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New Idea

Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine - New Idea: Proposal for the New River National Park

But Irwin is concerned that protection isn’t strong enough. While the state currently owns the surface rights to the North Cumberland plateau, coal companies have retained the mineral rights and timber companies have been grandfathered in to allow for continued logging. There’s no current pressure to mine the area, but the mining rights were recently transferred to a multinational coal corporation based in China, and Irwin fears there will be renewed interest in mining the plateau in the future.

“Mining has always been a boom and bust economy,” Irwin says. “Right now it’s bust in this portion of Tennessee, but you never know if China is going to want to step in and pull coal out of those mountains.”

Mining the North Cumberland Plateau is of particular concern because the ridge drains into the New River and the Cumberland River, which provides water for Nashville. Flash flooding has always been associated with strip mining and logging, and Nashville received $1.2 billion in damage from the last flash flood in 2010. Some sort of permanent protection of the North Cumberland plateau needs to be enacted, according to Irwin. The state of Tennessee agrees. Governor Phil Bredsen has recently petitioned the Office of Surface Mining for an order that would prohibit MTR on 67,000 acres of the North Cumberland Plateau. Commenting on the petition, Don Barger, Southeast director of the National Parks Conservation Association, called the 67,000 acres highlighted in the request, “the best of the best” in terms of Cumberland’s landscape.

“The landscape on this Northern section of the Cumberland Plateau is more like the Smokies,” says Alex Wyss, director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in East Tennessee. “It’s very mountainous, very striking. It’s a beautiful place. Elk have been reintroduced, bear are coming back on their own. It’s not strictly Wilderness, but it has that big wilderness feel. On the higher peaks, you can see for long distances, and what you see, by and large, is contiguous forest.”

At this point, any talk of establishing a New River National Park is theoretical. The park discussion is currently in its infancy. The United Mountain Defense has researched the proposal, written representatives and placed editorials in local newspapers, but there’s no legislative support for the idea as of yet. And there’s no guarantee the North Cumberland plateau would meet the National Park Service’s standards, given the strip mine scars. The hurdles that would have to be surmounted are daunting. The private property rights that the coal companies and timber companies retain would have to be addressed. ATVs and hunting are the most popular recreational uses of the area, so any park plan would have to address those user groups as well. Creating a new national park is a lofty goal in the best economic times, and an even steeper uphill battle in today’s budget-crisis climate when public lands are getting slashed across the board.

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