Tubers float down the Little River in Townsend

Tubers float down the Little River in Townsend earlier this summer. A petition created by a University of Tennessee Knoxville student is asking leaders to either regulate or ban tubing within Townsend.

A student-created petition asking for tubing in Townsend to be either banned or more regulated has received nearly 1,000 signatures in less than a week.

Titled “Protect the Little River in Townsend, TN,” a petition started by Lexi Emrey directed at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett and local government leaders asked them to curb tubing on Little River.

Emrey — who could not be reached via email or social media for comment — said in the petition she is a senior at UTK and is studying wildlife and fisheries management.

She also said her family has owned property on the river for more than 100 years.

At the end of the petition, Emrey called for either regulation or a ban on tubing, noting “local residents have tried to end tubing on the Little River for years.” But first she noted the effect of tubing traffic on wildlife and specifically Eastern Hellbender salamanders, which she said were “rapidly disappearing” because of human encroachment.

The petition has been shared repeatedly on social media and garnered about 980 responses by Monday.

One of the entities to share the post online was Tally Ho Inn, owned by Townsend Vice Mayor Michael Talley.

“PLEASE SIGN” Talley Ho’s repost of the petition read. “Tubing has gotten out of control on Little River. It is contributing to a decline in biodiversity and rise in pollution and damage in an area that has historically been a sanctuary for freshwater organisms.”

Moving rocks

Experts who spoke with The Daily Times on Monday said tubing itself doesn’t necessarily have a negative effect on wildlife.

The problems come when people remove and shift rocks to make unnatural dams, a point also noted in the petition.

“There’s as much disruption to the stream bed that happens after (a flood) as probably from a decade of tubing,” Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Stream and Rivers Wildlife Manager Jim Habera said. “Just them floating through and walking around, wading, I don’t see that as a problem. It’s when they start pulling up the rocks. ... There you’re messing around with the substrate like a flood would do and disturbing aquatic organism habitats.”

Habera said TWRA teams were working at Townsend’s portion of Little River the second week of July and saw several places where people had moved rocks into large piles.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Chief of Resource Management and Science Matt Kulp confirmed this activity is what they try to keep visitors from doing when they’re inside the park boundaries.

“We’ve ... seen places like Little River and Abrams Creek where we have threatened and endangered fishes ... that live under those rocks and spawn on the rocks in June and July and into early August,” Kulp said. “If someone takes that rock and moves it or flips it, they’ll abandon that nest and those eggs will die.”

Kulp said the park has put out a big campaign to let visitors know the harm caused to wildlife by disturbing streams. Some of those promotional materials do mention Eastern Hellbenders by name, informing visitors that “many salamanders live under rocks. Don’t move their homes!”

While they do not regulate the portion of Little River used by tubing companies, GSMNP officials have given educational materials to Townsend businesses, Kulp said, but was unsure how often those have been used.

Not first time

Owners of River Rat tubing said they had seen the petition, but declined to comment. Owners of Cowboy Tubin’ and River Rage Tubing did not respond to calls.

Talley said issues about the busy tubing industry on the “peaceful side of the Smokies” have come up several times in the past. But the petition takes a different perspective on the matter.

“A lot of folks in the community have gone quiet just out of a sense of futility,” he said. “We try to bring up these concerns and we haven’t found any regulatory authority that can help us.”

Talley said it’s not only environmental aspects citizens are worried about. It’s the noise, the property rights issues and often the trash that have many frustrated with tubing operations.

He agreed the companies bring economic activity to the city, but noted taxes for some tubing companies go to Blount County, not to the city of Townsend.

Some of those companies do regulate the amount of tubes they put on the river, Talley said. Others do not and he said that has led to widespread concern about the long-term detrimental effect of the industry.

“I hate to say it: They’re killing the goose that’s laying the golden egg,” Talley said. “If a little bit of compromise could voluntarily be made, I think it would mitigate a lot the concerns.”

Follow @arjonesreports on Facebook and Twitter for more from city government reporter Andrew Jones.

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