Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Whites Creek Journal

Sometimes I forget what this is all about.

Whites Creek Journal is really about the largest unpolluted watershed in the State of Tennessee, outside the Smokies...And the struggle to keep it that way.

Up until the last month, there have been a number of roads that travel through the three county watershed. I use the term "road" with the understanding that in lots of places they aren't roads anymore...The roads have been destroyed and replaced with Off Road Vehicle tracks. The roads are essentially impassable now, even for the people who own the land, except for ORV's.

A dirt road takes some maintenence, a blade now and then, to maintain it's slope and drainage and the water bars that keep storm water from gathering up with such power that it erodes the road into a ditch. I have spent an hour with a shovel and mattock rebuilding a water bar, only to walk back by the next day and find it cut through with ORV tracks, muddy water coursing down the ruts and into the nearby stream. it is frustrating.

This is what has happened to the "road" that follows the course of Ford Branch.
A few years ago, Ford Branch was part of a study by the University of Tennessee because of its biological diversity. About two thirds of it are essentially biologically dead now. All the sediment that used to be part of the road has washed into Ford Branch, suffocating the living things that need the clean substrate to survive. Many of the small fish that make up the food chain in Tennessee streams start life as an egg deposited in the pebbles on the bottom of these streams. They have a life span of three years or so. Three years of muddy runoff washing into these streams essentially kills off these fish species, eliminating them from the watershed, in some cases. Instead of a summer pool that they can find refuge in, with pebbles and rocks to hide under, it looks something like this:


Sometimes the road passes through the flood plain and we see it turned into a mud hole by spinning wheels of ORV riders who are "just having fun". When the mud hole gets too deep after being dug out by vehicle after vehicle, the rains come and wash the fine sediments away into the creek. Riders then make new trails on someone else's land so they can get through to the next play spot. The riparian environment takes decades to recover, if it ever does. The road cannot be repaired without hauling in replacement material, but since equivalent soil would have to come from another flood plain, it really means that the road can't be repaired. A new one has to be built in many cases in these areas.

Here the road has been destroyed over a 120 foot stretch. The surrounding ground has been denuded of vegetation and new tracks made through the forest, killing the vegetation and eventually the trees along side the "play spot." There are several of these holes in this particular area...I won't show you the pictures of the piles of trash or the photos of the ORV tracks riding into the creek itself where they cut doughnuts on the large rocks that line the bottom of the shallow areas...Just having fun.

Eventually, the land owners can't stand it any more and have to do something. We have. The roads are being closed and signs are being posted saying "No Motorized Vehicles". We have posted them several times now, only to have them torn down by certain ORV riders. I have personally spoken to well over a hundred riders in the last two weeks who have riden right past the signs that quote the Law in Tennessee:

You must have the landowner's permission to ride a motorized vehicle on private property...Period!

Several of the riders have gotten angry...Too Freakin' bad! We're angry too.

One neighbor fenced off his pasture where the riders would park their trucks and trailers and had his fence torn down. He laid logs down where the fence had been and had the logs pushed out of the way and more trucks and trailers pulled in anyway. He staked the logs in place and moved dirt against them so they couldn't be pushed around. The next day his son's pet Lama standing in the pasture was shot and killed. The neighbor worked through his rage by building a gate across his own road that was being used by the ORV riders...A strong gate.

I gave him a sign to post with my telephone number on it. The calls have been interesting. Most of the riders understand. They don't like it, but they understand. A few of them should be arrested. We don't want it to but eventually it will have to happen.

My neighbor can see his gate from his house and watched as a vehicle rode up to it and stopped. The driver got out and read the signs, got back in his vehicle and started pushing on the gate with his bumper. My neighbor rode up to him and said he was going to stop that or be stopped, his choice. The guy said he had bolt cutters and a saw and would just come back later and open the gate.

My neighbor stood face to face with the guy and said, "Why don't you just be a man and do it right now, while I'm standing right here?"

He didn't and left.

This type of confrontation has been rare. Most riders understand and the most common response is, "I knew it was going to be closed. They've messed it up too bad."

Folks have a tough time coming to grips with "They" being "I."

I posted our situation on a local ORV club web forum and got a 100% positive response. Most of these folks are not bad people. Only a very few, actually. The club people have even offered to walk in and help carry out trash.

And there may be another change taking place. Some of the riders turned out to be Sheriff's Officers. As soon as they understood the problem they immediately quit riding here. One of them now patrols it for us on foot from time to time.

"I've never heard that before," he said when I pointed out the wood thrush singing near us. One of the rare Diana Fritillary butterflies landed near us and I told him I had friends who had spent their entire lives in field research who had never seen one alive. He is coming back sometime with his wife and son...They'll be walking.

We have biologists coming this week to do a stream survey. We are hoping to one day have the Whites Creek Gorge designated a State Natural Area. The process has begun.




  1. Carolyn Jones10:28 AM

    I love it when you can get past all the BS and see the forest for it's butterflies. Keep teaching Steve. It is the gift that keeps giving as your lessons ripple out into the lives of those you have taught. Just keep an eye out for those few who proclaim their ignorance in loud clear ruts. cmj-Mpls

  2. Anonymous1:34 PM

    Why don't you booby trap the whole area guerrilla style man? Sabotage creatively. If people don't like the idea of private property, they don't like the fabric of the american dream and must be terrorists. Property destruction can go both ways. Fight fire with fire. I hear that guns do a lot of talking out there in roane county too...

  3. "Why don't you booby trap the whole area guerrilla style man?"

    That's a damn good idea. Thanx.

  4. Now, now...No booby traps.

    We have security cameras and officers on patrol and that should be enough over time, as we make "educational contacts."

    Even the cables are not bomb proof. I was worried that some bozo would be ORUI (off roading under the Influence) and crash into them so they are day glo orange and have cable crimps instead of clamps. if you hit them hard I hope they'll just break.

    I want to teach folks a better way, not hurt them. But I understand the sentiment.

    Hi, Carolyn...Long time no see. Hope you guys can elect Al Franken in Minnesota. I mean, if you're gonna have a joke as a Senator. He might as well be certified funny.

  5. :D

    Some wouldn't believe it, but there are officials of all kinds that appreciate our pristine TN environment and also will do whatever it takes to protect it from pigs of all kinds.