Outdoorsman urges passage of the Tennessee Wilderness Act

Thirty years ago, Congress passed the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 1986, preserving for future generations roughly 30,000 acres of public lands, including Big Laurel Branch Wilderness, just east of Piney Flats. Resting just above Watauga Lake, Big Laurel Branch Wilderness is an outfitter’s dream come true.

As the owner of an outfitter shop, protected public lands and waters sustain my livelihood. We have serviced hikers, boaters and fisherman at Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel for nearly two decades. Our guests experience the great outdoors and then return to our cabins to reflect upon the wilderness that surround this pristine area.

That is why I support an ongoing effort to add roughly 4,500 acres to the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness. The addition is part of the Tennessee Wilderness Act, a bill that would preserve roughly 20,000 acres of Wilderness in the Cherokee National Forest. Currently, only 10 percent of the national forest is protected as Wilderness, and this legislation would bring that total to only 13 percent.

First introduced eight years ago by Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, the Tennessee Wilderness Act would create the first new wilderness in Tennessee in three decades: the Upper Bald River Wilderness Area. It would also add additional acreage to five already existing areas: Big Frog, Little Frog, Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock, Sampson Mountain, and my beloved Big Laurel Branch.

The addition to Big Laurel Branch Wilderness would preserve over 4.5 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Located just north of Watauga Lake, the area is home to black bear, bobcat, coyote, and other wildlife. Adding this area to Big Laurel Branch Wilderness would further safeguard the important fisheries within Watauga Lake and the Watauga River.

In order for my business to thrive, we need healthy fish. And Tennessee’s most vibrant fisheries are located in clean waters safeguarded by protected forests. Unfortunately, we have seen fragile areas destroyed far too often across the country from unchecked development. I don’t want to see that happen in the Cherokee National Forest.

Leaving the 20,000 acres proposed within the Tennessee Wilderness Act unprotected is a risk we should not take. Every year, outdoor recreation in Tennessee $8.2 billion in consumer spending each year and supports 83,000. Many of these jobs can be found right here in East Tennessee.

But it is more than outfitter businesses like mine that benefit from our protected public lands. People choose to live where they have access to miles of hiking trails, healthy wildlife populations, and rapid-filled rivers. And with more people come necessities like grocery stores and pharmacies, libraries and car dealerships, and hospitals and hardware stores. Additionally, service industries like restaurants and hotels, salons and boutique stores, and outfitter shops like mine also come. Simply put, without places like Big Laurel Branch, my business – and many others—would not exist.

Unfortunately, time is running out for the Tennessee Wilderness Act. When Congress returns to Washington, DC after the November elections, they will just have a few short weeks to pass important legislation.

Now, I know that many people who are not from Tennessee may not have heard about the Cherokee National Forest, or places like Big Laurel Branch Wilderness. But to the people who live here, these places represent our stars on the map. They are our amusement parks. And they are 100 percent free.

So I am urging Congress to follow our Senators’ leads when they return to Washington, and pass the Tennessee Wilderness Act. In the meantime, see you on the water.

Uncle Johnny Shores

***This op-ed was published in the Elizabethton Star on October 16, 2016***

Big Laurel Branch Wilderness Study Area. Credit: Bill & Laura Hodge
Big Laurel Branch Wilderness Study Area. Credit: Bill & Laura Hodge
Big Laurel Branch. Credit Caara Fritz
Big Laurel Branch. Credit Caara Fritz