Sohn: Wilderness needs an act of Congress (with video)

photo Legislation would permanently protect this additional 1,836 acres of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness Area along Monroe County's Tennessee border with North Carolina.

Wilderness areasADDITIONS1,836 acres: Monroe County's Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness348 acres: Polk County's Big Frog Wilderness978 acres: Polk County's Little Frog Wilderness4,446 acres: Carter and Johnson counties' Big Laurel Branch Wilderness2,922 acres: Unicoi and Washington counties' Sampson Mountain Wilderness^NEW9,038 acres: Monroe County's Upper Bald River WildernessSource: Tennessee Wilderness Campaign

Nearly 30 years ago, the first Tennessee Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. It permanently protects places we now know as the Big Frog, Little Frog and Sampson Mountain wilderness areas.

Two years later, Reagan signed the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 1986, expanding the Big Frog Wilderness Area by 3,000 acres. That bill also expanded protection for the Appalachian Trail by creating the Pond Mountain, Unaka Mountain and Big Laurel Branch wilderness areas.

It's time to protect still more of the wild and diverse areas of our region that provide us not only with beauty, but also with clean water and an outdoor recreation industry in Tennessee that generates $8 billion in consumer spending each year and supports more than 80,000 jobs.

The Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2013, supported by both Tennessee's U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, would expand five current wilderness areas and create a new one, and permanently protect an additional 20,000 acres in the Cherokee National Forest - without requiring any new or added expense or funding.

"There's no land acquisitions. There's no road closures; there are no roads in these areas. The U.S. Forest Service has recommended every one of these areas for wilderness designation, and there's really no significant opposition. It's just a matter of getting Congress to do it," said Will Skelton, a committee member for Tennessee Wild, a coalition of organizations seeking wilderness designation for parts of the Cherokee National Forest.

The bill is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.

And it's been waiting since it was first proposed in 2010. This is the third time the bill has been sponsored and introduced by Alexander and Corker.

This bill is a no-brainer for passage. It has no cost, no downside and would benefit Tennessee, the nation and the state and regional outdoor industry. As a bonus, it preserves this beauty for generations to come.

Who knows, as something Congress should easily be able to find agreement on, it might even help heal the country.

Please, folks: Pass this bill.

Pam Sohn is the Times Opinion Editor.