Johnson City Press: Lamar Alexander: Protecting our mountain wilderness, heritage

Posted on December 15, 2018

By Lamar Alexander

This week, Congress passed the Tennessee Wilderness Act, which will protect 20,000 acres of federal land in the Cherokee National Forest for camping and hiking, and roaming and enjoying nature.The bill now heads to President Trump’s desk to be signed into law.

Senator Corker, Congressman Roe and I have been trying for the last 8 years to ensure future generations of Tennesseans have the opportunity to enjoy some of the wildest, most pristine and beautiful areas in our state, and this legislation will help do that.

There is something very special about East Tennessee’s Appalachian Mountains — from Roan Mountain to the Great Smokies, which is our nation’s most visited national park.

Millions of people visit Tennessee each year to experience our incredible outdoor amenities, and it’s important that we preserve these areas for future generations of Americans to enjoy.

The Tennessee Wilderness Act designates nearly 20,000 acres within the Cherokee National Forest in Monroe, Polk, Washington, Unicoi, Carter, and Johnson Counties as wilderness. The acres are all already owned by the federal government and are within the boundary of the Cherokee National Forest. As a result, no local tax revenues will be lost by local communities.

And because these lands have been managed by the Forest Service as Wilderness Study Areas since 2004, there will be no change in the management of the lands from current operations.

Specifically, the bill designates the 9,038 acre Upper Bald River Wilderness, adds 348 acres to the Big Frog Wilderness, adds 966 acres to the Little Frog Mountain Wilderness, adds 2,922 acres to the Sampson Mountain Wilderness, adds 4,446 acres to the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness, and adds 1,836 acres to the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness.

These lands were recommended for wilderness designation by the U.S. Forest Service as part of their comprehensive 2004 forest plan, which included extensive opportunities for public comment.

As the result of extensive local public input, the Tennessee Wilderness Act has broad support from Tennessee fisherman, hunters, backpackers, hikers, artists, pastors, botanists, and state and local officials.

Rock Creek Outfitters in Chattanooga has said the wilderness designation would protect the landscapes that attract tourists that shop in their stores, eat in their restaurants, stay in their hotels, and help drive their economy forward.

Tennessee Wild said the Cherokee National Forest is a special place for hikers, hunters, campers and paddlers, all of whom will be grateful for this big step forward in preserving Tennessee’s big backyard.

The Conservation Alliance has said this land — which includes stretches of the Appalachian Trail — is important for outdoor recreation and outdoor companies.

And The Wilderness Society has said these public lands need wilderness protection to preserve essential wildlife habitat and biodiversity.

Tennessee is full of history, and this legislation will help protect Tennessee’s natural heritage. Designation as wilderness will not only better protect ecosystems and watersheds, but also benefit the diverse recreational value of these areas, which is a major part of East Tennessee’s economy.

The millions of people who visit the state every year will now have another reason to come and enjoy the great outdoors.