Tennessee News Service
UNICOI, Tenn. – More than 7,000 acres of some of Tennessee’s pristine wilderness is offered protection in legislation introduced in the U.S. House by Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee.
The Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2016 would expand the existing wilderness areas in Carter, Johnson, Washington and Unicoi counties in Northeast Tennessee.
If passed, wildlife habitat, recreation and clean drinking water would be protected.
Laura Hodge, campaign coordinator for the Tennessee Wild Coalition, says whether you live near the land or not, the protection would have a positive impact on the entire state.
“We all live downstream,” she points out. “Without protection of these critical watersheds, we don’t have clean drinking water, animals don’t have clean water to live and thrive in and outdoor recreation is such an important part of Tennessee and these particular areas.”
Similar legislation has been introduced four times over the last eight years in the U.S. Senate, but ultimately did not pass.
Opponents express concern over federal control of local lands.
Wilderness status would not change public access to the land, which would remain open to hunting, hiking, camping, fishing and other non-mechanized recreation.
The Outdoor Industry Association estimates recreation generates more than $8 billion in consumer spending annually and creates 83,000 jobs in Tennessee.
The designation would expand existing wilderness areas in Sampson Mountain and Big Laurel Branch.
Jeff Wadley lives near the land in Kingsport that would be protected and says the legislation recognizes a priority often sung about in a Tennessee state song – “Rocky Top.”
“The song ‘Rocky Top,’ the words indicate that people are tired of the ‘cramped up city life,’ stuck ‘like a duck in a pen,'” Wadley relates. “And being in the wilderness is a place for people to escape from the city and find solace for their soul.”
Hodge says the time to act is now when it comes to protecting the land that currently sits as a tempting option for developers who might not maintain public access or protect resources.
“There’s no way to bring it back,” she stresses. “Once these areas are gone, they’re gone forever and that’s why it’s so important.
“Wilderness designation protects these areas forever. It’s the highest level of protection that land can have. It takes an act of Congress to make it happen and that’s why we’re so thrilled that Congressman Roe has been a champion of this bill from the very beginning. ”
Granting the land wilderness status would not create additional costs to state, local or tribal governments.