Goforth Creek Canyon in cross hairs: Some fear road upgrade plans will harm environment

Goforth Creek Canyon in cross hairs: Some fear road upgrade plans will harm environment

February 25th, 2013 by Ben Benton in Local Regional News

Goforth Creek Canyon within the Ocoee River Gorge in Polk County, Tenn., was named to the Southern Environmental Law Center's "Top 10 Endangered Places in the Southeast for 2013. Here, Cleveland, Tenn., residents Jamie Gamble, left, and Timmy Gamble enjoy the scenic beauty of Goforth Creek, just off U.S. Highway 64.

Photo by Ben Benton /Times Free Press.

OCOEE, Tenn. - For Jamie and Timmy Gamble, Goforth Creek Canyon is a treasured getaway from their hectic lives.

"We can come up here to relax, get away from the kids, get away from home," said Jamie, 34, as she sat in a folding chair a few steps from Goforth Creek's lowest cascades and another few steps from U.S. Highway 64 and the Ocoee River.

"We come here a lot," she said.

The couple, natives of nearby Cleveland, Tenn., have visited the not-so-secret spot just past the big "truckers curve" on U.S. 64 for the past 15 or 16 years, Timmy Gamble, 33, said. "It's peaceful."

But being locals, the Gambles have seen U.S. 64's problems -- including a major rock slide in 2009 that closed the route for months -- and years of debates over the need for widening versus environmental worries over the impact on the Ocoee River Gorge's natural beauty.

A new highway from Ocoee to the North Carolina line could "stop a lot of the wrecks and deaths," Jamie Gamble said.

But the impact on their favorite spot?

"It's going to hurt," Timmy Gamble said.

The Southern Environmental Law Center this month named Goforth Creek Canyon one of its "Top 10 Endangered Places in the Southeast for 2013."

Melanie Mayes, chairwoman for WaysSouth -- an environmental group aimed at promoting alternatives to "destructive highway projects" including Corridor K -- said the Tennessee Department of Transportation's project to build a new, wider highway through the gorge will "destroy Goforth Creek's recreational value and pristine waters."

"Any of the existing plans will be devastating," Mayes said.

Mayes and TDOT officials agree Goforth Creek Canyon is in the cross hairs of any new path over the mountains through the Cherokee National Forest.

"And the higher up they go, the more they'll impact downstream," Mayes said.

But TDOT project manager Chester Sutherland said nothing is set in stone and studies are ongoing to help determine the best remedy.

"TDOT is taking this process very seriously and extensive studies have been completed and will be a part of the environmental document," Sutherland said in an emailed response.

The need for the project and how it can be built are what those studies will determine, he said.

"There are basically six different alternatives that are being reviewed, and all proposed new location alternatives are to the north of the existing alignment [on present-day U.S. 64]," Sutherland said. "All the alignments in some way or another utilize portions of the existing route."

Doing nothing to the existing U.S. 64 is among the options, he noted.

But that would mean problems would remain, such as rock slides, narrow lanes, a lack of road shoulders and guardrails, he said.

Sutherland urges folks who are concerned about the project and its impact to wait until late summer when TDOT releases its draft environmental impact statement.

Mayes said Goforth Creek has been on WaysSouth's front burner for some time, and she's glad the area is receiving renewed attention.