WILDERNESS: Senate panel advances bill protecting Tenn. forest

Greenwire – The Leader in Energy & Environmental Policy News
Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Phil Taylor and Amanda Peterka, E&E reporters

The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee this morning approved a Republican bill that would designate nearly 20,000 acres of wilderness in eastern Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest, a proposal backed by sportsmen and conservationists.

Sen. Lamar Alexander’s S. 1294, which passed on a voice vote, would create the first new wilderness in the Volunteer State in more than two decades.

“Everybody seems to support it — the fishers, the hunters, the hikers, the farmers … the botanists,” Alexander (R-Tenn.) told the committee this morning. “The conservation groups have done a lot in Tennessee and talked this through with everybody.”

The Forest Service recommended wilderness protections for the area in 2004 and has been managing the lands in their roadless state, Alexander said.

The bill would create one new 9,000-acre wilderness area at the Upper Bald River and would expand five other existing areas, including Sampson Mountain and Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock. The new designations wouldn’t affect privately owned land and wouldn’t cost the government more money, said Alexander and bill co-sponsor Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).

The legislation would protect habitat for the native brook trout, black bear, bobcat, gray fox and white-tailed deer, as well as seasonal habitat for birds, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Wilderness areas prohibit the construction of new roads and access by motorized vehicles or mountain bikes.

“It’s heartening to see Congress beginning to break the logjam in permanently protecting our country’s special places,” said a statement today by Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s lands protection campaign. “Such protections benefit our communities, our economy, and our great outdoors.”

The legislation joins a long list of conservation bills awaiting action in the Senate, where partisan tensions have hampered passage of even noncontroversial bills.

While the Senate last June passed by unanimous consent three bills designating wilderness in Michigan, Washington and Oregon, it was stymied in its effort last week to pass a bipartisan bill preserving a western Montana watershed.

If the chamber takes up a larger public lands package, the inclusion of Republican-backed bills such as Alexander’s could gain crucial GOP votes.

But Alexander’s bill faces tougher prospects in the House, where it has yet to be introduced by Republican Reps. Chuck Fleischmann and Phil Roe, whose districts it includes. They do not seem inclined to sponsor it, according to one Capitol Hill insider.

The Tennessee Wild Coalition, which includes the Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning and Tennessee Wild, is lobbying the lawmakers to introduce a companion bill.