Tennessee's wilderness

Tennessee's wilderness

December 9th, 2012 in Opinion Times

The 112th Congress has a lot of unfinished business that likely will remain undone before the current session concludes, yet there remains strong bipartisan support in both chambers to make some vital permanent additions to the nation's designated wilderness areas before this Congress adjourns. Among these long-sought additions are six outstanding tracts totaling nearly 20,000 acres of gloriously pristine land in East Tennessee's Cherokee National Forest. Action by Tennessee's senators and representatives to provide permanent protection of these tracts in the wilderness bill is crucial, and time is short.

The wilderness bill now before Congress is a slimmed down version of the original 2011 package, which included widely supported additions in 25 states. The trimmer version contains areas designated for wilderness areas that are already being managed as wilderness, and where there is no dispute about the merit of permanent wilderness designation, no roads to be closed, no taxes to be lost, no costs required for purchase. There are only benefits to designating them as lasting wilderness.

The inclusion of the Cherokee National Forest tracts under the Wilderness Act of 1964 would benefit this state's anglers, hunters, hikers, campers, horseback riders, birders, naturalists, tourists and neighbors alike. Protection as permanent wilderness also would bequeath to our children, and to their descendants, the gift of unspoiled, lovely mountain forests and meadows, creeks and ravines, places of solitude and beauty. These would stand as timeless civic and spiritual anchors, enduring reminders of the land here as it was before it was settled and harnessed, cut and occupied, domesticated and filled with noisy commerce.

If granted wilderness protection, the Cherokee National Forest tracts would include the first new tract to be permanently conserved in Tennessee since the Ronald Reagan presidency. The additions to existing wilderness areas lie in portions of six counties, and have been selected to foster contiguous wildlife corridors and connectivity to existing wilderness areas. Specifically, they include areas that adjoin:

Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness (Monroe County), 1,836 acres; Big Frog Wilderness (Polk County), 348 acres; Little Frog Wilderness (Polk County), 978 acres; Big Laurel Branch Wilderness (Carter and Johnson counties), 4,446 acres; and Sampson Mountain Wilderness (Unicoi and Washington counties), 2,922 acres.

The sixth tract, 9,038 acres, would create the Upper Bald Wilderness in Monroe County, the first new wilderness area in Tennessee in 25 years. Visitors could access these tracts on existing National Forest Service roads and trails. Highlights for visitors would include:

• 4.5 miles of the Appalachian Trail corridor in the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness, part of the Watauga River rivershed.

• 2,922 acres in the Nolichucky River watershed in the Sampson Mountain wilderness.

• 15 miles of the Benton McKaye Trail in the Little Frog, Upper Bald River and Joyce Kilmer Slickrock wilderness areas.

• The headwaters of the Bald River, which nourishes native brook trout and is popular with fly fishermen. The river flows into the Tellico River, and ultimately the Tennessee River.

• The tract adjacent to the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness would serve as a connector corridor to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Citico Creek Wilderness.

Such well-crafted connections clearly would strengthen the fabric and ecological integrity of already existing wilderness by filling the gaps that separate them and providing more comprehensive and permanent protection for the total wilderness in the Cherokee National Forest.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, the sponsor of the Tennessee Wilderness bill, and Sen. Bob Corker, co-sponsor, are also supporters of the larger wilderness bill into which their bill has been inserted. Senate promoters of the bill believe there is a good chance of passing the bill as an amendment to the larger bipartisan legislation that has to move this month. If that's successful, the next obstacle would be in the House.

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann would have to lead the effort to pass the bill there, and he would have to help from Rep. Jimmy Duncan of Tennessee's District 2, who sits on the House Natural Resources Committee.

If the bill is to pass both chambers, Tennessee's lawmakers must persuade their colleagues of the durable value of expanding this nation's tiny slivers of permanent wilderness. Most of the nation's wilderness has already vanished beneath the plow and the saw. What's left merits visionary work and lasting protection. Ultimately, it will be the lawmakers' only truly enduring legacy.