Congress may be fiercely divided along political lines at the moment, but its members should know that Tennesseans of all political stripes stand solidly behind legislation to expand wilderness areas by nearly 20,000 acres in the Cherokee National Forest along Tennessee's Appalachian Mountain eastern border.
East Tennesseans' support for the additional wilderness areas in seven key locations of the 650,000-acre Cherokee National Forest is not a guess. It's based on a balanced survey of public opinion by Tennessee Wild, which represents six Tennessee advocacy groups, and the environmental arm of the Pew Charitable Trust.
The survey showed that 90 percent of East Tennesseans, whether Republican, Democrat or independent, rated the preservation of the proposed new wilderness additions in the Cherokee as "extremely important."
That's not surprising. Though the Cherokee National Forest covers barely 3 percent of the state's land, the bulk of the forest is already subject to logging rotations. Just a tenth of the entire forest is reserved for wilderness areas, which are open to hiking, fishing, camping, hunting and horseback riding, but are closed to logging, mining and commercial use.
Most Tennesseans value the state's dwindling wilderness areas for personal recreation, and as a place to find unspoiled beauty and solitude. They also appreciate the economic benefit of preservation of natural areas for tourism and the income that growing industry generates. Regardless, a bill to enlarge the wilderness areas failed last year.
The bill this year, sponsored in the Senate by Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, marks another attempt to enlarge sections of land that have already been preserved as national wilderness areas.
The 1,836-acre Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock addition, for example, would connect those tracts and the Citico Creek Wilderness with other parts of the Cherokee that border the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That new nexus would provide a valuable wildlife corridor of major proportions. To the south of the Citico Creek Wilderness, another contiguous addition to the corridor - the 9,038-acre Upper Bald River Wilderness Study Area - would be folded into the existing, and much smaller, Bald River Gorge Wilderness Area.
This linkage, recommended decades ago and most recently in a 2004 Forest Service study, would greatly enhance the overall value of the Cherokee's connected wilderness wildlife areas. If it's not approved, pressure by timber companies in the future could make it implausible.
Three other additions recommended in the 2004 study, totaling around 1,300 acres, are proposed for wilderness protection for the existing Big Frog Mountain and Little Frog Mountain wilderness areas in Polk County. Roughly 2,900 acres would be added to Sampson Mountain wilderness in the northern half of the Cherokee, and nearly 4,450 acres would be added to the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness.
There are no tangible reasons to oppose granting wilderness protection to these areas. They already qualify for wilderness designations. The change in status would entail no new costs to the Forest Service. And there are no private inholdings to trigger land-ownership issues.
The change in status would simply involve a declaration of wilderness status, as opposed to unprotected Cherokee Forest land. The value in protecting the Cherokee's richly unique ecosystems, watersheds and old forests, however, would be priceless in terms of environmental and scenic values.
Future residents of our state, and those who come to visit, would be permanently assured of access to a priceless remnant of Appalachia's Blue Ridge Mountains as it was before the land was settled, logged, farmed and mined. Surely this selfless act merits approval.