Tennessee Wilderness Act could make even Congress look good

The Tennessean
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
A Carolina hemlock in the <br> Big Laurel Branch Wilderness. / Bill Hodge
A Carolina hemlock in the
Big Laurel Branch Wilderness. / Bill Hodge
Editor: Ted Rayburn

Our View

The current Congress recently was described as the least effective in the history of our legislative branch. Only a handful of bills, or decisions of any kind, have made it to the president's desk.

That cannot bode well for incumbents, or even for newcomers, if the House and Senate no longer know how to write legislation, talk out their differences and arrive at measures that are good for the American people.

This Congress obviously is constructively challenged, and maybe they just need a no-brainer piece of legislation that has no downside to get them back on track.

The Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2011 is just such a bill.

This act seeks to expand federal protection to pristine wilderness areas of East Tennessee. While it was put forward by a coalition of environmental and conservation groups, it was sponsored by Tennessee's Republican senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker. And there is virtually no cost to the taxpayer, only great benefit.

Yet, the bill, which passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last November, still awaits a floor vote. Again, we can only surmise that lawmakers simply have forgotten how to advance legislation, from lack of practice.

Here's what the Wilderness Act would do:

  • Permanently protect 19,556 acres of forest by expanding five existing wilderness areas - Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness in Monroe County; Big Frog Wilderness and Little Frog Wilderness, both in Polk County; Big Laurel Branch Wilderness in Carter and Johnson counties; and Sampson Mountain Wilderness in Unicoi and Washington counties.
  • Create the first new wilderness area in Tennessee in 25 years, the 9,038-acre Upper Bald River Wilderness, in Monroe County.
  • Permanently protect portions of the Appalachian Trail corridor; portions of the Watauga and Nolichucky river watersheds; and the headwaters of the Bald River, prized by trout fishermen.
  • Enhance protection for a wildlife corridor that includes black bears, migratory songbirds and other species.
  • Allow hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, horseback riding and other non-motorized recreation.

The act grew out of recommendations for managing the Cherokee National Forest that were made by the U.S. Forest Service in 2004. All of the lands affected are under public ownership and managed by the Forest Service. As Jeff Hunter, director of the Tennessee Wilderness Campaign, put it: "No roads will be closed. No taxes will be lost by local communities. And the (act) does not contain an appropriation, so these lands can be protected without expense to the American taxpayer."

Congress is the only entity that can extend this protection. Of course, if it fails to do so, it is easy to see that within a fairly short number of years, these natural resources could be encroached on.

Lawmakers: Here is a way to get your mojo back; or, at least, show voters that you can agree on something. This is an easy one - approve the Tennessee Wilderness Act.