Spring Wilderness Highlights

As winter finally gave way to spring, a renewed effort to protect additional wilderness has blossomed in the eastern half of the country.

On March 17, U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, both Tennessee Republicans, reintroduced their legislation to protect nearly 20,000 acres within the Cherokee National Forest. The Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2015 (S. 755) would permanently conserve these unique southern wild lands, keeping them free of development and ensuring that their streams remain pristine.

The biologically rich Cherokee National Forest is home to a variety of wildlife, including 43 species of mammals (such as black bears and bobcats), 154 species of fish (including brook trout), 55 species of amphibians (such as the spotted salamander), and 262 species of birds. Securing special areas of the forest as wilderness would safeguard wildlife and guarantee that future generations are able to enjoy the outstanding recreational opportunities the wild land has to offer—from hiking, paddling, hunting, and fishing to horseback riding, camping, and birding. These activities contribute significantly to the local and state economies, generating some $8 billion in consumer spending each year and directly supporting more than 80,000 jobs.

The legislation would expand five existing wilderness areas, including Sampson Mountain and Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock, and designate a new one: Upper Bald River. These would be Tennessee’s first wilderness protections since 1986, and the effort has broad support in East Tennessee and Congress. Backers include local business leaders, hunters and anglers, faith groups, elected officials, recreational visitors, and conservationists.

While Pew is heartened by the reintroduction of the Tennessee Wilderness Act, we are concerned about other recent efforts in Congress. During the Senate’s consideration of the fiscal year 2016 budget (S. Con. Res. 11), several amendments were considered that would scale back protections for U.S. public lands by weakening or changing existing laws. They included an amendment (Amendment 838) that would allow the sale or transfer of any public land not within a national park, preserve, or monument to state or local governments. While the amendment, which passed 51-49, is nonbinding—lacks the force of law—it demonstrates that wilderness study areas like those being proposed for wilderness protection in the Tennessee bill, as well as inventoried roadless areas, are likely to be the subject of additional efforts to undermine public lands during the 114th Congress.

Pew is grateful to senators who voted against Amendment 838, including Senator Alexander and Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), and who honor the original Wilderness Act’s bipartisan spirit, and we appreciate the work of so many advocates and conservationists to sustain our public lands.

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