by Jenny Coyle
Multitudes of waterfalls with names like Paw-Paw, Sidepocket and Wintergreen tumble through the rugged rock chasms of Jocassee Gorges in the highlands straddling North and South Carolina. In the 1920s and 1930s, the region's inhabitants were loggers, farmers, trappers and moonshiners who toiled on Sweet Misery Mountain and at Wild Hog Fork and Milksick Cove. The Singer company was there to hack down hickory trees for sewing-machine cabinets, and the Duke Power Company bought up thousands of acres of land because of the potential for hydropower.
In 1996, Duke Power Company put some of its property up for sale, offering about 10,000 acres in North Carolina and 32,000 acres in South Carolina. Public agencies were given the first crack at striking a deal.
This year, purchases were approved by both states. Celebrating the victory are people like Bill Thomas, a North Carolina Chapter member who has hiked and photographed the Jocassee Gorges for 15 years and has worked almost as long to protect the area.
"There isn't any place east of the Cascade Range where there are so many waterfalls in one area," says Thomas. "It's the kind of wild place where you still get a thrill when you find a new spot because it looks like nobody's been there before."
The Club has been active in promoting the purchases in both states. And while a battle still lies ahead to influence the management of 32,000 acres in South Carolina, the work is done in North Carolina, where 6,700 acres will be a new state park.
The North Carolina Chapter wanted a state park because there are no others in the western part of the state, and there are already hundreds of thousands of acres of gameland in the Jocassee Gorges area. But local sportsmen cried foul, claiming they'd be deprived of hunting in an area they had used for generations, and went to work to protect their hunting grounds.
So activists like Sierra Club President Chuck McGrady, past president Ted Snyder, former Chapter Chair Gordon Smith and Staff Director Molly Diggins cooked up a strategy. They figured they were outnumbered at the local level, so they took their message statewide, organizing postcard campaigns, taking a slide show on the road and publishing a 16-page "Guide to the Jocassee Gorges," written and illustrated with color photographs by Thomas.
"We have 100 counties represented by 170 people in the state legislature," says Thomas. "If we hadn't made it a statewide issue, they wouldn't have paid attention."
In July, the legislature's 60-member appropriations committee was set to approve a 6,700-acre state park, leaving 3,700 acres open to hunting. When Club members learned that hunter-friendly legislators were poised to further reduce the state park acreage, they organized a weekend phone blitz.
"One legislator told me we jammed the legislative phone system over the weekend and it broke," says chapter lobbyist David Knight. "The legislators heard us loud and clear."
And a new 6,700-acre park was approved. Thomas says it will include a campground and visitor center, along with some trails. But the chapter will work to see that many areas remain remote.
Meanwhile, in South Carolina there was little question that the state would buy the 32,000 acres offered by Duke.
"Even the governor [David Beasley] called the purchase a 'no brainer,'" says Dell Isham, South Carolina Chapter director. "This is about the only area of the state that's mountainous. We lobbied the legislature to make the purchase, but it wasn't controversial."
The land was bought in May - a move that chapter members say is a victory for everyone in the state. But their work isn't done.
"There are three state parks in this area already, so it was hard to argue for yet another," says Norm Sharp, chapter conservation chair. "So the real issue for us is how the land will be managed. It's an important piece because it provides an unbroken link of forested and protected land to the east and west, which has important biological and recreational implications."
The Department of Natural Resources has adopted a master plan that Isham says is "vague." A more focused management plan for each use will be crafted. Various groups are competing: hunters, all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts, logging interests.
"We know there will be hunting allowed, and probably some logging," says Isham, who's planning a media tour to shed light on havoc wreaked by ATV users.
The land should be maintained in a natural state, Isham says, with only passive recreation allowed. A biological study in August concluded that, "The Jocassee Tract contains more rare, threatened, and endangered species and species occurrences than any other parcel of land equal in size in South Carolina."
Says Isham, "If the purchase was a no brainer, then protection for this area should be, too."
Go on to the center spread, "On the Border"
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