The wait for the Tennessee Wilderness Act has been frustrating, a delay far too long for no good reason. Patience wore thin as East Tennesseans watched session after session of congressional inaction.
Finally, last week Congress passed, with bipartisan support across the state, this measure that protects nearly 20,000 acres of wilderness within Cherokee National Forest. All it needed was the flourish of a POTUS signature, which President Trump provided Thursday with the signing of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, aka the farm bill.
Tennessee last added wilderness 25 years ago. Now it’s getting six more areas of protected forest in one swoop.
Five of the areas are additions: to Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock, 1,836 acres in Monroe County; to Big Frog, 348 acres in Polk County; to Little Frog, 966 acres in Polk County; to Big Laurel Branch, 4,446 acres in Carter and Johnson counties; and to Sampson Mountain, 2,922 acres in Washington and Unicoi counties. The new creation is 9,038 acres of the Upper Bald River Wilderness Area in Monroe County.
Astute Blount Countians will note two of the areas, including the newest and biggest, are just a jaunt across the county line to Monroe.
So how much difference does 19,556 acres make in the big picture? Well, how much difference does 4,000 acres make? That’s about the size of Cades Cove, one-fifth the territory of this new wilderness. Consider what the Cove means to Blount County.
While the history of mountain settlers is protected in Cades Cove, this new act protects the natural environment of Southern Appalachia without fencing it off.
The act does not close any roads. It does not block any trails. It does not shut any facilities. And it does not require acquisition of land, as the areas designated by the act as wilderness are in the public domain.
The lands are already open to hunting, fishing, horseback riding, hiking, camping and paddling. None of that will change. What it does is protect nearly the entire headwaters area of the Bald River, which provides clean water for the Watauga, Nolichucky, Little Tennessee, Tellico and Ocoee River watersheds.
The Tennessee Wild Coalition notes this legislation preserves a critical wildlife corridor for black bear, birds, and other species between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the protected areas.
It took U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker introducing the legislation in each of the last five Congresses, with U.S. Rep. Phil Roe coming on board for the last two, to get this done.
It’s about time but well worth the wait — as frustrating as it’s been.