By Meg Dickens
Officials and regular citizens of Johnson County alike have been pushing for repairs to the only “public access” to Watauga Lake since the original rockslide decommissioned the Sink Mountain boat ramp in 2019. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reached out this May for public opinions on a project to return access and add a few improvements to the former site, including replacing the ramp, extending the trail, replacing the culvert, and managing a new trail segment for hikers and pedestrians. The USDA has released a draft decision notice for the project, and the last step is to await any objections. Barring any significant opposition, it looks like this project will finally get underway.
According to the USDA Decision Notice draft, all of the comments received at that time were positive and mentioned no specific issues. Officials report approximately 23 comments submitted on this project, including those from the Johnson County Commission and Nature Conservancy’s Tennessee Chapter. Several public comments state that the project will be beneficial to locals and possibly help tourism thrive.
“This project would be a major improvement to the Watauga Lake area to include additional access for recreational activities that take place on one of our most popular waterways,” commented Alicia Phelps. “Repairs to NFS Road 298 for access and a boat ramp would have an extremely positive effect on the economy of Johnson County as visitors and locals alike would have additional opportunities for fishing, flat water kayaking, canoeing, and paddle boarding. This would also assist in land use management of areas that are currently over-accessed along Watauga Lake.“
The Forest Service took the time to address a few concerns from the public. The most common ones revolved around fishing and usage fees. Officials assured the public that there was no need for concern. Fishing will still be allowed both at the fishing pier and at other spots along the bank. Fees are a standard rate aligning with Watauga Ranger District day-use areas, and passes and specific free days exist to help with access.
According to notice guidelines, only someone who sent previous comments is eligible to object. There are several specifications in place for how and when to do so. For these specifics, view the public notice published on August 6, 2021, in the Johnson City Press or view it online through the Tennessee Press Association (TPA). All objections must be postmarked by September 20 to be valid in this particular case. Barring any objections, USDA will approve the plan within five business days after the allotted time frame. With protests, there will be a delay to review and then reconsideration.
For more information on the Sink Mountain Recreation Improvement Project, contact Watauga District Ranger Keith Kelley at 4400 Unicoi Drive, Unicoi, Tennessee, or (423) 735-1500. For a closer look at the draft, click here.