WASHINGTON — Nearly 7,500 acres in East Tennessee would be designated as federally protected wilderness areas and would be added to the Cherokee National Forest under a bill filed Thursday by U.S. Rep. Phil Roe.
Roe’s bill, called the Tennessee Wilderness Act, marks the first time legislation to expand the national forest has been filed in the U.S. House.
U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker have been pushing a similar bill in the Senate for a number of years.
“As an avid outdoorsman, I strongly believe we must protect the beautiful lands we’re fortunate to have in East Tennessee,” said Roe, a Johnson City Republican. “Though these particular lands have been treated as wilderness for more than a decade, it’s important to officially protect them.”
Roe’s legislation differs from the Senate bill in one respect: The Senate version would add almost 20,000 acres of designated wilderness to the national forest. Roe’s bill would apply to only some 7,500 acres located in his congressional district.
Areas to be designated as wilderness areas under Roe’s proposal include 4,446 acres in Carter and Johnson counties that are generally referred to as the Big Laurel Branch addition and another 2,922 acres in Washington and Unicoi counties known as the Sampson Mountain addition.
The state would continue to have jurisdiction over fish and wildlife management of the land, which would protect permit holders’ ability to hunt and fish. Privately owned land would not be affected by the legislation.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy said designating the land as wilderness ares provides “the best protection available” for the trail.
Morgan Sommerville, the group’s southern regional director, said the organization endorses the new wilderness protections “as long as enough volunteers are available to help maintain the trail.”
Mary Johnson, who is with the commercial real-estate firm Land Partners in Bristol but also runs a small farm and vineyard in the mountains, said Roe’s legislation “ensures that future generations will always be able to hunt, fish, hike, camp and experience our remarkable mountains, creeks and rivers just as we do today.”