Get Out Magazine
The forest is quiet save for a delicate scratching beneath the earth. A velvety mole bores its way to the roots of a red maple. There, it pushes up from the soil and scurries into a blackberry thicket, picked clean by white tail deer. Past the thicket, a doe and her fawn pause alongside the cool, clear Brookshire Creek, winding its way to the Bald River, which, in turn, is winding its way to the sea, but first the river winds through the forest, cuts across the back of a ridge then falls off its rocky face into a deep pool below.
The Upper Bald River Basin:
“Imagine the basin like the palm of your hand with the mountains fringing around its edges. The Upper Bald River basin is a wonderful area,” says Will Skelton, former Marine, retired attorney and author of the original Tennessee Wilderness Act, a bill that celebrates its 30th anniversary this month.
The Tennessee Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, 20 years after the Wilderness Act of 1964 became law. The Wilderness Act of 1964 legally defined the term “wilderness” and established long-term protection for such areas. Unlike the majority of legal documents, the Act is known for its lyrical language:
“For political reasons, we had to leave out several areas that we really wanted in the original bills. We just couldn’t get the support. One of those areas was the Upper Bald River basin. It is just a perfect wilderness candidate,” says Skelton.
Technically, the Upper Bald River basin is called a “wilderness study area” which means it is managed as wilderness but without the protection—so it could be developed tomorrow … but not if Laura Hodge has anything to say about it.
“The Upper Bald area is basically in our backyard. As the crow flies, it is just a couple miles from where I live. So it really means something to try to protect it,” says Hodge, campaign coordinator of Tennessee Wild. Tennessee Wild is a nonprofit coalition of regional organizations spearheading the campaign to pass an expansion of the Tennessee Wilderness Act. The new Act will add four additions to existing wilderness areas and creates one new one—the Upper Bald River Wilderness Area.
“The history is a bit complicated,” concedes Pat Byington, executive director of Wild South, the regional nonprofit that funds Tennessee Wild. It is best to start at the beginning.
In the Beginning
God created the heavens and the earth. Now fast forward four and a half billion years to the 1800s when two important events occurred in the forests of East Tennessee. First, the Cherokee were removed from their land. Second, European settlers discovered the verdant land was ripe with natural resources like coal and timber.
Mining and logging companies flocked to the region. Railways were built; stands of virgin forest were harvested. By 1910, East Tennessee supplied 40 percent of the timber produced in the U.S. Within three decades, the land was over-used and worth little.
Then, the Weeks Act of 1911 became law. This allowed the federal government to purchase land from private owners for the creation of National Forest, which it did—purchasing large expanses of the overworked area in East Tennessee. In 1912, the first tract of land, encompassing 222,000 acres in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, was named Cherokee National Forest.
Over the next couple decades two more important events occurred in the forests of East Tennessee. In 1933, Roosevelt’s New Deal created the Civilian Conservation Corps which began land restoration efforts by planting thousands of seedlings in the region. Then, in 1936 Roosevelt consolidated all of the State Forest Service’s land to form present-day Cherokee National Forest.
Cherokee is now comprised of 631,715 acres, making it the largest tract of public land in Tennessee. With over 20,000 plant and animal species, it is considered one of the most biologically diverse places in the world.
“It’s a common misconception that because it is National Forest, it is protected,” says Hodge. “I can’t tell you how many people say that to me—they can’t log that because it’s a National Forest! Well, no. They can log it; they can frack it; they can cut down every bit of it.”
This is why it is important to legally define wilderness. It literally takes an act of congress to protect land from future development. Once an area is deemed “wilderness,” use of motorized equipment is prohibited, including chainsaws.
“It is a bit of a misconception that designating wilderness means locking it all up and keeping everyone out. There are lots of things you can do in wilderness areas. You can hunt, you can fish, you can hike,” says Hodge.
The wilderness debate has been fraught with misunderstanding since the beginning. Terms were unclear and needed to be redefined. For instance, when the first wilderness act passed in 1964, most of the land in the Eastern United States had been logged or developed. Some claimed there was no wilderness in the east to protect, since, unlike in the west, most of the land in question had been disturbed. The original definition of wilderness had to be redefined to include land that had been restored to its natural state.
Now, one would never guess that the gentle grade alongside Brookshire Creek budding with young poplars was once a railway. And it was not so long ago that Brookshire Creek’s native brook trout population was completely wiped out by pollution.
In 1982, the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency and the U.S. Forest Service began brook trout restoration efforts. Today, the waters teem again with native fish. But as Wild South’s Byington says, “There is no such thing as an environmental victory, just stays of execution.”
Byington says that, for him, protecting the land is important so that his daughter grows up with clean water. Hodge agrees. She says it is about legacy. She recalls a recent hike with her husband in the Upper Bald River area.
“I thought I heard people on the trail, but it turned out to be barred owls. One was on our side of the river. Another was far away. They were calling back and forth to each other. I stood there, next to the river, listening to the owls. I turned to my husband and said, ‘This is it.’” Tennessee’s legacy. The purple headed mountains, the river running by, the sunset in the morning that brightens up the sky. All things bright. All things beautiful. The future of the forest, in the palm of our hand.
In 1984, the Tennessee bill set aside nearly 25,000 acres of wilderness in the Southeastern part of Cherokee National Forest. Two years later the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 1986 designated even more, bringing the total number of protected acres in Tennessee to 66,389.
It may sound like a lot, but in fact, it equals just 10 percent of Cherokee National Forest. It does not include the Upper Bald River area, best known for Bald River Falls, a 15-foot waterfall that flows year round.