Wilderness Act is key to local economy

Johnson City Press

April 22, 2016

BY DAVID A. RAMSEY

Tennessee is blessed with millions of acres rich in opportunities for the hunter, fisher, hiker, camper and many other outdoor enthusiasts, but nowhere are those opportunities any finer than in the Cherokee National Forest, which is this state’s only national forest.

That is why the Tennessee Wilderness Act is so important. This legislation, first introduced by U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker nearly eight years ago, would protect our treasured public wild lands and wildlife. Its passage would ensure that almost 20,000 acres of Cherokee National Forest wilderness would remain protected for outdoor recreation for generations to come. Importantly, it would not involve spending a dime of taxpayer money. The American people already own the land. For this, we should all salute Alexander and Corker, along with Congressman Phil Roe, who introduced a version in the U.S. House.

Beyond the forest’s importance as a dedicated place to hike, camp, hunt and fish, it is a vital part of Tennessee’s economy. Consumers spend more than $8 billion a year on outdoor recreation in our state, and more than 80,000 jobs depend on the industry, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. A lot of businesses rely on tourism and outdoor recreation to survive, and so do some of our communities.

Here in Northeast Tennessee, the Cherokee National Forest is an extremely vital component of our regional economy.

The forest affords both residents and visitors countless opportunities for hunting, hiking and camping in its vast forestlands, as well as fishing, paddling and rafting on its lakes, streams and whitewater rivers — and collectively, these opportunities provide economic benefits to every community and every resident of our region.

While many of us who enjoy outdoor recreation will directly benefit from passage of the Tennessee Wilderness Act, sportsmen likely have the most to lose if it is not passed. Less and less private property is available each year for hunting in Tennessee and across the nation. The Cherokee National Forest is part of America’s hunting heritage, a family activity enjoyed by approximately 15 million Americans. Hence, it is more important than ever to protect the wildlife, lands and waters of the Cherokee National Forest, including its designated wilderness areas.

For many years, a broad coalition of dedicated citizens, outdoor recreation and conservation groups, elected officials and other advocates worked together tirelessly to preserve and protect the extraordinary Rocky Fork watershed in Unicoi and Greene Counties, part of which is now a brand new Tennessee state park.

Even though the park’s basic infrastructure for visitors is still being planned, I can say with firsthand certainty that its economic impact and recreational benefits as public land are already being felt in our region.

I strongly urge all of the aforementioned supporters of the successful Rocky Fork campaign to come together and again stand strong for the continued protection of our vital public lands.

David A. Ramsey of Jonesborough is the owner of D. A. Ramsey Photography and has been involved in efforts to preserve and protect the Rocky Fork watershed.