ERWIN — For those involved in the Rocky Fork project, the end of a four-year journey is in sight thanks to the recent allocation of $5 million in federal funds that will be used to purchase around 1,200 acres of property there, the last portion still under private ownership.
On Friday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the U.S. Forest Service will dedicate approximately $41 million for land acquisition projects in 15 states with the aim of safeguarding clean water, providing recreational access and preserving wildlife habitat on these properties. The purchase of property at Rocky Fork is among 27 projects for which funding has been allocated.
The funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s land acquisition projects comes from the Land and Water Conservation fund, which was created by Congress in 1964 to provide funding to federal, state and local governments for the purchase of land, water and wetlands. Most of the money in this fund comes from royalty payments from offshore oil and gas revenues to mitigate the environmental impacts of these activities.
USDA Deputy Under Secretary Butch Blazer said Wednesday the land acquisition projects selected were based on the land’s conservation value, potential for recreational value once they’re placed under federal protection, and how partnerships have been put together to acquire these properties.
“I’ve been very, very impressed with how this whole land acquisition, this whole project, has been put together over the years and how it’s placed together such a treasure of land, a large land base that Tennessee can be very proud of,” Blazer said.
At nearly 10,000 acres and located in Unicoi and Greene counties, the Rocky Fork area is the largest undeveloped property in the southern Appalachians and was until recently one of the largest contiguous tracts of private forest land in the eastern U.S.
Blazer said the Rocky Fork property is “very rich in conservation value.” Federally listed plants that call the area home would be protected and their habitats would be improved upon once the government takes ownership of the property. The Rocky Fork area also is a prime bear-breeding habitat, and Peregrine falcons inhabit the area, Blazer said.
“All of these extremely important values are contained within this project area, and it just lends itself to the whole purpose of this acquisition program,” he said.
Maintaining such values across the nation is one of the goals of the land acquisition projects, Blazer said.
“We’re losing thousands of acres every year to development, and a lot of that is forested lands. The forests of our country are so important, not only for their hunting and fishing and recreational value, but as very valuable watersheds. It’s important that we retain of these valuable, pristine lands as we can knowing that we’re losing other lands to development.”
Ralph Knoll, a field representative with the Conservation Fund, said acquisition of Rocky Fork has remained high on the Forest Service’s priority list since the first conveyance of land there was completed between the The Conservation Fund and the Forest Service in late 2008. The aim of the Forest Service has been to obtain as much of the Rocky Fork area as possible for preservation.
Knoll said his focus is to now work with local Forest Service officials to complete the conveyance of the approximately 1,200 acres of Rocky Fork land, the majority of which is located in Unicoi County, for the $5 million.
“We’re literally working on that as we speak,” Knoll said Wednesday. “I’d like to think in the next 60 days we’ll be in a position to convey then what will be really the last parcel at Rocky Fork that will be paid for by these types of funds.”
Once this conveyance is finalized, it would leave around 1,935 acres of land in Rocky Fork still owned by The Conservation Fund. However, Knoll said around 1,400 acres of this remaining parcel has already been paid for by a previous $6 million Conservation Heritage Trust Fund grant from the state, with the remaining 535 acres having already been paid for by private and foundation dollars.
Eventually, Knoll said, the 1,400 acres paid for through the state grant would be conveyed to the state at no acquisition cost and the 535 remaining acres in this parcel would be conveyed to the Forest Service at no cost. If all goes according to plan, The Conservation Fund would no longer be the owner of any of the Rocky Fork land by the end of this year, which was the goal when the land conveyances began nearly four years ago.
“Those discussions are ongoing and, I think, ideally, we would like to do the rest of the conveyances by the end of the year, if not sooner,” Knoll said.
Opportunities are also being considered and explored for the possible development of a state park on the property, Knoll said. He also said the development of recreational opportunities in the area could help the local economy.
He also said it appears The Conservation Fund is nearing what it set out to accomplish — to get the Rocky Fork property into the hands of those who can preserve it.
“We’re darn close to the finish line,” Knoll said. “ ... We finally have gotten to that point where we can sort of check that box and say that we were successful.”