Pass the Tennessee Wilderness Act for all

Cleveland Daily Banner
Cleveland, Tennessee

October 27, 2014
Op-Ed by Dr. Richard Harris

There are a lot of signs that fall is just around the corner. The leaves are starting to show the first hints of change, and kids are back in school.

It’s a good time to reflect on the amazing outdoor adventures we shared the last few months in Tennessee’s public backyard: our Cherokee National Forest. Throughout the summer — and even into the fall — people come from near and far to go hiking, kayaking, camping, horseback riding, hunting and fishing in our wild places. Our forests hold boundless activities to enjoy outside.

But Tennessee’s great outdoors are more than just a recreational playground. As a pediatric oncologist, I know well the role of clean air and water in our children’s health. That’s why the Cherokee National Forest is so important to me, and to millions of people who depend on the clean drinking water that starts in the cool mountain streams of the Blue Ridge. The trees also clean and filter our air for free. And finally, the Cherokee National Forest provides us a place to exercise our bodies and relax our minds — two things that both adults and children need as balance to the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

The end of the summer welcomes in National Wilderness Month, which is celebrated each September. On Sept. 3, we had even more to cheer — as the Wilderness Act turned 50. This landmark law allows Americans to safeguard our most pristine public lands for the enjoyment and benefit of future generations. Thanks to this Act, some of our nation’s treasures like Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana and the Citico Creek Wilderness here in Tennessee will stay forever as they are.

But there is another place worthy of protection here in our state. Nestled in the Cherokee National Forest rests 20,000 acres of land and water that provide us with clean air and water, and a place for people of all ages to get outside and play. It is also a place where brook trout, black bear, bobcat, white-tailed deer and other species make their homes. Tennessee’s U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker have introduced legislation to protect this special pocket of the Cherokee National Forest. The Tennessee Wilderness Act is supported by Tennesseans from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, faith leaders and small business owners, and sportsmen and veterans.

This conservation measure is not only important for the health of individuals, but it will be good for the economic health of our communities. The bill will boost the local economy through outdoor recreation spending and tourism. Hiking is very popular in the proposed areas, and the legislation includes parts of the historic Appalachian and Benton MacKaye trails. Designating areas of the Cherokee National Forest as wilderness would enhance the state’s reputation as an outdoor recreation destination. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation generates $8.2 billion in consumer spending and is responsible for 83,000 jobs in Tennessee.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, we must not only look back at all that we have accomplished as a nation, but also look forward to the future, and what still needs to be done. Fifty years ago, Congress passed the Wilderness Act so that we could leave a wild legacy for future generations. Yet today, America loses roughly 6,000 acres every day to development. By safeguarding the Cherokee National Forest we will be doing our part to save a few more acres for the health of our children and grandchildren.

I join my community in asking Congress to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act by passing the Tennessee Wilderness Act into law this year.

(Editor’s Note: A medical professional in pediatric oncology and an outdoor activist, Dr. Richard Harris is a resident of Tellico Plains, Tenn.)