Chattanooga Times Free Press: Opinion: Tennessee's wild treasures

Posted on June 27, 2010

There is hidden treasure in the green hills of eastern Tennessee. Like all treasures, this one is so valuable because it is very rare. Better than a vein of diamonds or a pot of gold, this treasure is compounded of some of the things that are most threatened in our modern world -- the sparkle as a shaft of sunlight lights up the mist rising from a rushing mountain stream, the flash of a deer bounding away through the forest, the hush of a wooded glade far enough from the whine of motors and machinery to reward a hiker with only the sounds of nature.

Best of all, these treasured places are not fenced-off in some estate or private reserve, but property you and I and all Tennesseans own in common: the still-wild and roadless areas of the Cherokee National Forest.

Now, thanks to the leadership of Sen. Lamar Alexander, we have the chance to assure that these treasures are protected not simply for our own enjoyment today, but as a living gift we can pass on to future generations.

Think of the world in which future generations of Tennesseans will live. It is not likely to be less stressful than the world of today, and certainly will be more crowded. Given the pace of development, it may well not be as green a world as ours. So it seems to me that it is only right that we take steps today to help preserve what is special about the Volunteer State for those who will come after us, and that includes those remaining wild and roadless parts of the Cherokee National Forest.

So I applaud Sen. Alexander for sponsoring legislation to protect some key parts of this wild forest, and to safeguard them in the strongest possible way.

Under Sen. Alexander's bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker, these special places will be given the "gold standard" of protection -- as wilderness. This is a standard many of us in Tennessee already understand, since some areas of our national forest lands have long enjoyed this status and have become favorite hiking, hunting, and fishing areas. Our existing wilderness areas include favorite spots like the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock, Bald River Gorge and the Big Frog Wilderness.

The first words of the 1964 Wilderness Act explain why Congress decided to preserve some of our public lands as wilderness: "In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas in the United States ... leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness."

Thanks to the vision of earlier generations of members of Congress from Tennessee, today we have this protection for about 66,000 acres. Yet that amounts to less than 1 percent of the land area of our state (compare that to the 15 percent of California that has this strong legal protection; or the 4 percent of Florida).

Sen. Alexander's legislation will add some 19,556 acres, primarily in ecologically-important additions around the edges of our already-established wilderness areas. No road will be closed. Hunting and fishing will continue to be welcome uses of these areas, as will hiking, picnicking and camping. More and more Tennesseans are enjoying these wild places, eager to walk a quiet trail into a natural setting, eager to find the hidden treasures of Tennessee's wilderness areas.

This legislation writes one more chapter in the already lengthy story of Lamar Alexander's leadership for conservation. I hope every member of Congress from our state will give their support to the proposed Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2010 and help push it to success this year.

Dawson Wheeler is co-founder and co-owner of Rock/Creek, a Chattanooga specialty outdoor retailer. He has served on the boards of the National Geographic Explorer magazine, Wild Trails, Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, and the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show. Readers may write to him at