Story by Frances Figart | Photos by Joye Ardyn Durham
I live 40 minutes outside Asheville, just two miles over the North Carolina border into east Tennessee. My home is situated on the perimeter of a wild, 10,000-acre watershed located in the southern Blue Ridge region of the Appalachian Mountains. Known for years simply as Rocky Fork, it straddles the border between two counties, Unicoi and Greene, and, in the words of David Arthur Ramsey, “is still inhabited by salt-of-the-earth, Appalachian people.”
Ramsey is one of a handful of conservation-minded locals who played a key role in the 15-year struggle to save the Rocky Fork watershed. In fact, had he and his fellow environmental champions not undertaken three separate attempts to prevent its destruction, as Ramsey puts it, “‘Rocky Fork’ would likely now be just a name on the fancy entrance gate to a high-end subdivision.”
This diverse cove forest contains pristine mountain streams, including Rocky Fork Creek, Flint Creek, Lower Higgins Creek and the headwaters of Long Branch. Living within the watershed are Peregrine Falcons, the Yonahlossee Salamander and the Woodland Jumping Mouse, as well as many native wildflowers. The property is also part of the Unicoi Bear Sanctuary and lies within an Audubon Important Bird Area.
Living within the watershed are Peregrine Falcons, the Yonahlossee Salamander and the Woodland Jumping Mouse, as well as many native wildflowers.
Back in the mid-1990s, wide-scale development of Rocky Fork became imminent. At this time, roughly half of Unicoi County’s landmass already was comprised of National Forest lands, from which it received no property taxes. The proposed transfer of Rocky Fork from private to public ownership promised to further reduce that compromised tax base. So those who wanted to prevent the tract’s development were up against a great deal of political pressure.
Alongside other concerned activists, Ramsey pondered how best to address the tax loss issue. “It seemed to me that if we could get the entire Rocky Fork tract purchased, via combined state and federal funding, the chances might be good of establishing
a sizeable state or federally designated park on the land. This way we could preserve Rocky Fork, and Unicoi County and the surrounding area could benefit economically from it, too.”
This idea, supported by a host of champions, is precisely what finally succeeded. From 2006 to 2012, many individuals worked to protect this iconic area alongside organizations including the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC), the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), The Conservation Fund (TCF), the State of Tennessee, the U.S. Forest Service, and other public and private partners.
The Tennessee Heritage Conservation Trust Fund provided a $6 million grant, requested by SAHC, for the State of Tennessee to acquire 2,036 acres of the land, which was officially designated Tennessee’s 55th state park in 2012. The US Forest Service owns approximately 8,000 adjoining acres. SAHC also recently worked with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to purchase a one-acre tract to facilitate public access.
“We are proud to have been able to work with the State of Tennessee and other partners over the past decade to conserve the 10,000-acre Rocky Fork watershed,” said SAHC executive director Carl Silverstein. “This recent acquisition is an integral part of these efforts, as it will afford public access for visitors to enjoy trails and trout streams in this stunning area.”
Rocky Fork State Park lies within a half mile of the Appalachian Trail and contains a system of existing and planned public trails for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding, including a future connection to the AT. The main branch of Rocky Fork, designated as a TN Exceptional Stream, flows through the recently acquired one-acre tract. These streams are home to native Southern Appalachian Brook Trout and are available to the public for fishing.
Currently there are no facilities and very limited parking for visitors. Long-term goals include an expanded parking area and visitor center. Learn more and keep up with progress on the Rocky Fork State Park Facebook page.
Frances Figart is the editor of Plough to Pantry and a member of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.