Commentary: Act would help preserve wilderness watersheds

Commentary: Act would help preserve wilderness watersheds

November 20th, 2011 Renée Victoria Hoyos in Opinion Columns

Renée Victoria Hoyos is executive director of the Knoxville-based, nonprofit Tennessee Clean Water Network

Strolling along the Tennessee Riverwalk heading east, you look toward the mountains that give rise to the great river that dominates Chattanooga. While the Tennessee River has significant water quality problems due to urban runoff and sewage waste, they would be worse were it not for protection of the mountain watersheds, including the Ocoee River, the Bald River and the Little Tennessee River.

Over the years, Congress has given the strongest possible protection to some parts of these vital mountain watersheds in the Cherokee National Forest. This is the "gold standard" offered to the wildest portions of our federal lands under the 1964 Wilderness Act which assures that these lands will remain forever roadless and undeveloped.

These unspoiled watersheds contribute enormously to the production of clear,

clean water. They are also recreational treasures where we can hike, picnic, fish, camp and hunt in a true wilderness setting. Wilderness areas protect highest-quality wildlife habitats. They remind those who hike through or who simply drive alongside to enjoy the wild scenery of the original trackless forests from which pioneers built Tennessee.

Today, there are 11 wilderness areas in the Cherokee National Forest totaling 66,349 acres. The Big Frog and Little Frog areas help protect the Ocoee River watershed. The Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness Area helps safeguard the watershed of the Little Tennessee River. The Bald River Gorge Wilderness helps sustain the Bald River/Tellico River watershed.

However, in many cases, the existing wilderness areas do not include key parts of these watersheds. The U.S. Forest Service completed a comprehensive management plan for the Cherokee National Forest in 2004, and as part of that plan local Forest Service officials recommended strategic additions to some of our wilderness areas. These amount to some 19,500 acres and improve the location of wilderness area boundaries to better protect more of these mountain watersheds.

The Tennessee Clean Water Network, a statewide coalition of watershed advocacy groups, is working with dozens of other state, regional and national public interest and conservation organizations to support strong watershed protections like those achieved by these Cherokee National Forest wilderness areas.

Members of the TCWN and our coalition partners are devoted to attaining clean water for the people of this state and work with local communities and state and federal authorities to advocate for clean water. That is why we support the proposed Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2011, a bill in the United States Senate championed by Sen. Lamar Alexander with the solid support of Sen. Bob Corker. With their crucial support, this legislation was approved by the Senate's key Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Nov. 10. We look forward to a full vote in the Senate soon to implement the Forest Service wilderness recommendations.

If enacted, the legislation will add some 19,500 acres to our already protected wilderness areas. The largest is the new Upper Bald River wilderness area of 9,000 acres separated by an access road from the existing Bald River Wilderness Area. This is a major step for protecting the water quality of the Bald River as it flows into the Tellico River. The Alexander-Corker legislation also makes small but important additions to the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness Area in the Watauga River watershed and to the Sampson Mountain Wilderness Area in the Nolichucky River watershed.

Abundant supplies of clean water are a right that every one of us in Tennessee is entitled to under state and federal law. We have much work to do to clean up streams and rivers that are already polluted, but it is also vital that we protect the waters that are clean from the wild watersheds from which they flow. The Tennessee Wilderness Act is a very important step forward in ensuring clean water for our children and theirs.

Renée Victoria Hoyos is executive director of the Knoxville-based, nonprofit Tennessee Clean Water Network. She may be reached at renee@tcwn.org.