A larger portion of the Cherokee National Forest, more than 7,000 acres locally, could remain unscathed and open to recreation for future generations, depending on the passage of the 2011 Tennessee Wilderness Act.
First introduced last year by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R.-Tenn., last year and reintroduced in June, the legislation would 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. These areas are already part of the Cherokee National Forest, but have not been named designated wilderness, which protects them from any type of outside disturbance other then limited recreational usage and trail maintenance.
“There are a lot of values that come into play when we talk about wilderness, whether it’s recreational values, clean air, clean water, places for people to hunt, fish, ride horses, hike and camp,” said Jeff Hunter, Tennessee Field Organizer for the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, which supports the act. “But water quality is right there at the top of the list and there’s no better way to protect water quality then to protect intact forest.”
The additional designated forest would be the first in 25 years and would be based on rules outlined in the Wilderness Act of 1964 that says any designated lands will be forever protected from development, logging, road building and mining, Hunter said. Additionally, recreational activities will be allowed except those that involve any motorized or mechanized vehicles.
The Sampson Mountain portion of the proposed designated forest is located north of the Rocky Fork Tract, west of the Bald Mountain Range and can be seen from the fire towers in Unicoi County. Clark Creek, known for its trout fishing opportunities, begins in the area and flows into the Nolichucky River. Hunter says the passing of the 2011 Tennessee Wildlife Act would provide trail corridors into Rocky Fork.
The other local proposed extension, Big Laurel Branch, is the second largest chunk of land requested in the bill. It’s situated north of Watauga Lake and south of Shady Valley and would further protect 4.5 miles of the Appalachian Trail. It can be accessed via Watauga Dam Road and Tenn. Highway 91.
Both Sampson Mountain and Big Laurel Branch are already publicly owned lands that are managed by districts of the U.S. Forestry Service.
“If this was a new designation or it was not managed, it would probably be more controversial,” Hunter said. “It’s a modest proposal basically raising the amount of wilderness on the forest from 65,000 acres to a little under 85,000 and rasing the percentage of overall current designated wilderness from 10 percent to 13 percent of the forest.”
Some hikers have shown opposition to the Tennessee Wilderness Act because they would not be allowed to used gas powered chain saws and trimmers to perform trail maintenance. Hunter says new groups like the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards have stepped in and volunteered for these jobs using more traditional equipment like hand saws, cross cut saws and swingblades.
Hunter says it wouldn’t cost taxpayers any extra funds to turn some of the acreage over to designated wilderness.
“Communities won’t start losing tax dollars with this,” he said. “If we had to spend $2 million it would be difficult because as you know funding isn’t available for a whole lot of things right now.”
The legislation was unsuccessful last year after it was sent to the U.S. Senate’s Agriculture Committee, but never received a hearing, Hunter said. The newest version of the act has been placed into a different group — the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and is awaiting a hearing date.