The Knoxville News Sentinel reports that the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation officially acquired 2,036 acres in the middle of the Rocky Fork tract located in the mountains of upper East Tennessee. Surrounding the state park's future site is 7,600 acres that have been added to the Cherokee National Forest, thanks to $30 million in funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
More than 2,000 acres will comprise the new park. Plans are to make it a low-impact facility with development limited to access roads, a welcome center, picnic area, campground and trails.
"It's a wonderful piece of property with so many facets," said Brock Hill, Tennessee's deputy commissioner for parks and conservation.
In addition to outdoor recreation, the state park at Rocky Fork will showcase the frontier battle in which John Sevier, the future governor of Tennessee, led his troops against a large band of Cherokee Indians.
About $1.3 million has been earmarked in this fiscal year's budget to develop an infrastructure plan for the future park
The Tennessee Department of Transportation has been contracted to create a road plan based on the property's steep topography. Park officials say existing logging roads will be utilized where possible, and that the plan will need to protect the 10 species of animals found at Rocky Fork that are listed as "in need of management" or "state endangered."
Hill said the initial funding also pays for a water line and septic system.
"We hope to be in a position next year to request funding to begin work," he said.
Rocky Fork has been privately owned for much of its history. The land has been leased for public hunting by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. In 2007, The Conservation Fund — a nonprofit land trust headquartered in Arlington, Va. — became involved after the property owner put the land up for sale.
The U.S. Forest Service made Rocky Fork its No. 1 land acquisition priority for the entire U.S. Last year, the state and partners such as the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, purchased the 10,000-acre tract for approximately $40 million.
Tennessee committed $6 million to the project from the state's Heritage Conservation Fund.
Located 30 miles southwest of Johnson City, the Rocky Fork property abuts 30,000 acres of national forest, including the Sampson Mountain Wilderness in Tennessee's Cherokee National Forest. Three miles of the Appalachian Trail that skirt the southwest boundary of the property currently are being rerouted to bring most of that trail section inside the Rocky Fork boundary.
According to Brock Hill, the new state park will have a trail running from the campground at the center of the park to the Appalachian Trail.
The state park portion of Rocky Fork lies in Unicoi County, a region with white-water and national forest land, but very little industry. Initially, the local response to the Rocky Fork project was lukewarm at best as some residents questioned why such a large tract should be made public and removed from the local tax base.
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said public opinion has shifted as more people recognize the economic potential of nature-based tourism.
"Our county doesn't have much flat ground for industrial property," Lynch said. "This is a good way to blend economic development with tourism. I'd like to see cabins nearby, with restaurants and tour guides. We're hoping to take advantage of this."
Information from: Knoxville News Sentinel, http://www.knoxnews.com