMENTAL PURCHASE

Following Thursday's purchase, The Conservation Fund still maintains an additional 1,200 acres that Knoll hopes to see the USFS purchase in 2012 using the $5 million currently designated for the land within the federal budget.

However, Congress will first have to approve the 2012-2013 budget with the money still intact before the sale can move forward, he said.

Of the remaining 1,200 acres, Knoll estimated that about half is inside Greene County and half in Unicoi County.

"The source of the federal dollars comes out of the Federal Land and Conservation Program," Knoll said, further explaining that offshore energy development, and not tax dollars, funds the program.

The USFS paid $8.4 million for a 2,237-acre tract of the Rocky Fork area in 2008.

At the same time, The Conservation Fund separately purchased the majority of the land from a private landowner for $31.6 million.

Of that amount, $6 million came from a state grant and another $3 million from private sources.

All together, the $40 million purchased 9,624 acres from New Forestry, LLC., Knoll said.

'IMPORTANT RESOURCE'

The Conservation Fund intended to provide the land to the U.S. Forest Service in portions as federal money became available, with the eventual goal of federal or state ownership and protection.

"It's a very important resource attribute," Knoll said.

Before the land's purchase, approximately one mile of the Appalachian Trail crossed the unprotected Rocky Fork, which accounted for about 20 percent of the unprotected portions of the trail, Knoll said.

There are also about 16 miles of native-brook trout streams, he said.

BROOK TROUT HABITAT

Rocky Fork streams are among only a handful of pristine brook trout habitats remaining in the Eastern U.S., according to rankings by fisheries biologists.

"It's a significant wildlife habitat," Knoll said.

He also added that professors from East Tennessee State University have spent three field seasons studying the area and have collected and identified more than 1,000 plant and animal species in the tract.

Some of these species have been federally identified as rare or endangered, he said.

"Protecting the property allows the public to continue that access that they've enjoyed for generations," Knoll said.

The $6 million State of Tennessee grant and $3 million in private funds originally provided to The Conservation Fund accounts for the remaining 1,965 acres of Rocky Fork.

Knoll said The Conservation Fund will grant the majority of this portion, known as the "entrance to Rocky Fork," to the state in hopes of seeing it utilized for a state park.

"It's another way for the community to benefit from the resource if a state park were to develop there," he said.

The private landowner also retained 100 acres of mountain-top property, but the U.S. Forest Service and The Conservation Fund are in conversation to purchase the remaining land, he added.

Before the 2008 purchase, Rocky Fork was said to be the largest undeveloped tract of privately-owned mountain land in the Eastern U.S.

Terry McDonald, a public affairs officer with the USFS, said he is pleased and excited by the most recent purchase.

"The acquisition of the Rocky Fork tract, the whole tract, remains a pretty high priority for the Forest Service," he said. "We're looking forward to, [at] some point in the future, completing the purchase."

In fact, Knoll reported that Rocky Fork is number three on the USFS ranking of important land acquisitions this year and has been number one in previous years.

Since 2008, as funding has become available, the USFS has purchased tracts of the land from The Conservation Fund.

The federal government's purchases have included:

* the initial 2,237 acres for $8.4 million in 2008;

* 1,278 acres for $5 million in 2009;

* 1,533 acres for $6 million in 2010; and

* the recent 1,429 acres for $6 million on Sept. 29.

"Rocky Fork is a unique place. We would like to see this through," McDonald said.

Source: http://www.greenevillesun.com/Local_News/article/1429-Acre-Rocky-Fork-TractPurchased-By-Forest-Service-id-316449