Wild Ambitions: Supporters Hope Tennessee Wilderness Act Can Bypass Congressional Gridlock, Expand Knoxville's Backyard

As the 112th Congress draws to a close and the "fiscal cliff" dominates the news out of Washington, D.C., Tennessee stands to gain nearly 20,000 acres of new wilderness protection for six of the wildest parts of the Cherokee National Forest. But time is running out for the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2011, introduced last year by Sen. Lamar Alexander and co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker.

The bill, which emerged from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in November 2011 with bipartisan support, expands protection in five existing wilderness areas, and creates the first new wilderness area in Tennessee since the Reagan Administration.

Currently, the bill languishes with 27 other wilderness-designation bills. Many remain tied up in the House Natural Resources Committee. The Tennessee bill continues to stall in the Senate, where there's been no time scheduled to debate public-lands legislation because of a calendar full of competing priorities and the constant threat of filibuster.

"If you introduce a bill to protect apple pie, someone is going to filibuster it," says retired Knoxville attorney Will Skelton, a veteran of successful Tennessee wilderness campaigns in the 1980s. "The current Congress is not able to do very much. Even with unanimous public support, it is so hard to pass anything."

Skelton praises Alexander and Corker and figures both would like to see the current Tennessee Wilderness Act combined into a single omnibus bill with other popular wilderness proposals. That's what often happened to public-lands bills in prior sessions of Congress, but the current partisan gridlock offers only a slim chance that the Tennessee Wilderness Act will pass as part of an omnibus bill or as a rider to some unrelated legislation.

If no public-lands bills pass by the end of the current session on Jan. 3, this Congress will become the first since 1966 to not protect a single acre of wilderness.

For supporters of the Tennessee Wilderness Act, that would be a disappointing outcome for a proposal that requires no additional federal spending and originated as recommendations from the U.S. Forest Service. In 2004, the Cherokee National Forest proposed wilderness designation for areas adjacent to existing wilderness and the creation of a new wilderness area protecting the Upper Bald River near Tellico Plains.

The Tennessee Wild Coalition came together in 2008 around the idea of protecting acres identified by the Forest Service. The coalition is made up of eight state and national conservation groups, including Wild South and the Wilderness Society. Tennessee Wild Director Jeff Hunter continues to rally for passage of the bill. He's led nearly 100 outings, including hikes, overnight backpacks, and river snorkeling trips since April 2008. Hunter has also networked with college interns on four campuses across Tennessee and traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress.

"The Forest Service and citizens across Tennessee believe these areas deserve the highest level of protection afforded our public lands," says Hunter. "This is what the Wilderness Act of 1964 was set up to do. It's time to get this done."

The Wilderness Act of 1964 allows citizens to work with their Congressional representatives to identify wild places in need of protection. The nonprofit Tennessee Wild continues to work with Alexander's office to move this legislation forward. But debate over the fiscal cliff continues to take all the oxygen out of the room, leaving the public lands legislation in limbo. If the current Congress fails to act, Hunter hopes the bill will be reintroduced during the next Congress.

"We're talking about Tennessee's wild backyard," Hunter says. "The Tennessee Wilderness Act protects these wild forests and sources of drinking water from logging, mining, and road building, while providing millions of people with a natural escape—just a short drive from Chattanooga, the Tri-Cities, and especially Knoxville."

Alexander agrees. In a new video produced by the Tennessee Wild Coalition, Alexander says: "Egypt has its pyramids. England has its history. Rome has its art. The United States has the great American outdoors. So [the Tennessee Wilderness Act] has broad support. And that's why I hope the Congress will agree that it's a priority."

These lands have long been a priority for hikers, hunters, wildflower lovers, and trout anglers. That's one reason why editorial writers statewide continue to line up in support of the bill. The editorial board of The Tennessean even suggested the Tennessee Wilderness Act offers a way for Congress to break the gridlock and get its "mojo" back.

Mojo might be difficult to measure, but here's a by-the-numbers rundown of what the bill will protect:

Sampson Mountain Wilderness addition (2,922 acres in Unicoi and Washington counties)

Near Tusculum, Tenn., in the Nolichucky River watershed is the existing Sampson Mountain Wilderness (7,991 acres). It's one of the largest, most important black bear habitats in the Cherokee Forest, and it's poised to get even bigger and better. The proposed protections for nearly 3,000 acres would join the newly protected Rocky Fork tract, giving Knoxvillians an expansive new place to find steep hikes, neon orange salamanders, and cool swimming holes, all just an hour and a half from Gay Street.

The Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness addition (1,836 acres in Monroe County)

At the end of the Dragon's Tail—Highway 129, out of Maryville, through Pumpkin Center and over to the Cheoah River—are wilderness trailheads leading to mossy ravines and rocky ridgelines.

The new Upper Bald River Wilderness (9,038 acres in Monroe County)

Here's a chance to protect an entire watershed just upstream from Tellico Plains. With nearly 12 miles of the Benton MacKaye Trail running through it, this is truly one of the wildest areas in the Eastern U.S.

Little Frog Wilderness addition (978 acres in Polk County)

The Little Frog Wilderness spreads out just south of the Hiwassee River, where John Muir walked through Tennessee in September 1867. It includes Pressley Cove, a beautiful, secluded valley home to giant trees.

Big Frog Wilderness addition (348 acres in Polk County)

The Big Frog stands adjacent to the Cohutta Wilderness in Northwest Georgia. Together, these two areas exceed 45,000 acres as a single complex. The Ocoee Whitewater Center is nearby, and these new wilderness acres will provide viewshed protection for those who venture onto a network of popular trails.

Big Laurel Branch Wilderness addition (4,446 acres in Carter and Johnson Counties)

Not far from Elizabethton, the Appalachian Trail runs through this parcel high on the slopes of Iron Mountain. Below, the Watauga River watershed produces some of the cleanest water in the state, and the Tennessee Wilderness Act aims to keep it that way.