When you ask visitors what attracts them to East Tennessee, chances are “the great outdoors” will be a big part of their answer. The Great Smoky Mountains are Tennessee’s most visited outdoor site. Just a short drive away, you will find the Cherokee National Forest.
The forest features pristine wildlife and majestic views along with a range of recreational opportunities, from hunting and fishing to water sports. In our region – the southern portion of the forest – places like the Ocoee River provide the kind of challenging and exciting experience that attracted the 1996 Olympic whitewater events.
As the Manager of the Chattanooga Wild Birds Unlimited, protecting our birding habitat is of vital importance. We are on a major migration pathway. Beginning in late August, millions of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and a variety of different warblers will travel to Mexico and Central America as part of an instinctive migration pattern that they have followed for hundreds of years. Loss of that pathway or significant reductions would be devastating.
However, many of these wilderness areas are in danger of being lost. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the United States loses 6,000 acres a day to development.
With September being National Wilderness Month, there is no better time to consider the importance of our wilderness and the much needed protection of the Cherokee National Forest.
In the last decade, Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker introduced the Tennessee Wilderness Act to protect more than 19,000 acres of these precious areas as wilderness. And, earlier this year, Congressman Phil Roe introduced companion legislation in the House to protect the northern portion of the forest as wilderness. Unfortunately, similar legislation has yet to be introduced for the southern portion of the forest.
These wild spaces are a part of our heritage and our home. They also serve as economic drivers for surrounding communities. In fact, our outdoors are an overlooked economic giant. According to 2015 data from the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation in Tennessee generates $8.2 billion in consumer spending and provides 83,000 direct jobs.
With numbers like this, why would we NOT want to ensure that these areas are protected into the future?
I would like to thank Senators Alexander and Corker and Congressman Roe for recognizing the importance of these wild areas.
It is time for the Tennessee delegation to come together and support the Tennessee Wilderness Act. That includes introducing legislation that will designate 2,000 acres in the southern portion of the Cherokee National Forest as protected wilderness.
The forest, its inhabitants and the many visitors who have experienced the wonders of this landscape warrant the protection of the Tennessee Wilderness Act.
Manager, Chattanooga WBU
This op-ed originally appeared in the Cleveland Daily Banner.