ELIZABETHTON, TN (AP) – Forestry officials are planning to alter one of the steepest, most scenic sections of the Appalachian Trail in Carter County to make it safer.
The Johnson City Press reports the U.S. Forest Service and The Conservation Fund are working to change the last mile of the Pond Flats to Shook Branch section of the trail, where it reaches the Shook Branch Swim Area on Watauga Lake. The new route is expected to be open in 2019.
The section of trail currently ends with a series of five short switchbacks.
The changes also include the protection of 20 acres of land near the Cherokee National Forest, which The Conservation Fund purchased in 2014. Officials say the newly acquired land will provide hikers a more scenic descent to the lake.
The following is a press release from The Conservation Fund and the U.S. Forest Service:
The U.S. Forest Service, The Conservation Fund and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) announced the protection of 20 acres near Cherokee National Forest’s Shook Branch Swim Area at Watauga Lake. The acquisition, made possible with funding from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) will lay the groundwork for a proposed relocation of up to one mile of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (A.T.) within the National Forest.
Located south of U.S. 321, the newly-protected land will allow for a reroute of the A.T. that will provide hikers a safer crossing at the highway and a more scenic path descending from Pond Mountain Wilderness towards Watauga Lake near Hampton, Tennessee. With approximately 150 miles of the A.T. crossing through Cherokee National Forest, this relocation effort will improve one of the few remaining “road walk” Trail sections located on paved roads.
“The Appalachian Trail Conservancy and A.T. volunteers have been working with the Cherokee National Forest for decades to plan the final route for the Trail,” said Morgan Sommerville, southern regional director for the ATC. “Developed areas, such as around Watauga Lake, have been the most challenging projects. After selecting an optimal route for the A.T., The Conservation Fund helped us finish this important project by providing interim acquisition funding and final negotiations with the land owners. We are thrilled this acquisition is complete and look forward to opening the new, improved A.T. location in 2019.”
The Conservation Fund purchased the 20-acre property in May 2014 and recently conveyed it to the U.S. Forest Service with funding from the LWCF, ATC and private contributions from Fred and Alice Stanback. This conservation effort was selected as part of a national, agency-wide competitive and merit-based process within the U.S. Forest Service, which prioritized the project for Fiscal Year 2016 LWCF funding. Top-ranking projects, like the one near the Shook Branch Swim Area, protect important lands to support healthier forests, safer and improved recreation uses and access, and more vibrant local communities.
U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker and U.S. Representative Phil Roe (TN-1) supported Tennessee’s request for LWCF funding and helped secure the Congressional appropriations for the program. LWCF is a bipartisan, federal program that uses a percentage of proceeds from offshore oil and gas royalties—not taxpayer dollars—to acquire critical lands and protect our country’s best natural resources for more than 50 years.
“Preservation of Shook Branch will improve hiking opportunities and also help address safety concerns along this section of the Appalachian Trail,” said U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander. “Protecting the wildest, most pristine and beautiful areas in our state will give future generations of Tennesseans the same opportunity. I thank the U.S. Forest Service, The Conservation Fund and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for their hard work and dedication to conserve and protect our land.”
“Millions of people visit Tennessee each year to experience our incredible God-given outdoor amenities, and this newly protected land in the Cherokee National Forest will improve safety for visitors and help preserve this historic trail,” said U.S. Senator Bob Corker. “It is important that this land is available for future generations, and I appreciate the hard work of all who are making that a priority.”
“I am glad the U.S. Forest Service, The Conservation Fund and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy are partnering to protect this land for future generations, and I am proud to have supported their funding request,” said U.S. Representative Phil Roe. “As an avid outdoorsman, some of the best memories I have with family, especially my granddaughters, are on the Trail. The A.T. is a huge driver of economic development in East Tennessee, so this investment will not only preserve a place where Tennesseans can safely enjoy the outdoors, it will also assist in keeping much-needed tourism dollars in our region.”
The ATC will coordinate with the U.S. Forest Service, the Tennessee Department of Transportation and Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club (TEHCC) to plan the type and location of the Trail’s new highway crossing. The U.S. Forest Service will also seek public input on the proposed trail construction, which is scheduled to begin in 2019 and will be undertaken by TEHCC volunteers and ATC’s Konnarock Volunteer Trail Crew.
The property is also located within the Laurel Fork Bear Reserve and will be co-managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency as part of the Cherokee Wildlife Management Area.
“The Shook Branch land purchase is an outstanding example of how we implement our agency’s mission: caring for the land and serving the people,” said Cherokee National Forest Supervisor JaSal Morris. “It highlights the important work we accomplished this year with our key partner organizations.”
The land purchase also furthers the purposes of the National Trails System Act of 1968, addressing increased needs for outdoor recreation through a system of recreational, scenic and historic trail networks.
“It might surprise people to learn that the Appalachian Trail is not static, but a route that is evolving over the years for the conservation and enjoyment of significant scenic, natural and historic resources to provide the best hiking experience,” said Ralph Knoll, Tennessee representative with The Conservation Fund. “We’re thankful to Senators Alexander and Corker and Representative Roe for their continued support of LWCF, which is so critical to conservation in Tennessee, and to the U.S. Forest Service and ATC for their commitment to stewarding these natural destinations and enhancing our experiences as we enjoy and explore our public lands.”
About The Conservation Fund
At The Conservation Fund, we make conservation work for America. By creating solutions that make environmental and economic sense, we are redefining conservation to demonstrate its essential role in our future prosperity. Top-ranked for efficiency and effectiveness, we have worked in all 50 states since 1985 to protect more than 7.5 million acres of land. Learn more at http://www.conservationfund.org.
About the Appalachian Trail Conservancy
The ATC was founded in 1925 by volunteers and federal officials working to build a continuous footpath along the Appalachian Mountains. A unit of the National Park System, the A.T. ranges from Maine to Georgia and is approximately 2,190 miles in length. It is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world. The mission of the ATC is to preserve and manage the Appalachian Trail – ensuring that its vast natural beauty and priceless cultural heritage can be shared and enjoyed today, tomorrow, and for centuries to come. For more information, please visit http://www.appalachiantrail.org.