Tennessee’s long quest for wilderness: New bill to protect 20,000 acres of Tennessee wilderness

Follow the gushing water of Tennessee’s Bald River and you will be taken through a peaceful route of pristine wilderness, stunning views, and eventually, if you’re on the right track, Bald River Falls, an awe-inspiring 100-foot waterfall that is one of the most photographed in the nation.

So uniquely wonderful is the area, located some 30 miles south of the Smokey Mountains, that it may be surprising to learn that much of it lacks federal Wilderness protections.

That may change soon through the work of conservation groups, including The Wilderness Society, and Tennessee’s two U.S. senators.

Click here to join a hike through Tennessee’s proposed wilderness areas.

New legislation introduced by Senators Alexander and Corker earlier this summer, would permanently protect the headwaters of the Upper Bald River as federally designated Wilderness. It is these headwaters that eventually feed into the Tennessee River, providing hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans with clean drinking water.

Protecting the Bald River’s head waters would add to already existing protections for the total Bald River watershed. Currently, only part of this important watershed is federally protected as the Bald River Gorge Wilderness, which Congress designated nearly a quarter century ago.

The Upper Bald River itself lies to the South of the Bald River Gorge Wilderness, deeply within the Cherokee National Forest and snug tightly next to the North Carolina border. Its remote location provides tremendous opportunities for solitude, yet is only within a day’s trek for hikers and birdwatchers.

Hikers crossing the Bald River. Photo by Jeff Hunter.In addition to this special area, Alexander and Corker’s Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2010 would also protect five other outstanding areas within Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest, or nearly 20,000 acres in total, bringing significant economic opportunity to the area.

“It’s critical to designate more land in Tennessee this way so that the threat of development is permanently removed,” says Bill Meadows, a native Tennessean and president of The Wilderness Society. “The dividends this will pay our state are beyond calculation because the bill creates more places for people to hunt, fish, hike, camp and enjoy Tennessee’s natural beauty.”

This historic bipartisan push to expand Tennessee’s wilderness is long overdue. However, the true victory will be seeing Congressional approval of the bill, providing everlasting protection for eastern Tennessee’s land and wildlife.

Of the six proposed Wilderness areas for protection, all but one will expand upon existing sites; the single, stand-alone Wilderness area is the Upper Bald River containing a watershed in its entirety.

Water rushing over rocks in Bald River. Photo by Bill Hodge.“Permanent protection of an entire watershed is paramount for water quality,” says Jeff Hunter of Tennessee Wild, one or our partner groups. “However, it needs to be a multilayered deal. There needs to be protection of biodiversity and recreational resources, which this bill would provide.”

Hunter and his team at Tennessee Wild spearhead a large coalition effort, alongside The Wilderness Society, to encourage the designation of Wilderness in eastern Tennessee.

Hunter hopes to spread appreciation for the area by leading several hikes through the six proposed wilderness areas from now through October, ending in a three-day hike along the Appalachian Trail within the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness. The hikes are open to the public.

The six areas proposed for Wilderness designation in the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2010 include:

  • Upper Bald River Wilderness (9,038 acres) — a rare opportunity to protect an entire watershed, thus securing the water quality, trout and wildlife habitat in a well-defined and geographically distinct area.
  • Big Frog Wilderness (348 additional acres) — adjacent to the Cohutta Wilderness, this continuous area is the largest national forest wilderness in the southeast.
  • Little Frog Wilderness (966 additional acres) — along with the Big Frog, this area incorporates the Benton MacKaye Trail.
  • Sampson Mountain Wilderness (2,922 additional acres) — a significant scenic area for hikers to traverse the Bald Mountain range to the east.
  • Big Laurel Branch Wilderness (4,446 additional acres) — an area of protection for over 4.5 miles of the famed Appalachian National Scenic Trail between the Iron Mountain Shelter and the Vandeventer Shelter.
  • Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness (1,836 additional acres) — close to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this area is significant habitat for bear and other wildlife who regularly travel between the two areas.

These special lands also remind many at the Wilderness Society of our history. The proposed Upper Bald River Wilderness Study, in fact, houses 12 miles of the Benton MacKaye Trail, named after a co-founder of The Wilderness Society and father of the Appalachian Trail.

Wilderness Society president Bill Meadows often shares fond memories of his connection with Tennessee, where he grew up as an avid hiker within his home state.

“As a young man growing up in Tennessee, I can especially remember the moments of solace lying alongside Gee Creek,” Meadows remembers. “I could really hear each individual bird call. It felt like magic.”

Watch this video for more of Meadows' sentiments on Tennessee.


A young boy enjoying the view of the Bald River Falls, Tennessee. Photo by Bill Hodge.
Water rushing over rocks in Bald River. Photo by Laura Hodge.
Hikers crossing Kirkland Creek. Photo by Bill Hodge.