OP-ED - Skelton: New areas need protection

Knoxville News Sentinel
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Will Skelton

On Oct. 30, 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a landmark bill that protected many of the outstandingly scenic portions of the southern Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee from timber harvesting, mining and road building.

Thousands of Tennesseans and Americans have used and enjoyed those areas protected as wilderness in 1984; without that bill, many such areas would have been clear cut and roads built through them. The areas range from the lofty peaks of the Citico Creek and Big Frog Wildernesses to the waterfalls of the Bald River Wilderness and to the quieter streams of Little Frog Mountain Wilderness .

The bill was called the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 1984 and was supported by then-governor Lamar Alexander, then-U.S. representative John J. Duncan, and both of our senators, Howard Baker and James Sasser. The bill protected 32,606 acres (out of a total of 640,000 acres in the Cherokee) in areas known as Big Frog Mountain, Bald River Gorge, Citico Creek, and Little Frog Mountain.

Such areas were designated as "wilderness," the highest form of protection for our federally owned public lands. It protects forests "in perpetuity" from logging, mining and road building while allowing for traditional activities like hiking, hunting, horseback riding, fishing and camping. Wilderness also protects wildlife habitat, ensures clean water supplies, and sequesters carbon.

I was coordinator of the Cherokee National Forest Wilderness Coalition that led the effort to have these areas protected. I edited a guidebook to the Cherokee's trails that was published by University of Tennessee Press ("Hiking Guide to the Cherokee National Forest"), and to which Alexander did the forward for both the first (1992) and second (2005) editions.

It has been 25 years since any additional wilderness has been protected in the Cherokee National Forest, in spite of several qualified candidates. These areas include the wonderful Upper Bald River and several additions to existing wilderness areas. The U.S. Forest Service recommended wilderness protection for most of these areas. However, its recommendations can only become "wilderness" if Congress approves under the Wilderness Act of 1964.

A newly formed coalition, Tennessee Wild (http://tnwild.org/), is urging the protection of the additional areas recommended by the forest service.

Several points are important to consider regarding this current wilderness proposal:

1. The Cherokee National Forest consists of 640,000 acres, roughly the same as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with 340,969 in the northern Cherokee and 298,998 in the southern Cherokee. Only 66,389 acres or 10.37 percent of the forest is designated as wilderness; the areas listed above would add only 17,785 acres, so we are talking about a very modest increase.

2. No land is to be acquired by the forest service, as the land proposed for wilderness is already owned by the government.

3. Pursuant to the forest service's current management plan, the service's recommended areas are currently managed as wilderness. So no additional management or change would be required and, because of the nature of wilderness, its management is extremely low cost.

4. No roads would be closed; nor would any facilities be affected as a result of the forest service's recommendation.

5. Finally, and maybe most important, the areas recommended for wilderness are the best unprotected scenic and natural areas in the southern Cherokee National Forest.

We are hopeful that our current political leaders, especially Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. and Sens. Alexander and Bob Corker, will act to protect these additional areas. Let the words of John Muir, featured recently in the Ken Burns' PBS special on our national parks, inspire us to action: "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul."

Will Skelton, a recently retired Knoxville attorney, is a long time activist on behalf of protecting wilderness on our public lands and establishing greenways in our urban areas.