Hiking in Cherokee National Forest, portions of which would gain new wilderness protection under the Tennessee Wilderness Act.
Credit: Natures Paparazzi, flickr.
The Tennessee Wilderness Act, sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Bob Corker (R-TN), would create the 9,000-acre Upper Bald River Wilderness Area and expand five existing wilderness areas. The senators have introduced versions of the bill four times since 2010, and if passed, it would mark the first new wilderness protected in Tennessee in nearly 30 years.
“This bill would protect these wonderful wild lands for future generations of Americans to visit and enjoy,” said Hugh Irwin, landscape conservation planner for The Wilderness Society. “The lands include some of the best habitat in the Appalachians for black bear and brook trout. Preserving it will better connect existing wild areas and help to ensure that wildlife can travel between the Cherokee National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The areas proposed for wilderness include several kinds of forests, or ecosystem types, that are in critical need of protection in this region – Appalachian cove, hemlock hardwood and montane oak, among others.”
Cherokee National Forest. Credit: Chris M. Morris, flickr.
Increasing protection in Cherokee National Forest has been a major goal since the U.S. Forest Service recommended these lands for wilderness status in 2004. In 2014, the last iteration of the Tennessee Wilderness Act was passed by the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee but stalled before reaching a full vote. Buoyed by local support, Sens. Alexander and Corker have forged ahead.
This renewed opportunity means another chance to protect what is considered one of the most biologically diverse temperate forests on earth. The new designations will safeguard clean drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people in Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia, preserve wildlife habitat and keep popular outdoor recreation sites intact. Hunting, fishing, hiking, camping and other activities currently enjoyed in the area will be allowed to continue with no change.
The Tennessee Wilderness Act would protect:
Upper Bald River Wilderness
Proposed Upper Bald River Wilderness. Credit: Bill Hodge.
Nestled along the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, this new wilderness would be the first designated in Tennessee since 1986. Together with the existing Bald River Gorge Wilderness, the new Upper Bald portion would protect nearly all of the Bald River watershed, preserving clean water and trout habitat. The area is flush with wildlife and great scenery, making it popular among hunters, anglers and hikers. The Wilderness would contain parts of the Benton MacKaye, Brookshire Creek and Kirkland Creek Trails.
Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness
The Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. Credit: Jeff Moore, flickr.
Named for a famous poet and World War I hero, this wilderness contains land in both Tennessee and North Carolina. It is best known for a preponderance of old-growth forest and many miles of beautiful hiking trails. The addition would help wildlife bridge the gap between the Cherokee National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, protecting exceptional black bear habitat in the process.
Big Frog Wilderness
Licklog Ridge Trail in the Big Frog Wilderness. Credit: Kevin, flickr.
Combined with the adjacent Cohutta Wilderness, this complex forms the largest tract of wilderness on National Forest Service land in the eastern United States. A variety of hiking trails make the area very popular among locals and visitors alike. Under the bill, expanded wilderness boundaries would protect critical habitat for a variety of species including deer and wild turkey.
Little Frog Mountain Wilderness
The Ocoee River is just to the west of the Little Frog Mountain Wilderness. Credit: malenga, flickr.
This companion to Big Frog Wilderness is an ideal spot for hiking, hunting, fishing and wildlife-watching immediately to the east of the famed Ocoee (or Toccoa) River, which runs 93 miles through parts of both Tennessee and Georgia. The addition would add nearly 1,000 acres, incorporating part of Benton MacKaye Trail and popular whitewater rapids. It would also protect habitat for black bear, bobcat, white-tailed deer and other species.
Big Laurel Branch Wilderness
Near Watauga Lake, which contains important fisheries that would be protected under expansion of Big Laurel Branch Wilderness. Credit: ellie, flickr.
This 6,332-acre wooded wilderness harbors wildlife including black bear, bobcat and coyote. The Tennessee Wilderness Act would add 4,446 acres to the northeast of the existing wilderness, preserving several miles of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and protecting important fisheries in the nearby Watauga Lake and Watauga River.
Sampson Mountain Wilderness
Squibb Creek in the existing Sampson Mountain Wilderness. Credit: DM, flickr.
Five rock streams run through this nearly 8,000-acre protected area bristling with old growth pine and hardwood forest. 4,060-foot Sampson Mountain is the centerpiece of the region. Expanded wilderness protection would add 2,922 acres west of the Bald Mountain range and help form a broader conservation and outdoor recreation area along the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. The addition would also protect several important creeks and streams.
The long and arduous path of this legislation notwithstanding, wilderness is important to Tennesseans. The state’s outdoor recreation industry generates $8.2 billion in consumer spending and supports 83,000 jobs annually, with much of the activity centered around the Cherokee National Forest. These new wilderness additions would bolster the state's reputation as a premier outdoor recreation spot, and help bolster the economies of small towns on the edge of the forest that rely on revenue from tourism and outdoor recreation.