Legislators try once again to pass Tennessee Wilderness Act

The wilderness area of Big Frog Mountain could be enlarged under proposed legislation.

Federal legislators are trying once again to designate nearly 20,000 acres of the Cherokee National Forest as wilderness area.

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry passed the Tennessee Wilderness Act, which now heads to the full Senate. It's the fifth attempt to pass legislation safeguarding clean water and preserving wildlife habitat.

"The short version is it has not passed prior because Congress has failed to act," said Laura Hodge with Tennessee Wild Coalition. "It is a very slow process."

The congressional session has ended before a vote every time the legislation has been proposed. But Hodge is optimistic.

"Every year presents different challenges, but I think we have a good shot this year," she said.

The act would protect nearly 20,000 acres of public land in the 650,000-acre Cherokee National Forest, according to a release from Tennessee Wild Coalition. Included in the expansion are the Big Frog Mountain, Little Frog Mountain, Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock, Big Laurel Branch and Sampson Mountain wilderness areas. It also would create the new 9,000-acre Upper Bald River Wilderness Area.

Current uses of the land - hunting, fishing, horseback riding, hiking, camping, paddling and other forms of non-mechanized recreation - would not change.

About 10 percent of the Cherokee National Forest now is designated as wilderness. This act would increase that to 13 percent, which is still 5 percent lower than the national average.

"The Tennessee Wilderness Act would help protect our natural heritage and give the millions of people who visit Tennessee each year an additional reason to come and enjoy our great outdoors," U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said in a statement.

Alexander introduced the legislation with U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.

"Millions of people visit Tennessee each year to experience our incredible God-given outdoor amenities, and the Tennessee Wilderness Act will help preserve the Cherokee National Forest for future generations of Americans to enjoy," Corker wrote in a statement.

The act is incorporated into the Federal Land Management Act of 2017, an overarching piece of legislation that also includes the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest Land Adjustment Act and the Virginia Wilderness Additions Act of 2017.

Contact staff writer Mark Pace at [email protected] or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.