Land Swap Is Proposed For Rocky Fork

In a continuing effort to acquire and protect more of the property known as Rocky Fork, the U.S. Forest Service is considering a possible exchange of Cherokee National Forest land in Unicoi County.

An environmental analysis of federal land that could be exchanged for portions of the Rocky Fork tract now in private hands is planned for 2010, according to a press release from the U.S. Forest Service.

In December 2008, the Forest Service acquired about 2,200 acres of the original 10,000-acre Rocky Fork Tract, with The Conservation Fund acquiring the bigger amount.

Since the federal budget does not normally provide enough money to the U.S. Forest Service to acquire such a large tract in any single budget year, the Conservation Fund's goal has been to hold the land it owns in the Rocky Fork tract until that land can be acquired by the U.S. Forest Service and added to the Cherokee National Forest.

In August 2009, the Forest Service acquired another 1,280 acres from The Conservation Fund. It is interested in acquiring additional portions of the Rocky Fork tract.

TWO-THIRDS IN UNICOI

Roughly two-thirds of the Rocky Fork tract is in Unicoi County, and the rest is in Greene County.

In addition to direct acquisitions, The Conservation Fund has also worked with the Forest Service to determine if land now owned by the federal government that is of less importance to the Cherokee National Forest can be exchanged for land that the Fund owns in Rocky Fork.

Rocky Fork forms a self-contained drainage area, or watershed, that is almost totally undeveloped. The tract contains pristine trout streams and is home to numerous native species.

If the exchange or "swap" goes ahead, and the Conservation Fund acquires land from the Forest Service, the Fund intends to sell that land to private developers, to recover part of its investment.

Private ownership would also help mitigate the loss of property taxes in Unicoi County, since federal lands do not pay county property taxes.

Earlier this year, The Conservation Fund (TCF) proposed exchanging portions of the Rocky Fork Tract for three tracts of national forest land in Unicoi County.

The proposed tracts are Martin Creek (209 acres), Little Mountain (formerly identified as Stone Mountain -- 660 acres), and Irishman Branch (798 acres).

For the Forest Service, one of the first steps of a proposed land exchange is public involvement.

Beginning in February 2009, three public information forums were held and a public comment period was opened.

After considering public comment and a careful review of the proposal, the Forest Service will now begin an environmental analysis of two of the three tracts in the proposal.

Based on public input, the Forest Service determined that it was not in the best interest of the public to exchange the Irishman Branch Tract, primarily because of its scenic value, longtime recreational use, other resource values (species) and nearby owner inputs.

Therefore, this tract will no longer be considered in the land exchange process. The Martin Creek and Little Mountain tracts will be the only parcels considered in this proposal.

Terry Bowerman, Nolichucky/Unaka District Ranger, said, "The Forest Service land exchange process is very thorough and involves several steps.

"We're at a point now where we will begin an environmental analysis of the identified tracts sometime in 2010.

"This analysis will determine if there are any special circumstances that would impact the proposed exchange. The analysis will involve a number of resource specialists and will be on-going throughout 2010."

That process, which is required by the National Environmental Policy Act, will lead to a decision as to whether to move forward with the exchange, to modify it, or drop it, Bowerman said.

Rex Boner, vice president and southeast representative for The Conservation Fund, said, "Rocky Fork is an important part of the heritage of Tennessee and we've received widespread support for acquiring this unique tract of land.

"We're pleased to see our land exchange proposal being considered as part of a comprehensive approach to conserve the Rocky Fork property," Boner said.

Forest Service officials say that, during the environmental analysis process, public notification will be made, and the public will have the opportunity to provide formal comment and input.

The analysis will be ongoing during 2010.

Source: http://www.greenevillesun.com/Local_News/article/Land-Swap-Is-Proposed-For-Rocky-Fork--id-307269