Bill to add wilderness areas in Tennessee mired in politics

Bill to add wilderness areas in Tennessee mired in politics

October 15th, 2012 by Pam Sohn in Local Regional News

Southwings volunteer pilot James Mills flies Wild South director Jeff Hunter over the Big Frog Wilderness as they scout potential wilderness expansion areas by air.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Wilderness areas

Additions

1,836 acres - Monroe County's Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness

348 acres - Polk County's Big Frog Wilderness

978 acres - Polk County's Little Frog Wilderness

4,446 acres - Carter and Johnson counties' Big Laurel Branch Wilderness

2,922 acres - Unicoi and Washington counties' Sampson Mountain Wilderness

New

9,038 acres - Monroe County's Upper Bald River Wilderness

Source: Tennessee Wilderness Campaign

Conservationists are getting antsy that Congress for more than a year has failed to take up a bill that would cost nothing and protect 19,556 acres of Volunteer State wilderness - most of it in Southeast Tennessee.

The Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2011, introduced in May 2011 by Sen. Lamar Alexander and co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker, would expand five existing wilderness areas in the Cherokee National Forest and create the first new one in 25 years.

The five expansions include two in Polk County and one in Monroe County.

The new wilderness area also would be in Monroe County.

"There is no opposition to this," said Jeff Hunter, director of the Tennessee Wilderness Campaign. "The Forest Service chief has testified strongly in favor of the bill; it doesn't cost anything."

Yet, while the bill passed out of committee on a bipartisan basis and takes no private land, closes no roads and snatches no taxes from local communities, it has languished without a full vote for nearly a year.

"It takes an act of Congress to create or expand wilderness areas," said Jay Mills, who as a co-founder of Southwings, volunteers his small plane and piloting skills to help policymakers learn about them and other conservation issues.

But Mills and Hunter said the bill is stalled.

"It's mired down in Congress because Congress is bogged down in partisan issues and they are not accomplishing much," Hunter said.

The areas proposed for protection already are public lands as part of the Cherokee National Forest, but still they lack protection from off-roading, logging, mining and road building - all things that can fragment forests and harm stream quality.

Lost in politics

Jim Jeffries, spokesman for Alexander, acknowledged that the bill has bipartisan support but still remains stymied.

"The Tennessee Wilderness Act was passed in a bipartisan way by the Senate's Energy Committee, and Sen. Alexander continues looking for ways to get it passed by Congress and signed into law," Jeffries said.

Alexander's office added that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D., Nev., controls what comes to the floor.

Corker's office did not respond to a request for comment.

The Tennessee Wilderness Act is one of 25 wilderness bills across the country that are caught in the mire.

Hunter and Mills are hoping to rally citizens to lean on their congressional representatives to tell them they want action once big fiscal issues are dealt with in the upcoming lame duck Congress. The Congress is scheduled to reconvene Nov. 13 after the 2012 elections.

"There's only been one Congress since 1964 that has not added acreage to the wilderness preservation system," Hunter said. "We could be looking at the possibility of this Congress, the 112th Congress, not passing any wilderness bills at all."

In a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts' environmental group, analysts said Congress will have a lot of work to do in the closing weeks of the year, including acting to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff."

The report, posted on Pew's website last week, notes: "We hope that this year a lame duck will be able to fly and, like a stork, deliver new wilderness for the country."

Local areas

Last week, Mills and Hunter flew over Polk County's Big Frog and Little Frog areas in the Cherokee National Forest where a 348-acre addition is proposed for Big Frog and a 978-acre addition is sought for Little Frog.

"It is these wilderness areas that protect the water quality of our rivers," Hunter said. "These areas in Polk County protect the Conasauga - one of the more biologically rich, temperate [nontropical] forest areas in the world."

The areas lie in the Blue Ridge Mountains that trail through East Tennessee, and they are home to 43 species of mammals, 55 species of reptiles and amphibians and a wide variety of birds, Hunter said.

In Monroe County, the bill would add 1,836 acres to the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness Area.

Already one of the largest areas of designated national forest wilderness in the Southeast, the Monroe piece also is an important companion conservation area for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Benton MacKaye Trail passes through the addition, and remnant old growth trees stand along some of the steep terrain.

Also in Monroe County, the Upper Bald River area would be a 9,038-acre brand new wilderness area, and it presents a rare opportunity to protect an entire watershed.

About 20 miles east of Tellico Plains, it is popular with hunters and anglers, and is home to black bear, white-tailed deer and native brook trout.