An expansive view of Cherokee National Forest. (Photo: Daniel Maples)

On Nov. 9, the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry passed the Tennessee Wilderness Act.

The legislation was originally introduced by Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, both Tennessee Republicans, and was incorporated into Sen. Pat Roberts’ (R-Kan.) Federal Land Management Act of 2017. Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) introduced a similar version in the House of Representatives.

For decades, a diverse coalition of Tennessee hunters, anglers, business owners, faith leaders, outdoor recreationists and conservationists have been working with Alexander and Corker to preserve a portion of the Cherokee National Forest as wilderness.

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The bill is now waiting for a vote on the Senate floor. It would designate 20,000 acres of the 650,000-acre Cherokee National Forest as wilderness area, the highest level of protection for federal land.

Alexander said in a prepared statement:

Conserving some of the wildest, most pristine and beautiful areas in our state gives future generations of Tennesseans the opportunity to enjoy Tennessee’s land and heritage. The Tennessee Wilderness Act would help protect our natural heritage and give the millions of people who visit Tennessee each year additional reason to come and enjoy our great outdoors.

Corker said:

Millions of people visit Tennessee each year to experience our incredible God-given outdoor amenities, and the Tennessee Wilderness Act will help preserve the Cherokee National Forest for future generations of Americans to enjoy. I thank Chairman Roberts and members of the Senate Agriculture Committee for supporting this effort and am hopeful the full Senate will consider and pass this legislation in the near future.

The act would expand the Joyce Kilmer–Slickrock, Big Frog, Little Frog, Big Laurel Branch and Sampson Mountain wilderness areas and create a new 9,000-acre Upper Bald River Wilderness Area. The areas proposed for protection are habitat for brook trout, white-tailed deer, black bear, bobcat, turkey and many other species of wildlife and native plants.

Passage of the Tennessee Wilderness Act would protect 4.5 miles of the Appalachian Trail, nearly 15 miles of the Benton MacKaye Trail and miles of cold-water streams. Access to the lands wouldn’t change, with hunting, fishing, horseback riding, hiking, camping, paddling and other forms of recreation continuing to be allowed.

“Being a good steward of Cherokee National Forest means taking care of God’s creation for future generations,” said Mason Boring, who is involved with the adolescent faith group Young Life. “For many in Tennessee and elsewhere, wilderness is a place where people draw close to God. I hope Congress follows Sens. Alexander, Corker and Roberts’ leads and passes the Tennessee Wilderness Act this year.”

According to a news release from Tennessee Wild, outdoor recreation is a critical part of Tennessee’s economy. The Outdoor Industry Association estimates that it generates $21.6 billion in consumer spending in Tennessee each year and creates 188,000 direct jobs.

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