Ross: Call for action: Save forests with Wilderness Act

Ross: Call for action: Save forests with Wilderness Act

July 4th, 2013 by By Carroll L. Ross in Opinion Columns

Father Pierre de Charlevoix, a French priest who floated down the Mississippi River in 1721, passed by the western portion of the future state of Tennessee.

The priest stood in awe of the immense forests he observed on his voyage, and, in his journal, he said that there was "nothing in nature comparable to them."

As early Tennessee pioneers were constructing Buchanan's Station several miles south of the present city of Nashville, we are told that they cut down cedar trees more than four feet thick, the nearest limb being 40 feet from the ground.

Tennessee's magnificent canopied forests had taken thousands of years to develop. Unfortunately, no one alive today will ever see forests comparable to those described by early explorers and settlers, for precious little of these splendid virgin forests exist in our state today. Not a single specimen of the magnificent cedar trees cut down by the settlers at Buchanan's Station was preserved for future generations to observe and feel the same awe and reverence experienced by early explorers.

The pioneers of an emerging nation initially consumed thousands of acres of these forests for such mundane albeit necessary things as shingles, fence rails and logs for building their small cabins and barns. More acres were cleared for gardens to grow their food and pastures to graze their cattle. The forests suffered even more devastation from the relentless and unceasing demand for firewood to cook food for growing families and to keep them warm during the cold winter months.

As our nation entered the industrial age in the 19th century, the need for building materials to foster our nation's rapid growth increased tenfold. Huge lumber companies, usually from the North, cast their envious eyes southward toward the forests of the Appalachian Mountains.

Appalled by the total destruction of our nation's forests, President Theodore Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, and, under the guidance of his forester Gifford Pinchot, began buying hundreds of thousands of acres in the Appalachian Mountains and in other similarly wasted regions.

Today many hunters, hikers and others with varied outdoor interests reap the full benefit of Teddy's vision when he saved these forests for the recreational use of our nation's citizens.

Tennessee Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker have proposed legislation, known as the Tennessee Wilderness Act, that will forever protect 19,558 acres of the Cherokee National Forest in East Tennessee as wilderness areas, the highest form of protection available for our public lands.

The proposed wilderness areas in Tennessee would include the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness addition in Carter and Johnson counties, the Upper Bald River Wilderness area in Monroe County, and the Little Frog Wilderness addition in Polk County. Three other existing wilderness areas are expanded in the Tennessee Wilderness Act. All areas protect headwaters forest in the Tennessee River watershed.

All of the proposed wilderness areas would still be available for public use for such things as hunting, fishing, hiking, picnicking, bird watching and horseback riding. And all land currently in our national forests not included in these wilderness areas would still be available for the many varied uses for which the national forest program was designed, including the cutting of timber.

The act would ensure that these specially designated areas are kept in pristine condition and preserved in perpetuity so that future generations can continue to enjoy them as protected wilderness areas and watch them develop again into the magnificent, verdant forests that once covered much of our continent.

The Tennessee Wilderness Act deserves the enthusiastic support of all citizens of our state, and Congress would do us an eternal favor by passing this legislation.

Carroll L. Ross, of Etowah, Tenn., serves as the circuit court judge for the 10th Judicial District and has an avid interest in the cultural heritage of his native Tennessee.