One North Carolina mountain stream and the American people

Laurel Creek in the Fires Creek watershed of Clay County, NC

Laurel Creek in the Fires Creek watershed of Clay County, NC

Laurel Creek is 3,900 feet above sea level in the Nantahala National Forest in far western North Carolina, and 1,000 feet above any roadway

It’s a stream draining an inholding…a word meaning private property that’s completely inside a block of public land

It flows into Rockhouse Creek, which itself then feeds the Outstanding Resource Waters of Fires Creek

Far inside a 528,000-acre national forest that’s in its 97th year, having been established in 1920

By Tom Bennett
Special to Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition

RIM OF THE VALLEY RIVER MOUNTAINS, CLAY AND CHEROKEE COUNTIES, SEPTEMBER 18, 2017

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, in what so far is a nine-year mission, safely flew past Pluto and on out into deeper space July 11, according to CBS News.Then the agency’s Cassini space craft and its cameras purposely crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere Sept. 15, ending a 13-year mission circling the planet. It took still more stunning photos as it made its death dive, wrote USA Today.

These facts have a chance to penetrate Tweets and preoccupied American minds, and further drive into there the lesson that our Earth is but one tiny orb. It’s in one small Solar system that’s but a dot in a galaxy that itself is only a pinpoint on the universe map now known. And this one orb dubbed Earth has a fragile atmosphere that protects and keeps alive on its surface a few natural wonders renewing to the human spirit.

Such a place is a 50-acre Nantahala National Forest inholding, or unique large private holding completely surrounded by national forest, that’s here on Phillips Ridge at this verdant Appalachian crest rim. It’s drained by headwaters of the bright and glistening Laurel Creek. The latter eventually flows into Outstanding Resource Waters (a state designation) of Fires Creek.

One hundred and seventeen years of commercial stir at the inholding or attempts at same now have a chance of ending and passing into American environmental history. Mainspring Conservation Trust based in Franklin, N.C. announced on Sept. 15, 2017 its campaign for private donors to give it more than a half-million dollars to help convert the inholding into public land and save it from development.

A serious breach of protocol in the U.S. environmental community that was part of this surely can be rectified. It occurred in the aforementioned announcement.

A host of organizations for years vigorously opposed the Laurel Creek Property Owners Association’s try for vehicle access to a place where they would build in effect a primitive-cabin subdivision and, one landowner said, shoot grouse. These organizations certainly would be the first to turn to for help in the raising of the half-million dollars. However, they aren’t mentioned in the Trust’s press release. Their sharp criticisms of the property owners’ proposal are in various Nantahala National Forest environmental-impact studies that you and I as U.S. taxpayers have funded this century. They are:

Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition (gatherer of water-quality testing data at Laurel, Hickory Cove and Rockhouse Creeks above Fires Creek, steadily doing the science while these developments swirled); Mountain High Hikers; Mountain True; NC Wildlife Federation; NC Wildlife Resources Commission; Southern Environmental Law Center; The Wilderness Society; Trout Unlimited; and Wild South.

I CALL ON Mainspring to maximize partnerships with the above organizations to get done the saving of this pristine inholding. Such a genuine collaboration, truly could un-do economic churn of this land by the American people since 1900, as I recount in the following:

LAUREL CREEK TIMETABLE

1900 – F.P. Cover & Sons Tannery began operation in Andrews, N.C. (Source: “Our Heritage: The People of Cherokee County, N.C., 1540-1955,” by Margaret Walker Freel, Miller Printing Co., Asheville, page 218). Tanneries “required the acidic bark of hemlock and chestnut oak trees to tan and loosen the hair from the hides,” according to “The Wild East: A Biography of the Great Smoky Mountains,” by Margaret Lynn Brown, 2000, University of Florida Press, 1956, page 26. On 800 acres, F.P. Cover & Sons harvested hemlock for use in making saddles (U.S. Forest Service).

1920 – Nantahala National Forest was established (Blue Ridge Heritage).

1935 – The couple Will and Eugenia Bumgarner by this time owned apparently all of the present-day inholding (Clay Co. deed book 74 page 9, which identifies the acreage as “50 acres or less”). When was it conveyed to them? Was Bumgarner a rewarded F.P. Cover & Sons employee? I don’t know.

1940 – F.P. Cover & Sons Tannery was sold to Solomon Salmon (not a misprint) and thereafter “operated on a limited scale” (Freel, page 218).

1980 – President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) (16 U.S. Code Chapter 51).

2006 – Joe Bonnette, then District Ranger of U.S. Forest Service’s Tusquitee Ranger District in Murphy, N.C., wrote Michael Anderson on March 6: “The American Native Indian Lands Conservation Act (cq) requires the Forest Service to give adequate access to those parcels of land that are entirely surrounded by National Forest land.” In the same year, Michael and Ashley Anderson of Hayesville, N.C. purchased land at the inholding from Brite Stars LLC of Fletcher, N.C. (Clay Co. deed book 302 page178). In the same year, Wayne and Judith Holland of Brasstown community purchased 8.22 acres from Michael and Ashley Anderson (Clay Co. deed book 302 page 181).

2009 – The corporation TOBBLL LLC of Marble, N.C. purchased 32.88 acres from Thrash Limited Partnership of Asheville. The TOBBLL members are Chris Logan of Marble; Tommy and Zane Buchanan of Robbinsville, N.C.; Hollis Large of Clinton, Tenn.; Thomas Orr of Candler, N.C.; and Thomas Thrash of Asheville (Clay Co. deed book 338 page 20).

2011 – Fish & Wildlife Associates of Whittier, N.C., prepared for the owners the $24,170 environmental assessment, “Laurel Creek Property Owners Association Access across National Forest Lands.” It states that if issued, an easement would “allow the landowners to make improvements to the Forest Service’s Rockhouse Branch Road…Phillips Ridge Road…and (make) a 1,766-foot section of new road… to connect their property to Fires Creek Road.”

In the same year on Jan. 21 at 1 p.m., Michael Anderson emailed Steverson Moffat of U.S. Forest Service Tusqitee Ranger District at 1 p.m. that in the subject area, “Indiana bats are non-existent.” Moffat responded at 3:41 p.m. that day stating: “Potential den trees are everywhere.” (Source: The Nov. 2013 full USFS compliance with this writer’s Freedom of Information request to then Regional Forester Liz Agpaoa of the Southern Region in Atlanta, obtaining of Anderson’s and USFS’ correspondence with each other.)

In the same year, in a 7,600-word letter, Southern Environmental Law Center assailed the Laurel Creek Property Owners Association ANILCA claim, Dec. 6.

2012 – Tusquitee Ranger District in Murphy, N.C. issued an Environmental Assessment of its own with exacting details of the effects the granting of the easement would have on species including botanical, wildlife, those in coldwater streams, and the Indiana and Rafinesque big-eared bats.

2013 – Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition’s comments on a revised environmental assessment termed it ‘grossly inadequate… it should not be used as the basis for any decision…We implore USFS to suspend its decision…until other reasonable alternatives (can be identified) for the Fires Creek watershed (Jan. 28 letter from Callie Moore to USFS’ Steverson Moffat). These strong words were penned because no alternative outside of the Fires Creek watershed was considered. Also, no documentation of existing water quality conditions or aquatic life communities in affected stream reaches.

In June, it came as a surprise, then, when Kristin M. Bail, Forest Supervisor, National Forests in North Carolina, announced the USFS Southern Region’s decision Finding of No Significant Impact for Laurel Creek Property Owners Association.

In August, Southern Environmental Law Center appealed the decision and said it was acting on behalf of Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition, Western North Carolina Alliance, Wild South and The Wilderness Society.

And on September 25, 2013, Bail’s decision was reversed and withdrawn by the Forest Service.

2014 – The fourth Environmental Assessment was released. It contained two “virtual alternatives” created by imposing the U.S. Forest Service’s road standards on one potential entry point on the Valley River side of the mountains and generating paths on the computer that would meet the road standards.

2015 – Then N.C. Forest Supervisor Kristin Bail granted a special use authorization – not an easement, the word’s not mentioned, to Laurel Creek Property Owners Association. The latter is allowed “passenger-vehicle access across National Forest System lands to their property at the headwaters of Laurel Creek for their stated purpose…to construct…four primitive cabins.” (Federal Register, June 25, 2015). The owners are responsible for road costs that an analysis on page 41 put at up to $18,107 a mile. They’re to comply with the N.C. Erosion and Sedimentation Act, U.S. Clean Water Act, (and regulations of) N.C. of Environment and Natural Resources and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. If desiring of utilities, the owners must apply for a utilities access and special use authorization. They can’t haul logs of engage in commercial activities.

In the same year, an objection to the Decision Notice and Finding of No Significant Impact was filed in federal court by Southern Environmental Law Center’s Austin D. Gerken, Wild South’s Ben Prater and Mountain True’s Bob Gale and Josh Kelly. “The largest threat to this valuable resource… is sedimentation from development…yet a chosen alternative (for a road path) proposes exactly that” (source is the August 10 lawsuit).

TO DONATE money towards the purchase of the private inholding, visit this donation page and select “Fires Creek Property in Clay County” from the box entitled “Apply My Donation To.”

(The source for the elevation in this WATR column’s heading is Cherokee Co. government’s GIS Mapping Dept.)

Tom Bennett of the Martins Creek community near Murphy, N.C., is a retired newsman, Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition member/volunteer and winner of the 2015 Holman Water Quality Stewardship Award. E-mail him at farblumtn07@gmail.com