Cleveland Daily Banner: Wilderness Act legislation earns support

Posted on June 15, 2010

Proposed legislation by Tennessee senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker to expand wilderness areas within the Cherokee National Forest by almost 20,000 acres has earned the support of a broad coalition of conservation organizations.

Tennessee Wild, a group representing the interests of outdoor enthusiasts, threw its support behind the Wilderness Act of 2010 shortly after its introduction by Alexander on the Senate floor late last week. In a conference call to Tennessee newsmen only minutes before taking the floor, the state’s senior senator said the bill seeks to increase the Cherokee National Forest’s wilderness areas for the first time in almost 25 years.

The bill proposes expanding five existing wilderness areas and creating a new one. Two of the areas are in Polk County; two others are in Monroe County, one of which is a new one. The two in Polk County are the Big Frog Wilderness, proposed to grow by 348 acres, and the Little Frog Wilderness, hoping to expand by 966 acres.

“The Cherokee National Forest represents some of the most biologically diverse and scenic lands in the country,” said Jeff Hunter, Tennessee Wild campaign coordinator. “This bill is a great start toward protecting these unique wild landscapes. Tennesseans are lucky to have such outstanding areas for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping and horseback riding.”

The areas proposed for wilderness designation are owned by the U.S. Forest Service which is already managing them as Wilderness Study Areas. The bill will have no impact on privately owned lands and will cause no change in public access. Recreational uses like hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, horseback and ATV riding, and mountain biking will all continue.

Will Skelton, an outdoor enthusiast attending Alexander’s conference call and who has led past campaigns to promote wilderness designations, thanked Tennessee’s senators for the legislation. The retired Knoxville attorney pointed out, “As coordinator of the successful effort in the 1980s to protect as federally-designated wilderness some of the Cherokee National Forest’s most scenic areas, I have long hoped that several beautiful and deserving additional areas could someday be similarly protected ... with the introduction of the current wilderness bill by Senators Alexander and Corker, protecting these added areas is much closer to becoming a reality.”

Hunter said an independent survey conducted in January by Ayres, McHenry & Associates showed that nearly 75 percent of East Tennessee voters support more wilderness in the Cherokee Natiional Forest.

Other areas included in the proposed legislation are the addition of 2,922 acres to the Sampson Mountain Wilderness in Washington and Unicoi counties; the addition of 4,446 acres to the Big Laurel Brand Wilderness in Carter and Johnson counties; the addition of 1,836 acres to the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness in Monroe County; and the creation of the 9,038-acre Upper Bald River Wilderness in Monroe County.

Alexander told reporters another benefit to expanding existing and creating new wilderness areas is the increased opportunities for family activities that can lead to outdoor recreation, and physical exercise, for children in a time when childhood obesity has become a growing national health concern. To get children away from televisions, computers and video games requires getting parents off the couch and outdoor recreation opportunities can do this, he said.

“I grew up hiking in the mountains of East Tennessee and know firsthand that these beautiful landscapes should be preserved for generations to come,” the Maryville native said. “The bill we are introducing is an important step in conserving some of the most pristine areas in Tennessee and will strengthen the legacy of Tennessee’s natural heritage.”

Expanding Tennessee’s wilderness areas will also increase tourism and this will further support the state economy, he added.

Corker could not attend the conference call, but said in a prepared statement that East Tennessee is blessed with “God-given amenities and an unparalleled natural environment.” He praised Alexander for his “lifelong commitment” to protecting Tennessee’s scenic wilderness areas.

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