U.S. Forest Service officials are drawing fire from nearby residents who say they were misled over some changes at Tumbling Creek Recreation Area in east Polk County.
Daren Waters is a lifelong resident, longtime Polk County commissioner and a regular user of the recreation area. Local folks call it the "C.C. Camp" for its historical connection to the 1930s-era Civilian Conservation Corps that built structures in the Cherokee National Forest.
The old campground has been a favorite of Polk County residents and communities just over the state line in Georgia and North Carolina. People who hear about it come from all over the country to see it, Waters said.
"This area has so much history, and it's so close and accessible; that's why it's a big concern of the locals," he said. "The biggest concern is that we hope it's not the beginning of the end. We hope they're not going to shut it down completely."
The old concrete picnic tables and in-ground fire pits have been removed, along with the animal-proof garbage cans that made the rustic site user-friendly, he said.
Forest service officials told him they had been moved to a "more feasible area" elsewhere in the national forest, he said.
But Laura Lewis, a longtime fan of the site, took photographs of the shattered remains of the tables and fire pits that she says were dumped near a gated road on federal forest land. Lewis is Waters' girlfriend and lives in his commission district.
"Our community is outraged by the removal of these," Lewis said in a Facebook message to the Times Free Press. "We use that campground for family gatherings, church gatherings; the creek is used for baptisms."
She said she was lied to by forest service officials.
"I think our community deserves some answers," she said. "Our small community embraced and loved this camping area. Why was it destroyed by the very entity that is supposed to be protecting these areas?"
Staff members at Ocoee Adventure Center in Copperhill and at Blue Ridge Mountain Outfitters in Blue Ridge, Ga., said they hadn't heard any complaints from the rafting community. But they noted the Ocoee River only began flowing at usable levels two weeks ago.
Forest service public information officer Terry McDonald could not be reached Wednesday for comment but he told the Polk County News newspaper in Benton, Tenn., in an earlier interview that the work was part of an effort to reduce or eliminate services at less-used sites throughout the Cherokee National Forest.
McDonald told the Polk newspaper that Lost Creek, Chilhowee, Parksville and Thunder Rock campgrounds, swimming areas and boat ramps will continue to operate as usual but changes were made at other sites to "decrease operating costs and gain efficiency."
"In order to do this, we may reduce or eliminate trash pickup and maintenance levels, shorten open seasons, or close toilet facilities at sites that are not heavily used, are not cost-effective to operate or (where) there are other facilities offering a similar experience in the area," McDonald said.
Tumbling Creek is still open to the public, but regular services to the site have been eliminated, he said.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569.