SOAP back on Ocoee after forced hiatus

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After a miscommunication led Southern Adventist University’s Outdoor Adventure Program (SOAP) to be temporarily suspended from leading Ocoee River whitewater rafting trips, SOAP has received permission to take students on the river again.

According to Mike Harris, director of Adventure Programming, the program has provided students with the opportunity to raft the Ocoee, led by trained students and faculty from Southern, since the fall of 2009 when SOAP was established. These Ocoee trips were a student and staff favorite, taking participants on whitewater excursions through five-and-a-half-miles of Class III and IV rapids.

This semester, however, an email sent out on Sept. 3 by Anna Plank, graduate assistant for Adventure Programming, informed SOAP participants that all scheduled Ocoee rafting trips had been canceled. 

Harris explained that this was because on Aug. 21, he received a cease and desist letter from the Cherokee National Forest Ocoee/Hiwassee Ranger District of the United States Department of Agriculture, signed by district ranger Michael Wright.

SOAP claimed to be “guiding” rafting trips, which, according to Wright, is the term used by the National Forest Service to indicate the services provided by commercial entities. The proper phrasing should say that SOAP is “leading” whitewater rafting trips on the Ocoee. SOAP’s use of the term “guiding,” alerted Wright that Southern might be charging students for the trips. 

In the letter Wright wrote, “You are to immediately discontinue all operations on the National Forest. In accordance with U.S. Forest Service regulations, Southern Adventist University must have a special use authorization for this use of National Forest System lands.”

On Sept. 5 Harris responded to the letter in an email to realty specialist for the National Forest Service, Debbie Abel, in hopes of regaining the privilege of taking students on the Ocoee.

“[The letter] came as a surprise because we thought we were operating within the boundaries of the law,” Harris wrote. “…As I read the policy of the National Forest, we should not be considered a commercial entity.”

In his email Harris confirmed that SOAP should still be allowed to raft on the Ocoee because according to the Forest Service Handbook 2709.14, chapter 50, only commercial entities require special-use authorization, and according to the Code of Federal Regulations title 36, part 251, section 51, SOAP is not a commercial entity. Further, Harris clarified, SOAP has adhered to the guidelines for noncommercial use of the Ocoee outlined in the Rules of Tennessee Department of Conservation Chapter 0400-02-10 Requirements for Conducting Rafting Services Ocoee River.

Harris closed the email saying, “…Please reconsider allowing Southern Adventist University to continue to use the National Forest. Not only does it introduce a young group to the great resources here in our area, it also allows us a place to speak about taking care of the land.”

In an email on Sept. 30, Abel replied, “Based on the fact that Southern Adventist University appears to be operating within the scope of the current regulations: They do not ‘charge or require any kind of reimbursement for the trip–no goods or services are exchanged for the trip,’ nor do they ‘require the students to be part of a club or make them pay any kind of fee,’  [and] their group size is less than 75, [therefore,] they do not require a special use permit.”

“Now that they have established we are not charging, we will be running trips again in the spring,” Harris said.

SOAP participants are excited to hear that rafting opportunities on the Ocoee are available again.

“The memories I’ve made on the rafting trips with Southern have been some of my most favorite memories in college so far [and] I am happy to hear that Southern is able to take students on the Ocoee rafting trips again,” junior nursing major Kaitlin Callahan said.

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