Unspoiled Beauty is Nearby: Act seeks to make 20,000 acres of wilderness safe

The Tennessean
Thursday, November 24, 2011
Tennessee Wild's Jeff Hunter
Tennessee Wild's Jeff Hunter
Jeff Hunter

A passion for the outdoors led me on a journey 11 years ago to walk the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. From that point on, I have worked to get people out and explore the many wild places that our country has to offer.

Over the past three years, I have worked on a campaign to protect nearly 20,000 acres of wilderness on the Cherokee National Forest that has resulted in the introduction of the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2011. In addition, I have had the privilege to lead nearly 50 public outings that have been attended by hundreds of individuals - from ages 8 to 88 - out onto these lands.

For those of you who have not yet had the opportunity to explore these lands, your public lands, I would like to share with you a little bit about two of my favorite places that will be permanently protected when the Tennessee Wilderness Act becomes the law of the land:

Proposed Upper Bald River Wilderness

About 20 miles east of Tellico Plains, snug up against the North Carolina border, you'll find the headwaters of the Bald River and some of the wildest country left in the Eastern United States.

As you walk the state line along the Benton MacKaye Trail, there are opportunities to encounter black bears, gray foxes and coyotes. During the late spring or summer months, you can hear the beautiful song of the veery, hooded warbler or rose breasted grosbeak, just a few of the many songbirds who call this 9,038-acre area home.

Traveling north along the trail, you'll cross the summits of Hazelnut Knob, Nit Top, Round Top and Rocky Top. Here, the sounds of nature dominate. Farther along the trail, as you drop down into the Bald River watershed, plunge pools and waterfalls, moss-covered logs and a mosaic of wildflowers make this area pure magic, and worthy of becoming the first brand-new wilderness area in Tennessee in 25 years.

Big Laurel Branch Wilderness addition

In northeast Tennessee near Elizabethton, high above Watauga Lake along Iron Mountain, lies the existing Big Laurel Branch Wilderness and the proposed 4,446-acre wilderness addition. Here, you can enjoy a meal or a rest under the shadow of a Carolina hemlock or admire the amazing views of Watauga Lake below.

While I have visited the area in all seasons, I'm partial to the forest in wintertime; snow covering the Appalachian Trail, mist swirling in the bare trees, the track of a bobcat or coyote in the snow and the call of a raven. To those who would say that no wilderness exists in the East, I would challenge them to walk the 17 miles of the trail between road crossings and repeat that assertion.

These are but two of the six areas that will be protected under the Tennessee Wilderness Act. I hope that some of you will join a Tennessee Wild outing and come see these places for yourself. We lead hikes year-round of varying lengths and difficulty.

As you spend Thanksgiving Day and contemplate all that you are grateful for, be thankful that U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker have taken the initiative to protect these lands for present and future generations.

Jeff Hunter is the director of the Tennessee Wild Campaign for the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition. He lives in Chattanooga on the grounds of the Chattanooga Arboretum & Nature Center, where he is the resident caretaker. To find out more about Tennessee Wild's outings, please visit tnwild.org.