20,000 acres of wilderness on the line: Tennessee Wilderness Act up for vote this month

Authored By Jenni Frankenberg Veal

The value of wilderness-roadless areas devoid of human development and industry-has primarily been viewed in terms of recreation. However, in today’s rapidly changing world, most conservation biologists now recognize vast wilderness areas as critical to preserving native ecosystems and life on Earth as we know it.

Cherokee National Forest

Located in the Southern Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee, the Cherokee National Forest is divided into northern and southern sections by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The 650,000-acre forest is the largest tract of public land in Tennessee and adjoins other national forests in Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia.

Cherokee National Forest offers more than 600 miles of trails, including 150 miles of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, hundreds of miles of cold water streams, seven whitewater rivers, three large lakes managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority, 11 congressionally designated wilderness areas, 30 developed campgrounds, 45 developed day-use sites and abundant populations of wildlife.

To learn more about the Cherokee National Forest, check out the following resources:

-Cherokee National Forest website at https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/cherokee/home
-“Cherokee National Forest Hiking Guide” by William Skelton
-National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map #781: Cherokee National Forest, Tellico and Ocoee rivers
-Tennessee Wild website at www.tnwild.org

In 1964, the 88th U.S. Congress passed the first bipartisan Wilderness Act, giving the American people a means to permanently protect wild public land. The act defines wilderness as “an area where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man . retaining its primeval character and influence . and which generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”

The Wilderness Act of 1964 offered wild lands protection from road building, logging, resort development, new mining entry, new livestock allotments and motor vehicles. Many conservationists lament, however, that the original act did not provide a blueprint for creating a system of large, interconnected wilderness areas designed to protect native ecosystems and biodiversity.

More than 109 million acres have been designated as wilderness areas since the Wilderness Act of 1964 was passed. Although that might sound like a lot of land, wilderness makes up just 5 percent of the nation’s land-and the majority lies in Alaska.

Currently, 25 pending wilderness bills are awaiting action by the end of the 112th Congress. Together, these bills would protect more than 2.3 million acres of wild land in 12 states, including nearly 20,000 acres within the Cherokee National Forest in East Tennessee.

Congress is slated to reconvene on Nov. 13-after the presidential election-and many wilderness supporters are waiting with bated breath to see what will come of these wild lands and the future of wilderness for generations to come.

Wilderness in Tennessee
East Tennessee is a land shaped by wilderness-and protected by the influence of three wilderness acts.

The Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness Area was protected by the Eastern Wilderness Act of 1975, signed by President Gerald Ford. The Tennessee Wilderness Act of 1984, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, created the Citico Creek, Big Frog and Bald River Gorge Wilderness Areas. The Tennessee Wilderness Act of 1986, also signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, created the Unaka Mountain, Pond Mountain, Sampson Mountain, Big Laurel Branch and Little Frog Mountain Wilderness Areas, as well as added 3,000 acres to the Big Frog Wilderness Area.

Twenty-six years since the last wilderness area designation in the state, Sen. Lamar Alexander reintroduced the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2011 (S.1090) in May 2011 after it failed to get a hearing in the 111th Congress.

The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker, designates 19,556 acres of the Cherokee National Forest as a federal wilderness area and would create the first new wilderness area in Tennessee in more than two decades, the 9,038-acre Upper Bald River Wilderness located near Tellico Plains. The bill is based on a 2004 U.S. Forest Service management plan in which local Forest Service officials recommended strategic additions to some of the state’s wilderness areas.

The Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2011 is currently slated for debate-along with a host of other wilderness bills-when the 112th Congress reconvenes Nov. 13. If the bill is not passed by the end of the year, it will have to be reintroduced in 2013.

Advocating on behalf of the Tennessee Wilderness Act is Tennessee Wild, a coalition seeking wilderness designation for parts of the Cherokee National Forest.

“People are often surprised to realize that our national and state lands can be threatened in some way, such as logging or mining,” Tennessee Wild Director Jeff Hunter said. “While the areas proposed for wilderness protection are already part of the Cherokee National Forest, they still lack protection from off-roading, logging, mining and road building.”

Currently, the proposed lands are considered wilderness study areas, which prevents timber harvesting, motorized transportation or development activities to take place. However, that could change if Congress doesn’t vote to support the act, Hunter said.

“I am grateful for our Senate champions, Sens. Corker and Alexander, for introducing the bill, and we remain hopeful that Congress will pass this bill either in a lame-duck session or early in the next Congress,” Hunter said.

In his efforts to gain support for the Tennessee Wilderness Act, Hunter has found an ally in the nonprofit aviation organization SouthWings, which provides politicians and the media with aerial vantage points regarding issues affecting the southeastern landscape.

Last week, Hunter and Jay Mills, a volunteer pilot with SouthWings, flew Congressman Phil Roe (R-Johnson City) and Tennessee Wild volunteer Caara Fritz over a section of land proposed for protection by the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2011.

According to Mills, the view from 2,000 to 3,000 feet above the ground is unparalleled in its ability to offer a global view of the landscape.

“The perspective of being 2,000 to 3,000 feet above the land in a plane helps people grasp and understand the issues affecting the landscape,” Mills said. “We think that it is helpful for politicians and the media to see these places in their context-from the air.”

That global view, Hunter said, often puts the beauty and breadth of the natural landscape into perspective and highlights the importance of preserving wild lands for the future.

“When you’re on a trail, the scope of what you see is very little,” Hunter said. “However, from the air, the grandeur of the wider landscape is laid bare-there it is. You can see rivers, mountains and watersheds in their entirety.

 ”Wilderness areas preserve our natural heritage-it’s a little slice of undeveloped America, which is important for future generations to see and enjoy as well,” Hunter said. “If the people lead, perhaps the politicians will follow. I am hopeful.”

Click here to view maps of the area.

Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge. She enjoys writing about the natural world and exploration opportunities found within the southeastern United States, one of the most biologically and recreationally rich regions on Earth. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.