Maryville Daily Times: Editorial: Tennessee Wilderness Act would permanently protect 19,556 acres

Posted on January 3, 2012

A bill now in Congress would place 19,556 acres of Tennessee located in Cherokee National Forest in a permanent wilderness area.

In addition to permanently protecting areas already being managed administratively as wilderness by the Cherokee National Forest, the bill would not close any roads, would not require new appropriations and would not cause any loss of taxes to local communities. Congress is the only authority who can make a wilderness area permanent.

Being within a day’s drive of much of our nation’s population, Cherokee National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park would be built over with homes and condominiums were they not protected. Their attraction is an asset for tourism but without protection there would be a major hotel at Clingmans Dome or at Bald River Falls.

Except for the narrow corridor through which U.S. 129 crosses the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, Cherokee National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park comprise the entire eastern border of Tennessee.

The bill, introduced in the Senate last May by Sen. Lamar Alexander, of Maryville, is co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker, of Chattanooga. It is also supported by Rep. Jimmy Duncan of the 2nd District, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of the 3rd District, and Rep. Phil Roe of the 1st District.

The bill has been assigned to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee of which Sen. Corker is a member. Rep. Duncan and Rep. Fleischmann are on the House Natural Resources Committee.

The bill basically reflects the 2004 revised land and resource management plan authored by the Forest Service.

Highlights of the bill:

• Permanently protects 4.5 miles of the Appalachian Trail corridor in the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness.

• Permanently protects nearly 15 miles of the Benton MacKaye Trail in the Little Frog, Upper Bald River and Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness.

• Secures permanent protections for the headwaters of Bald River which contains native brook trout that are popular with fly fishermen.

• Additional protections to the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness provide an enhanced wildlife corridor between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the existing Citico Creek Wilderness and the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness. This is important for black bear, migratory songbirds and a variety of other species.

• Allows hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, horseback riding and other forms of quiet, nonmotorized and nonmechanized recreation for both current and future generations.

In addition to the 1,836 acres of Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness, the bill would establish the 9,038-acre Upper Bald River Wilderness area also in Monroe County. That is the first new wilderness in Tennessee in 25 years.

Other wilderness areas involved are 348-acre Big Frog and 978-acre Little Frog in Polk County; 4,446-acre Big Laurel Branch in Carter and Johnson counties, and 2,922-acre Sampson Mountian Branch in Unicoi and Washington counties.

A coalition of eight organizations, Tennessee Wild, that is supporting the effort include Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, Smoky Mountain Hiking Club, Cherokee Forest Voices, Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, Tennessee Chapter of Sierra Club, Pew Campaign for America’s Wilderness, The Wilderness Society, and the Southern Environmental Law Center.

We think the strong support for this bill indicates it is a well-planned action in the best interests of the general public which looks forward to the needs of our area.