“In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas in the United States..., leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress to secure for the American people of this and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”
Congress wrote those words to explain the purpose of the 1964 Wilderness Act. The law reflects an admirable degree of foresight. The population of Tennessee has doubled since 1950 and there has been a huge increase in pressures that humans are putting on the public lands we still have, such as the Cherokee National Forest.
Over the years, members of Congress from Tennessee have worked with citizen groups and the U.S. Forest Service to identify wilderness areas in the Cherokee National Forest and give these lands the protection provided under the Wilderness Act. Today, Tennessee has 11 wilderness areas, including the Pond Mountain Wilderness and the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness near Johnson City.
The Wilderness Act speaks of the “benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” These can be measured in many ways — the clean water that flows from undisturbed watersheds, the wild, scenic vistas enjoyed by those driving by, and the refreshing recreation available to all who walk one of the wilderness trails.
In his introduction to the “Cherokee National Forest Hiking Guide” (University of Tennessee Press), U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander writes of the “tens of thousands who love walking a trail to some resting place where the noises are trees creaking, the smells of wet moss and leaves, the colors pure, and the world at peace.”
But Alexander also writes that “the problem is, the quiet is getting harder to find.”
And that takes us back to those words from the Wilderness Act about preserving these areas for the benefit of future generations.
We know for certain that our grandchildren's grandchildren will live in a more crowded, noisier world. What a gift we can bequeath to them when we protect some of our state's wildest public lands as wilderness areas.
Alexander, joined by U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, has proposed a new Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2010, which would add about 20,000 acres to Tennessee's heritage of protected wilderness areas in the Cherokee.
The legislation includes additions to the existing Big Laurel Branch and Sampson Mountain wilderness areas, as recommended by the U.S. Forest Service after a planning process that was open to input from people across Tennessee.
I am looking forward to visiting Tennessee again this month and to the opportunity to discuss the history and meaning of wilderness. This is an exciting moment for conservation.