May 21, 2013

Duke offers to pay half for Sassafras Mountain observation tower

Duke Energy is offering to pay about half the cost of an observation tower atop South Carolina’s highest peak under a proposal to relicense dams for two mountain lakes.

Duke Energy is offering to pay about half the cost of an observation tower atop South Carolina’s highest peak under a proposal to relicense dams for two mountain lakes.

The company says it will spend $500,000 toward construction of the estimated $1 million tower project on Sassafras Mountain – a 3,500-foot peak along the North Carolina border – if an agreement can be struck with environmental and other interest groups this year.

Sassafras Mountain is the state’s highest point, but an overgrowth of trees makes it difficult for visitors to see the surrounding peaks and valleys of the southern Appalachians. The SC Department of Natural Resources is raising funds to build a tower so the public can get a 360-degree view of the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee.

Duke’s offer is part of the energy giant’s effort to obtain a new 30- to 50-year license for dams on lakes Jocassee and Keowee. Both lakes were created decades ago to generate power, but they also have become recreational waterways and tourist attractions.

As part of the negotiations to relicense the dams, Duke has offered to protect thousands of acres of land and improve recreation sites along the Pickens and Oconee county lakes in exchange for support by interest groups. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will have to approve the license, a process that can be lengthy if interest groups aren’t happy with how power companies plan to operate dams in the future.

In this case, money for the Sassafras project might not be available for at least a year. Duke planned a public meeting Wednesday at 4 p.m. in Clemson to discuss the Sassafras proposal and other parts of the proposed dam relicensing agreement, completed last week after months of discussion.

“SCDNR is really leading the effort to make Sassafras Mountain a conservation treasure for South Carolina and Duke Energy is pleased to partner in the legacy they are creating there,” Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said Tuesday.

In addition to money for Sassafras Mountain, Duke Energy is offering $1 million to an Upstate land trust to help purchase property along SC 11, a state scenic highway in the southern Appalachians. The property being sought is part of the Nine Times area, some of which already has been protected by the Nature Conservancy. The more than 1,600-acre Nine Times property has been overlooked as people drive to the state’s higher mountains, but conservationists say the area is also special and needs protection. It includes a wide variety of plants, rare rock formations and whitewater trout streams, and it is frequented by black bears.

Wes Cooler, who represented the SC Wildlife Federation in negotiating the agreement, said he’s pleased with what is being offered by Duke, but he noted that others have to sign off on the deal.

Other lakes and river systems with dams in South Carolina are going through similar relicensing efforts that have produced some disputes with environmental groups over whether more water should be allowed through dams to protect fish in downstream rivers. A key issue at Lake Keowee, a residential reservoir, is the level of water that will be kept in the lake during times of drought.

Cooler said he hopes any unresolved issues can be worked out so that land can be protected – and Sassafras can get an observation tower so folks can see over the trees and into the southern Appalachians.

“It’s a great view from Sassafras on one of those clear, high pressure days after a big rain,” he said. “You can see forever.”

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