Wheeler: Support conservation to keep city growing

Wheeler: Support conservation to keep city growing

October 12th, 2013 By Dawson Wheeler in Opinion Columns

This summer, Tennessee Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker jointly introduced the Tennessee Wilderness Act, a bill that will protect forever some of Tennessee's most enduring and beautiful places in the Cherokee National Forest.

From every corner of the state, the Tennessee Wilderness bill has received universal support, and Sen. Alexander best summed up why wilderness is important when he made the following statement about the legislation: "I grew up hiking the mountains of East Tennessee, and conserving these areas gives future generations of Tennesseans the same sort of opportunity. This legislation takes important steps toward protecting our natural heritage, and gives the millions of people who visit Tennessee each year an additional reason to come and enjoy our outdoors."

I also grew up camping, hiking and exploring in the mountains of the Cherokee, which was close to my hometown of Etowah. My family valued our natural resources. I was taught to treat these forest lands with the same respect I had for a family member and my back yard. Enjoy, use and improve were words my mother and father said a thousand times to me as we explored.

As an owner of Rock/Creek, I interact with people every day whose lives have been improved through outdoor adventure. Our company and our industry's vendors agree wholeheartedly with Sen. Alexander in support of the Tennessee Wilderness Act.

That support runs deep, not only because the Tennessee Wilderness Act will forever protect places we love and cherish, but also because the legislation -- and hopefully its subsequent passage -- will send a powerful message nationally that Chattanooga and East Tennessee is a premiere outdoor destination. We have become, and are gaining awareness as, a key "launch pad" for exploring and experiencing the outdoors.

Passage of the Wilderness Act also will deliver another important message. Protecting Tennessee's special places will help develop a strong economy and create jobs.

Outdoor recreation is one of the fastest growing industries nationally and locally. According to a recent Outdoor Industry Association report, more than 6.1 million jobs are connected to the outdoor industry, generating $646 billion in outdoor recreation spending a year. Surprisingly, more American jobs depend on trail sports (768,000) than there are lawyers (728,200) in the U.S.

On the local level, special outdoor recreation events such as last weekend's Rock/Creek StumpJump 50k and 11 mile Trail Race filled up two months in advance, with a cap of 1,000 participants. Over 826 of those came from outside the Chattanooga region. Participants traveled here from 32 states and Canada.

According to Tim Morgan from the Chattanooga Sports Committee, the economic impact for this one event was projected at over $200,000. These racers stayed in our local hotels, spent money in local restaurants, and visited retailers and service providers throughout the city. This spending provides the city and county with tax revenue and supports our local businesses. Multiply this by the hundreds of organized outdoor outings, events, family get-togethers and eco-tourism activities that occur throughout East Tennessee on any given day.

The Rock/Creek StumpJump Trail Race is just one in a series of 10 races that we put on throughout the year. The race is also part of RiverRocks, with 10 medal events and many more community events. The festival is the fall's premiere adventure sports games, drawing competitors from around the globe.

Support for outdoor recreation continues to grow in Chattanooga. We have all the ingredients to succeed. Our region is nationally recognized for its scenic beauty, mountains, forests, rivers, lakes, and natural areas. There is a strong local and economic commitment on behalf of outdoor recreation. People from various backgrounds are discovering the value of our outdoor resources. Many of these people are working diligently to protect our natural heritage. For these and many other reasons, Rock/Creek has invested in a fourth store to be located in downtown Chattanooga, and in partnership with High Point Climbing and Fitness to create "The Block," a state- of-the-art outdoor development. We expect this development to attract more than 250,000 people a year into downtown.

Working together, we can preserve some of Tennessee's most special places, grow our economy, create jobs and share our natural heritage with millions of people who love the outdoors.