17 September 2016

Forest Service apologizes for tearing up portion of Trail of Tears in the Appalachian Mountains near Coker Creek, no plan yet in place to fix damage

Coker Creek, TN resident and historical preservationist Marvin Harper observes damage to a section of the Trail of Tears
in the Appalachian Mountains. The flag indicates a spot where the U.S. Forest Service used heavy equipment
to make trenches and berms in what agency officials now say was in violation of federal laws. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

COKER CREEK, Tenn. (AP) — The U.S. Forest Service has ripped up a portion of the Trail of Tears in the Appalachian Mountains, reopening wounds for Native Americans who consider sacred the land where thousands of their ancestors died during their forced migration westward.

The man-made trenches and berms were discovered last summer but the details about how it happened and those responsible hadn't been publicly identified. In documents obtained recently by The Associated Press, the Forest Service acknowledged that an employee approved construction along a ¾-mile section of the trail in eastern Tennessee without authorization, an embarrassing blunder for an agency that was supposed to be protecting the trail for future generations.

The $28,500 in contracting work done in 2014 involved using heavy equipment to dig three deep trenches called "tank traps" and a series of 35 berms. It was meant to keep out all-terrain vehicles and prevent erosion, but agency officials now say it was done in violation of federal laws.

Sheila Bird of the Cherokee Nation said she cried when she was asked at a meeting with Forest Service officials to talk about the impact of the damage. "The trail is part of our history, of why we are here in Oklahoma," said Bird, who is the special projects officer for the nation's Tribal Historic Preservation Office.
Harper surveys the damage to the Trail of Tears. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig) 
The portion of the damaged trail lies near Fort Armistead, one of the stops where Cherokees were held during their forced migration West in the 1830s. This part of the trail follows the first commercial road across the mountains in that region, the Unicoi Turnpike, which in turn followed the course of an ancient Native American trail.

The Forest Service has apologized to the tribes for the damage, both physical and emotional, and is consulting with them over how to repair it. No plan has been finalized, and Forest Service spokeswoman Stephanie Johnson said the agency does not yet know what the restoration work will cost.

When the Forest Service dug up portions of the trail on the edge of the Cherokee National Forest in March and June 2014, it didn't even own the land, although it was planning to purchase it, according to Forest Service documents obtained by The Associated Press. The documents were provided to AP by the environmental group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and authenticated by the Forest Service. The documents outline the extensive process the Forest Service employees should have gone through before doing the work but didn't. For instance, the ranger who approved the project told another employee they didn't' have to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act because they did not own the land.

"Despite the lack of compliance with our own policies for the National Environmental Policy Act and federal laws like the ESA (Endangered Species Act), NPHA (National Historic Preservation Act), and the purchase option's requirements, the project was orally approved," the documents state. It's not clear what, if anything, happened to the employees who ignored the law. The local ranger who gave the approval for the construction had been with Forest Service for more than 35 years before she retired in February 2015. The Forest Service said it won't discuss personnel matters.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility executive director Jeff Ruch said that's not good enough. "This is one the most blatant official desecrations of a sacred site in modern American history," Ruch said in a statement. "Jaw-dropping incompetence mixed with abject dereliction of duty coated in an impenetrable mantle of bureaucratic self-preservation spawned this debacle." The group is asking the U.S. Agriculture Department for a thorough review by independent investigators and appropriate disciplinary action.

Months after the damage, Forest Service officials who were still unaware of the work extolled the pristine nature and historical significance of the parcel. "Protecting the Trail of Tears and other significant sites in this area has been and will continue to be a priority for us," Cherokee National Forest Supervisor JaSal Morris said in an Oct. 2014 news release announcing its purchase. Many Forest Service officials didn't realize the land had been disturbed until July 2015, when the agency hosted representatives of the Cherokee tribes and the National Parks Service to develop an interpretive plan for the trail and Fort Armistead.

Marvin Harper can barely see over one of the berms built on the Trail of Tears by the Forest Service.
(AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)
Susan Abram, president of the North Carolina chapter of the Trail of Tears Association, was among a group that hiked out to the trail and discovered the damage. "Everybody was just kind of shocked," said the Western Carolina University history professor. "This is a national historic trail ... part of our national heritage."

The trail stretches for thousands of miles through nine states. Aaron Mahr, the National Parks Service superintendent for the trail, said his agency works with private landowners and government agencies to protect the portions of the trail that cross their properties. Mahr said seeing photos of the damage done by the Forest Service left him shaking his head.

Jack Baker, National Trail of Tears Association president and a member of the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council, also learned of the destruction by seeing photos. "I thought it was done deliberately and intentionally to destroy part of the trail. ... Other trail segments are identical and erosion is not really a concern," he said.

Marvin Harper, who lives near the trail and is president of the Coker Creek Heritage Group, took an AP reporter to see the damage Thursday. Clambering over one of the berms and dropping into a trench on the other side, only his head was visible. "This is an embarrassment and a great loss to all of us who take pride in this part of East Tennessee," he said.

Since the destruction, Forest Service officials are halting all work within a half-mile of either side of the trail in four southern states. Bird said she still has questions about how the damage came about, but she appreciates that the Forest Service is trying to make it right. "They came to us with an enormous amount of humility," Bird said.

15 September 2016

Park Reports 25-acre Wildfire near Abrams Creek

Great Smoky Mountains National Park firefighters are fighting a 25-acre wildfire located along the northwest boundary of the park north of the Abrams Creek Campground area. The Happy Valley Ridge Fire was reported at approximately 6:45 p.m. on Wednesday, September 14. Firefighters from the park and the Tennessee Division of Forestry responded to the fire which is located inside the park boundary. 

Happy Valley Fire (NPS)
Primarily, the fire is slowly spreading with flame lengths less than three feet high through a pine-oak forest. At times, the active fire reached flame heights between five to six feet high during the hottest, driest periods of the afternoon. The fire is burning within a suppression fire zone due to the proximity to the park boundary. A 10-person Hotshot fire crew from the Cherokee National Forest will assist with fire suppression efforts in the morning.

The current location of the fire is not threatening any structures, roads, or trails. All park areas remain open at this time. Visitors should expect to see smoke from the Foothills Parkway West and the Abrams Creek area of the park. The cause of the fire is unknown at this time, but a natural, lightening start is possible.

14 September 2016

Ohio Woman Dies After Fall at Newfound Gap

An 85-year-old Ohio woman fell to her death while taking family pictures at Newfound Gap on Monday, Sept. 12. Great Smoky Mountains National Park Rangers were notified by Swain County 911 of a medical emergency at the Newfound Gap parking lot near the North Carolina/Tennessee state line at approximately 1:55 p.m.

Newfound Gap Parking Lot. jasonbarnette.photoshelter.com
Marguerite Root, age 85, of Canal Winchester, Ohio fell approximately eight to nine feet from where she was sitting on a parking lot guard wall to a lower stone walkway.

Ms. Root and her family were taking pictures with a view of the mountains in the background when she fell backwards off the rock wall to the stone walkway below.

 Park Rangers and Cherokee Tribal EMS responded to the scene and provided patient care. Ms. Root never regained consciousness and was transported to the Cherokee Tribal Hospital in Cherokee, NC where she was pronounced dead.