Washington, D.C. – The House overwhelmingly voted today for a bill that would adjust the boundaries of the Pisgah National Forest to give the public better access to Catawba Falls.

Representative Heath Shuler introduced the legislation, H.R. 1002, that would allow the Forest Service to buy 88 acres from a private party to expand the trailhead to the Falls and a possibly provide a parking area. The bill also would adjust the boundaries of the Pisgah National Forest to add 233 acres already owned by the federal government.

"The public should have access to Catawba Falls, one of our area's natural beauties," said Rep. Shuler, D-Waynesville. "This bill not only opens the Falls to hikers, fisherman and hunters, but will help the economy of McDowell County."

Currently, visitors must pass through a steep and rugged wooded area to legally reach the Falls, and often people inadvertently trespass across private property. The legislation does not include the money to buy the 88 acres, but the Interior Department appropriation bill for 2010 contains $713,000 to purchase the land.

The McDowell County Board of Commissioners has made public access to the Falls a high priority because of its natural beauty and attractiveness as a tourist destination, said Chuck Abernathy, McDowell County Manager.

"Catawba Falls is a tremendous resource for McDowell County," Abernathy said. "We are most appreciative and excited about access to the Falls being permanently obtained."

The bill, which was supported by all 13 members of the North Carolina Congressional delegation, still must be passed by the Senate before it can be signed into law.

Shuler's legislation has the support of sportsmen and conservation groups.

The expansion of the Pisgah National Forest including access to Catawba Falls is the Forest Service's No. 1 priority in North Carolina, said Squeak Smith, chairman of the Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina. The conservation group owns the 88 acres that provides access to the Falls and is willing to sell the land to the Forest Service, he said.

Besides opening up the Falls to hikers, the bill also provides open access to fishing in the Catawba River for brown and rainbow trout, said Smith, who also is a member of the Board of Trustees for Trout Unlimited.

"This is a big first step towards providing the public access to the Falls," Smith said. "We've been waiting a long time to hear this."

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