Herald & Tribune
By Frances Lamberts
In the summer of 1964, the U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of the Wilderness Act by a vote of 373 to 1.
Lyndon Johnson, who would decry and seek to counteract an “uglification of America” during his presidency, remarked upon signing it into law on September 3 that year: “Once our natural splendor is destroyed, it can never be recaptured. And once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature, his spirit will wither.”
It was a memorable anniversary, a day to celebrate and, in the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt’s “Great Work” of conservation, to uphold and continue that work in this century.
In 1960, the writer Wallace Stegner had sent a famed Wilderness Letter to the national commission charged with surveying, for recreation potential and related economic impact, the still pristine areas on the federal lands. The letter urged preservation of remaining wild-land patches as reminders of Americans’ fortunate history in inheriting “a world as new as if it had just risen from the sea.”
This frontier land, it said, “could make such a man, such a democrat, such a believer in human dignity as Mark Twain himself” and for Americans today, crowded as we have become in a “technological termite life [and surrounded by] the roar of industrial cities,” wilderness experience allows a chance of spiritual refreshment and renewal.
Defined as land where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” the range of non-mechanized recreation is allowed in wilderness areas but roads, logging, mining and other, commercial development uses are excluded.
Setting aside 9.1 million acres initially, Congress since 1964 has added 100 million acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System.
It may seem to some an enormous land area set apart for “altruistic” purposes, yet wildernesses come in relatively small patches on the federal public lands. The minimum area to qualify for wilderness designation — 5,000 acres (8 square miles) — would be crossed by an average hiker in about an hour, as Dave Foreman notes in “The Big Outside.” To illustrate the relative smallness of even the largest wilderness areas such as cover 100,000 acres, he points out that no place in the contiguous 48 states is more than 21 miles removed from a constructed road.
With a bill in Congress titled “Tennessee Wilderness Act,” Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker in 2013 proposed to expand such areas within the Cherokee National Forest. It would create a new wilderness section for enjoyment of those in Monroe County and expand by roughly 10,000 acres five existing areas, including the Sampson Mountain Wilderness in Washington County.
Testifying on behalf of the bill, Senator Alexander noted his own enjoyment, in “many years of hiking [these] quiet trails,” its broad backing by citizens and that it would preserve, for diverse recreation and for ecosystem and watershed protection, some of “the wildest, most pristine and beautiful areas in East Tennessee.”
With more than two dozen others country wide, the bill is languishing in the current Congress.