Bill would add nearly 8,000 acres of NE Tennessee land to protected wilderness in Cherokee National Forest

c7c6c0827a008d213280090373a1aff2Johnson City Press
Friday, April 11, 2014
Wilderness Proposal for Big Laurel Branch Wilderness Addition in the Cherokee National Forest.
Brad Hicks

Nearly 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law, legislation to protect nearly 20,000 acres of public land within East Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest has cleared its first hurdle. On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate’s Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee passed the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2013.

The Tennessee Wilderness Act was first introduced by U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker in 2010 after measures spelled out in the legislation were recommended by the U.S. Forest Service in 2004. The senators reintroduced the act in July.

Alexander and Corker’s legislation would create one new wilderness area and expand the boundaries of five other wilderness areas already established within the Cherokee National Forest.

The act now awaits a floor vote in the Senate and introduction in the House of Representatives.

“Tennesseans take great pride in the fact that millions of people visit our state every year to experience our incredible God-given outdoors, and this legislation would ensure the Cherokee National Forest is preserved for future generations,” Corker said Tuesday. “I thank Senator Alexander for his lifelong commitment to protecting wilderness areas, and I’m hopeful the full Senate will consider and pass this legislation in the near future.”

The act would create a new wilderness area — the 9,038-acre Upper Bald River Wilderness in Monroe County. It would also add around 1,800 acres to the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness in Monroe County. Nearly 350 acres would be added to the Big Frog Wilderness in Polk County, and Polk County’s Little Frog Wilderness area would see an additional 966 acres.

The legislation would also impact nearly 7,400 acres in Northeast Tennessee’s portion of the national forest. Through it, 4,446 acres would be added to the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness area in Carter and Johnson counties. It would also add 2,922 acres to the Sampson Mountain Wilderness in Washington and Unicoi counties, adding to the area’s total of 7,967 acres.

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said he, as well as other county mayors, have supported the act due to the benefits and conservation that a wilderness designation brings to areas.

“I did support that particular movement,” Lynch said. “It’s been several years in the making.”

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines a wilderness area as an area of undeveloped federal land “retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements … and which generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.” The act further states wilderness areas have “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation” and may contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational or historical value.

Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport, including motor vehicles, motorboats, wagons, carts and bicycles, are generally prohibited on federal lands designated as wilderness areas.

“The Tennessee Wilderness Act would preserve federally owned land that has been managed as wilderness areas since 2004,” Alexander stated in a release issued Tuesday. “Creating and expanding these wilderness areas would have no effect on privately-owned land and will not increase costs for taxpayers. This legislation would help protect some of the wildest, most pristine and beautiful areas in East Tennessee and give millions of visitors to our state an additional reason to come enjoy our outdoors.”

Cherokee National Forest Public Affairs Officer Terry McDonald said the existing areas addressed in the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2013 have been managed as wilderness areas since the Forest Service’s Forest Land and Resource Management Plan was completed in 2004. He said the Cherokee National Forest is supportive of their official designation as wildernesses to join the more than 66,000 acres of the Forest already designated as such.

“The 11 designated wildernesses in Cherokee National Forest mean different things to different people,” McDonald said. “They all offer opportunities to experience nature with little influence from humans. Wildernesses provide clean air, water and habitat critical for rare and endangered plants and animals. In wilderness, you can enjoy challenging recreational activities including hiking, backpacking, climbing, hunting, fishing, bird watching, stargazing, and extraordinary opportunities for solitude.”

The legislation was also lauded by Pat Byington, coordinator of Tennessee Wild, a coalition of organizations advocating wilderness designations for portions of the Cherokee National Forest. Byington said passage of the legislation is important for Tennessee’s outdoor heritage.

“The legislation gives us permanent protection, and it’s a wonderful thing,” he said. “It puts a national spotlight on the place, which will be good because it will help bring attention to the region and attention nationally for outdoor recreation.”