Driving into the parking lot of Yee-Haw Brewing Company, it’s easy to tell the brewery is packed. Parking is hard to come by even on a night of rain. One squeezes in where their car can fit and dashes for the door.
Upon opening the door, cheers, music and chatter drown out the noise of the rain. Filling in between chairs and people, a small table near the outside dining area features apparel and the reason for the the gathering.
David Cohen, program manager, and Jillian Laux, development officer with Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards of Asheville, greet everyone with a smile.
“The event tonight is to celebrate the passage of the Tennessee Wilderness Act,” said Cohen. “It was included in the Farm Bill that passed just before the new year, and we are here to celebrate the new 20,000 acres of wilderness in our backyard.”
It has been a decades-long fight for some for the protections that come with the wilderness designation.
Bill Hodge, Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards’ executive director, and his wife Laura, campaign coordinator for Tennessee Wild, were major players in the passage of this bill. Bill took a moment to recognize his wife, who he says was instrumental in getting the legislation through the last hurdles.
“We want to say thanks for coming to the celebration,” Hodge said to the crowd. “It has been an incredible few weeks since the Farm Bill passed ... It took a very, very, very long time. Going back to the 1970s when wilderness was first recommended in the state of Tennessee ... there are a couple folks in the room that go back that far.”
Bill went on to recognize many that were in attendance. Tri-Cities locals Jerry Greer, former Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association president, and Kayla Carter, outdoor development manager for Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, both were specially recognized. The list also included Sen. Lamar Alexander, U.S. Rep. Phil Roe and many others.
Laura said in an interview, “The last wilderness designation in Tennessee was in the 1980s. Some of the challenges were the fact that it was introduced five times, or because Congress failed to act. It would be introduced and it would be assigned to a committee and sometimes the congressional period would end before it would even get a hearing.”
According to Laura, legislation that is introduced, and not approved before the end of the congressional session, must be introduced again next session. This was the challenge the Farm Bill faced. More often than not it would fail to be signed, more out of a lack of action than opposition.
The importance of celebrating the protection of 20,000 acres in Northeast Tennessee was agreed upon by many as a way to make the public more aware. Many feel that the decline in maintenance and use is generational, and that something must be done to change the tide.
“I think that one thing important for everybody to know is that wilderness is not selective,” Laura said, “That public land is your land. Somebody in California owns this land as much as somebody here in Tennessee and vice versa. Tennesseans own public land in California and all over the country.”
Cohen and Laux share this sentiment.
They, like many others in the room, are adamant advocates for the continued use of wilderness lands and could not say enough about the celebration. They are both young and are the next generation of stewards, the ones Bill and Laura are happy to see invigorated for the future.
“One of the biggest things that make it important,” said Cohen, “is to make people aware that they have this in their backyard. They are public lands, we all own them.”
Cohen went on to say, “On a scale of 1 to 10, this is a 10. This exceeds our expectations. Johnson City is such a cool town. Every time I come here I am really impressed with this downtown and the way it is just developing and becoming a really cool place.”