Tennessee Wilderness bill takes a step forward

Sampson Mountain Wilderness, which would be expanded by 2,922 acres under the Tennessee Wilderness Act. 

Credit: DM, flickr.

A key Senate committee approved legislation on April 8 that would protect new wilderness in Tennessee for the first time in 25 years.

The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee passed S. 1294, a bill first introduced in 2010 that would protect nearly 20,000 acres of public land. All protected parcels are within the Cherokee National Forest, which 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.

“It is heartening that in the same year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, we can still see signs of bipartisan cooperation when it comes to protecting our precious wildlands,” said Bill Hodge, director of the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS) program at The Wilderness Society. “The Cherokee National Forest is a Tennessee icon, and it deserves permanent protection for the sake of future generations.”

Support the Tennessee Wilderness Act! from The Wilderness Society on Vimeo.

The Tennessee Wilderness Act, introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), would protect:

Upper Bald River Wilderness

Upper Bald River Wilderness Study Area. Credit: Bill Hodge.

Nestled along the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, this new wilderness would be the first designated in Tennessee in a quarter-century. 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.

The new wilderness would: protect 9,038 acres in Monroe County, just to the south of Bald River Gorge Wilderness and about a 90-minute drive from Knoxville.

Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness

The North Carolina side of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. Credit: Jeff Moore, flickr.

Named for a famous poet and World War I hero, this wilderness contains an area 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: add 1,836 acres and 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.

The addition would: add 348 acres and protect critical habitat for a variety of species.

Little Frog Mountain Wilderness

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 978 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

This 6,332-acre wooded wilderness harbors wildlife including black bear, bobcat and coyote.

The addition 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.

The addition 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.

Next, the Tennessee Wilderness Act awaits a full vote in the Senate and introduction in the House of Representatives, where members of the Tennessee delegation have indicated their support.

While this bill has taken too long to make progress in Congress, 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.

Learn more about the Cherokee National Forest