Ed McAlister: Wilderness Act would protect our green and our gold

Knoxville News Sentinel
Saturday, October 20, 2012
River Sports Outfitters

After graduating from the University of Tennessee and working in the engineering world, I desired to work in an environment that I loved, so I opened a small business, River Sports Outfitters, here in Knoxville. That enabled me to take my passion for hiking, biking and paddling and make it my livelihood. Today that business has grown to employ 30 people.

Knoxville was the perfect place for me to invest. With mountains and rivers all around, we are surrounded by a natural playground ideal for kayaking, backpacking, climbing and all manner of outdoor pursuits.

With the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at our doorstep and the Cherokee National Forest both north and south of the park, plus the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area to the north, it could be easy to take these public lands for granted and view this resource as boundless. But nothing could be further from the truth. As our population grows, our public lands become stressed with visitation, making the need for good stewardship all the more important. That's one of the reasons River Sports joined the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance and, through it, the Conservation Alliance.

The Conservation Alliance engages businesses to fund and partner with organizations to protect wild places for their habitat and recreational values. One of the projects that the Conservation Alliance has funded in recent years is Tennessee Wild, which is working to safeguard parts of the Cherokee National Forest for current and future generations.

Toward that end, U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker have introduced the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2011. This bill designates 19,556 acres of the Cherokee National Forest as wilderness, including one of my favorite areas, the Upper Bald River watershed. That's one of my secret playgrounds and would be Tennessee's first new wilderness area in 26 years.

The bill also includes additions to the existing Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness (1,866 acres), Big Frog Wilderness (348 acres), Little Frog Wilderness (978 acres), Sampson Mountain Wilderness (2,922 acres) and the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness (4,446 acres). Wilderness designation will provide protection to about 15 miles of the Benton MacKaye Trail and 4.5 miles of the Appalachian Trail and help keep the Tennessee River clean.

Clean water, clean air and protecting recreational opportunities are obvious reasons for my support. My customers, my employees and I need places to recreate. More importantly for the local economy, it will help attract business to this area. Employers are looking to locate where the community is recreation-minded and offers not only opportunities for day and weekend use, but also quick access for a walk, run, paddle or bike ride. In addition, protecting public lands is vital to the health of the state and national economy. According to the Outdoor Industry of America, outdoor recreation contributes $730 billion dollars annually to the U.S. economy. That includes $6.3 billion here in Tennessee, where outdoor recreation supports an estimated 67,000 jobs.

In other words, protecting our environment and our economy is not an either/or proposition. Our green is our gold, so by protecting America's public lands, we help maintain and grow a vibrant economy.

This bill will ensure opportunities for future generations of Americans to experience wild Tennessee. I encourage all outdoor enthusiasts to support this bill and urge Congress to pass this legislation before it adjourns.

Ed McAlister is the owner of River Sports Outfitters in Knoxville He also volunteers locally with the Legacy Parks Foundation and serves on the board of directors of the Outdoor Industry of America.