Celebrating 30th anniversary of 1984 Tennessee Wilderness Act

Chattanooga Times Free Press
Chattanooga, Tennessee

October 30, 2014
Op-Ed by Dawson Wheeler

I have always called the Southeast home. I grew up in the shadows of the mountains of East Tennessee and stayed because of their amazing beauty. There was nowhere else I wanted to be. I started Rock/Creek Outfitters 27 years ago in part because I realized that Tennesseans had a natural playground in the Cherokee National Forest right in our backyard. Its biodiversity is unmatched, and it has outstanding outdoor recreation opportunities. I knew the appeal of the region would only grow over time as more people came to value outdoor recreation.

This week is a fitting time for me to reflect upon our business, because today marks the 30th anniversary of the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 1984. Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, the Act established the Citico Creek, Big Frog, and Bald River Gorge Wilderness areas within the Cherokee National Forest. These wilderness areas safeguard clean drinking water for surrounding communities; preserve critical wildlife habitat where people go to hunt, fish, and view; and provide a fantastic opportunity for businesses like ours to thrive.

Outdoor recreation is a booming industry in Tennessee, and the Cherokee National Forest is a driver of this economic engine. People come from across the world to paddle, hike, camp, swim, ride horseback, hunt, and fish in our forest. The wilderness areas here provide a rare backcountry experience sought out by people of all ages and backgrounds.

As a business owner, I depend on hard data to determine our next steps, and I know numbers don’t lie. According to research from the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation in Tennessee generates $8.2 billion in consumer spending each year and supports 83,000 direct jobs in the state. Those numbers reflect what I see day-to-day at Rock/Creek and other tourism and outdoor recreation businesses in our region. Our public lands and waters are a great bet. Protecting more public lands and waters in Tennessee will only double-down on our local economy.

The 30th anniversary of the Tennessee Wilderness Act fortuitously coincides with the 50th anniversary of the national Wilderness Act of 1964. Also a bipartisan bill, the Wilderness Act is responsible for local economic success stories like ours across the country. And while we celebrate these two landmark anniversaries, we also need to look for more opportunities to conserve the lands and waters that enable Tennessee to enjoy a robust and sustainable outdoor recreation economy.

Currently, the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2013 is waiting to be passed in Congress. The Act would add to the bill signed into law by President Reagan by protecting more than 19,000 acres of the Cherokee National Forest as wilderness for future generations to enjoy. The Cherokee National Forest totals 655,598 acres. Currently, about 66,000 acres are designated wilderness. With the addition, designated wilderness areas would still comprise just a mere 13 percent of the forest.

But it would expand on our region’s outdoor recreation haven and keep local businesses alive and well. These designations are supported by the Forest Service and have long been managed as wilderness; designation would mean certainty for businesses like mine.

I know passing this bill will be a wise investment for Tennessee. We can already see local municipalities incorporating the Cherokee National Forest into their marketing strategies. For example, Tellico Plains calls itself a “gateway forest town,” with the slogan, “Tellico Plains: The Little Town with the Big Backyard.” Also, Tellico Plains was recently dedicated as an official “Trail Town” by the Benton MacKaye Trail Association and the Southeastern Foot Trails Association. Thanks to clean water and incredible outdoor recreation opportunities in the Cherokee National Forest, Tellico Plains is now a star on the map.

As we celebrate these two historic wilderness milestones that have provided so many benefits to Americans locally and nationally, it is time for Congress to pass the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2013. In addition to local businesses, the Act is supported by hunters and anglers, faith groups, local elected officials, and conservationists. Safeguarding the proposed areas within the Cherokee National Forest as wilderness will ensure that future generations will always stay here to live, work and play.

These sustainable jobs cannot be outsourced. And as long as we preserve our lands and waters, these jobs will never go away. For the prosperity and well-being of our communities, I urge Congress to pass the Tennessee Wilderness Act this year.

Dawson Wheeler is a co-owner of Rock/Creek Outfitters.