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Keith Springs Mountain residents have aired their opposition to the proposed Paint Rock River National Wildlife Refuge, largely based on an eminent domain threat, but the federal government says in writing it won’t be taking that approach.
Franklin County Mayor Richard Stewart has received a letter from Cynthia K. Dohner, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s regional director, saying that land added to the refuge would be “from willing sellers only.”
Stewart provided his assessment.
“This is in agreement with what the county wanted,” he said, referring to a resolution the County Commission had unanimously approved in April, stating no citizen should be forced to sell their property through condemnation. “At least we have that in writing, and we hope that gives the people up there (on Keith Springs Mountain) some comfort.”
The proposal, including land next to the Walls of Jericho preserved nature area, calls for a 63-square-mile section in a 40,505-acre partnership with 25,120 acres to be obtained through protected easements and purchases from landowners
“The service will not use condemnation in order to establish this refuge,” Dohner said. “As such, we fully support Resolution No. 8a-0413, passed by the Franklin County Commission opposing the use of condemnation of land for the proposed Paint Rock River National Wildlife Refuge.”
The Paint Rock River is one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Southeastern United States, and its Cumberland Plateau headwaters in Franklin County are planned to become America’s newest national wildlife refuge.
The proposed Paint Rock River National Wildlife Refuge is one of two Tennessee projects highlighted for action in the Department of the Interior’s 2012 “America’s Great Outdoors” report.
Gina Hancock, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Tennessee chapter, highlighted the project’s significance in a Chattanooga Times-Free Press story.
“It’s a really important place,” she said. “I think Tennesseans in the region have been wanting to see something like this happen for a long time.”
The river originates from three tributaries on a very wild area of the plateau in Franklin County — Larkin Fork, Estill Fork and Hurricane Creek. From there, it fl ows south through another wild and sparsely populated area of Jackson and Marshall counties in Alabama to join the Tennessee River near the town of New Hope in Madison County, Ala.
Dwight Cooley, the new refuge’s project leader for Fish and Wildlife Service, said recently that the area has unique qualities.
“It’s certainly one of most biologically diverse freshwater watersheds in the world, and pretty much forested,” he said
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggests the refuge will save some of the last remaining large tracts of Eastern deciduous forests, as well as protect and restore habitat for at least 15 plant and animal federally listed species and three candidate species, and more than 40 state-listed species.
But it also will provide livelihoods by making new opportunities for wildlife-dependent recreation, including hunting, fi shing, wildlife observation, photography and environmental education.
Cooley, who is also the refuge manager of Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Decatur, Ala., said plans for the proposed refuge include components aimed at giving plateau landowners options to develop an ecotourismbased economy while protecting the natural resources from the normal threats from cliffside and vacation home development, Cooley said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service may reach out to landowners on about 25,120 acres to gauge their interest in selling their property, placing it in conservation easements or receiving Fish and Wildlife Service assistance to help manage habitat, he said.
The effort is being made because nearly 35 million people visited national wildlife refuges in fiscal 2006, generating almost $1.7 billion in total economic activity and creating almost 27,000 private sector jobs, producing about $542.8 million in employment income, according to a report called “Banking on Nature 2006: The Economic Benefits to Local Communities of National Wildlife Refuge Visitation.”
Throughout Tennessee, more than 3.5 million participants engaged in one or more of three wildlife-related recreation activities — fi shing, hunting, wildlife watching — during 2006 and spent more than $2 billion, the report states.
So planning for the new refuge — which will link up with other publicly owned lands — had help from another recent Paint Rock River initiative that had connections from Chattanooga, as well as Cumberland Plateau.
The Lyndhurst and Benwood foundations last year created a $6.75 million Southern Cumberland Land Protection Fund, and just recently the Open Space Institute used a $500,000 grant from the fund to protect 11,364 acres of Paint Rock River watershed in Jackson County, Ala.
That property, known as Jacobs Mountain, was purchased under the name of the Nature Conservancy and turned over to Alabama.
It contains large forest blocks and extensive underground cave systems that support rich animal and plant diversity.