When members of Congress return to Washington after the Nov. 6 presidential election they will have a number of important pieces of unfinished business to tackle. One such matter is the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2011, a bill sponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander to designate additional acreage in the Cherokee National Forest as wilderness areas.
Specifically, the Tennessee Republican wants to extend the protected acreage of the Sampson Mountain Wilderness Area in Washington and Unicoi Counties by 2,922 acres, as well as the Big Laurel Branch preserve in Carter and Johnson counties by 4,446 acres.
Alexander's junior colleague in the Senate, Bob Corker, has signed on as a co-sponsor of the measure, which represents the first expansion of Tennessee's wilderness land in 25 years.
This acreage is already part of the Cherokee National Forest, which means there is no need for federal funds to purchase these lands. But Congress must take action to make this possible. It is the only entity that has the power to make this wilderness designation permanent.
There are many benefits to having this designation. Jeff Hunter, Tennessee field organizer for the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, told the Press last year that one particularly good reason is that "there's no better way to protect water quality than to protect intact forests."
Hunter also noted recently that this country is losing more than 6,000 acres of open space each day.
"Now is not the time to halt wilderness protection," Hunter wrote in an email.
As we said in this space last year, passage of the Tennessee Wilderness Act is a "win-win" for both taxpayers and Tennesseans who love nature and want to see it preserved for future generations.