A bill currently in the U.S. Senate - the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2011(S.1090) - will permanently designate nearly 20,000 acres of the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee as wilderness. This is good news for those that value Tennessee's incredible natural heritage and their own health
This legislation expands the existing Big Frog and, Little Frog Wilderness Areas (Polk County), and the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness Area (Monroe County) in the southern Cherokee and expands the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness (Carter and Johnson Counties) and the Sampson Mountain Wilderness (Washington and Unicoi Counties) in the northern Cherokee. The bill will also create the brand new 9,038 acre Upper Bald River Wilderness in Monroe County. The Upper Bald River Wilderness will be the first new wilderness area in Tennessee in more than 25 years.
This important bill was introduced by Senator Alexander, is co-sponsored by Senator Corker, and is also supported by Congressman Phil Roe.
In addition to protecting beautiful parts of our state from logging and development, passage of the bill would not close any roads, would not require new appropriations, and would not cause any loss of taxes to local communities. All of these lands are already in federal ownership.
The bill offers the highest levels of protection for these lands, while maintaining access to the public. Without passage of this bill, these parts of the Cherokee National Forest could be logged, roaded, or otherwise developed.
This is good for local economies that depend on tourism, and good for local residents who value clean water and a quality of life that is tied to these beautiful mountains.
From a health perspective, having wilderness areas is critical to good health. Obviously, such areas allow for outdoor activities including camping, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, and support people getting out and moving.
Activity is essential for health. Being able to do so in a beautiful area surrounded by nature is also a great way of actively seeking stress reduction.
Our country, and our state especially, are wrestling with obesity and many types of chronic disease. Tennessee is the state with the most prescriptions per capita. One of the best ways of reversing these trends is to get outside and get active.
The trails found in the areas being protected by this bill are maintained by volunteers.
A health study entitled: "Take Pride in America's Health: Volunteering as a Gateway to Physical Activity" indicated that individuals who participated in volunteerism to protect the environment were 2.6 times more likely to meet recommendations for physical activity.
In other words, you can give back by maintaining trails, and it's good for your health.
Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS) helps maintain trails in both the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness and the Sampson Mountain Wilderness areas.
You can contact them at http://www.trailcrews.org/ and get involved maintaining trails on your public lands.
Please express your support for this bill to your Congressional representatives. It is in the best interest of the general public's health and good publicity for Tennessee.
Reid Blackwelder, MD, FAAFP is a Professor Family Medicine, Quillen College of Medicine, Johnson City.