This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 1986. That important legislation created five wilderness areas (Big Laurel Branch, Unaka Mountain, Pond Mountain, Sampson Mountain, and Little Frog) and expanded the Big Frog Wilderness. The 1986 Wilderness Act, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan, Sr., marked the last time any land in Tennessee received Wilderness status.
Wilderness, land not marred by humans, is important. Wilderness shaped the history of our nation. Tennessee was once the country's western frontier with vast expanses of wilderness. We humans still need wilderness to remember that which defined us. Wilderness also permits a glimpse of the pristine, natural world as God fashioned it. I have spent a great part of my own life and ministry working to care for our incomparable corner of creation.
Another 2011 anniversary (the ninetieth!) remembers the genesis of the Appalachian Trail. Regional planner, Benton MacKaye, wrote a 1921 article that hit a nerve in the American psyche. Within only a few years, the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) came into being in order to unite individuals and clubs in constructing a trail that would traverse the crest of the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia. MacKaye believed that mountain wildernesses could provide for humanity.
MacKaye, who worked in Knoxville in the 1930s with TVA, wrote to the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club in 1933 saying, "Friendship is a hard thing to define. To me it is a portion of creation held in common. Our special portion (yours and mine) we call the wilderness-the portion untarnished by act of man. Such is our common bond. To cherish it (even as human fellowship itself)-such is our common goal. For we need this thing wilderness far more than it needs us. Civilizations (like glaciers) come and go, but the mountain and its forest continue the course of creation's destiny. And in these we mere humans can take part-by fitting our civilization to the mountain."
In effect, the species that MacKaye was most interested in preserving was Homo sapiens. He suggested a sanctuary and refuge in the Appalachian Mountains that offered health and wholeness to people pressed by industry and development. MacKaye echoed Henry David Thoreau's claim, "In wildness is the preservation of the world."
Currently, the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2011, co-sponsored by Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, may reach a Senate floor vote sometime in 2012. I hope Tennessee's House delegation will support this effort for the people of Tennessee. The new Tennessee Wilderness Act will establish a 9038 acre wilderness area of the Upper Bald River. The act also expands the existing areas of Little Frog, Big Frog, Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock, Big Laurel Branch, and Sampson Mountain Wildernesses. No appropriation is necessary for this bill because all of the lands are in public ownership. In addition, the areas are currently being managed as wilderness, so no roads will be closed and no access denied. However, the bill is needed to protect these places for the future, for humanity.
We in Tennessee need places where we can touch unsullied creation, see lands unscarred, hear breezes dance in the leafy canopy, breathe air scented by an abundance of life, and remember how we got here and who we are. One day our generation will be held accountable by our grandchildren's children and the Creator on how we treated all that God fashioned. We can give our descendants this gift of a portion of creation protected and pristine.
Charles W. Maynard is an ordained United Methodist minister, an author or co-author of 30 books, a storyteller, and a lover of Tennessee's wild lands, especially its mountains. Maynard was the first executive director of Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and serves on the boards of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Discover Life in America, and the Richard Haiman National Parks Foundation. He is also a member of the Southeast Regional Advisory Council of the National Parks Conservation Association.