The Tennessee Valley's public lands and waters offer nearly unparalleled beauty and relaxation benefits. But there’s also “gold in them thar hills”—recreation brings billions of dollars into the Valley each year.
Forty or 50 years ago, there was no need to discuss public access to recreation because all the residents of an area generally knew each other, so a person might simply go to his neighbor’s farm and ask whether he could use the land for fishing or hunting. But in the years after World War II, which saw increasing growth in metropolitan areas and the disappearance of thousands of acres of open farmland to development, the need arose for infrastructure that would provide reliable access to public lands.
At TVA, recreation areas generally fall into three categories: water-based, such as fishing and boating; land-based, such as trails and campgrounds; and stream access sites. Valley-wide, TVA manages 293,000 acres of public use recreation land and 11,000 miles of shoreline.
Fishing, hiking, birdwatching, swimming—it was always enjoyable. But when did we realize it’s also incredibly valuable?
Recreation was not mentioned in the 1933 TVA Act. But on Jan. 15, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made his famous “more than a power” speech to Congress, directing the TVA to look at comprehensive recreation planning for the Tennessee Valley.
“It is coming to be realized more and more that in the improvement of our American civilization we cannot stop at hospitals and schools any more than we can confine ourselves to strictly economic subjects. Recreation in its broad sense is a definite factor in the improvement of the bodies and minds of our future citizens.” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt on TVA, 1940
“So for the first time, recreation and TVA are linked, and we were off and running,” said Bucky Edmondson, director of TVA Natural Resource. “Of course, the war put a gap in that planning, but once it was over and troops came home, there was a real interest in the outdoors and recreation. It was more focused then on what they called ‘the refreshment of mankind,’ as opposed to the economic impact.”
In 1960, Congress created the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, launching national surveys on recreation every few years (which continue to the present day). These provided a wealth of data that had never been gathered before and first exposed the enormous economic impact of recreation. After that, grant funds began coming to organizations to build public access infrastructure.
Now, government leaders from the national level on down are fully aware of the crucial economic value that lakes, swim beaches, stream access sites, fishing spots, trails and campsites bring to the communities around them. It’s clear that although “the refreshment of mankind” is important, recreation also provides much more tangible benefits to the surrounding area.
“In 2017, we partnered with the University of Tennessee to study the economic impact of the reservoir-based recreation and that was just under $12 billion — about $1 million per shoreline mile,” explained Clay Guerry, recreation strategy specialist. “This year, we kicked off a study on stream access sites in northern Georgia and western North Carolina. Next year, we’ll move the study this way to the Powell and Clinch Rivers. And then hopefully we’ll look at land-based recreation to get a better picture of the regional recreational opportunities and how TVA can partner to support Valley recreation.”
Stream access points may seem small, but they play a big role in attracting visitors.
In the mid-1970s, TVA was involved in the Streams, Trails and Natural Access program. As a result, TVA now manages 105 stream access sites—small parcels of land that are used typically as put-ins and take-outs for paddle sports. In the 1970s, probably only surfers in California had heard of something called a paddleboard. But now, standup paddle boarding has become the country’s most popular outdoor activity among first-time participants, with nearly three million Americans taking part each year. TVA’s stream access sites have helped the sport grow tremendously in the Valley.
“We have world-class recreation here in the Valley,” said Guerry. “We have recreation assets that are known beyond the borders of the United States. Just think about the Appalachian Trail, how much has been written about it. It crosses two of TVA’s dams, Fontana and Watauga. One of the best shelters on the trail, the ‘Fontana Hilton’, is on TVA land.
“The Ocoee whitewater, where the Olympics were held—everyone into whitewater knows the Ocoee. Trout fishermen all over the world know about South Holston. Bass fishing competitions—look at the international media coverage that comes out of that. Reporters come from all over the world.”
Such assets make TVA lands real bucket-list destinations. “Not everyone can afford to go to Disneyworld or to take their family to an expensive beach,” said Travis Brickey, TVA program manager. “If someone is limited on funds, or limited on time, or just wants to stay close to home, there are plenty of opportunities right here for a world-class staycation—or as we like to call it, a ‘TVAcation’. And we’ve got all the information you need to plan one.”