Located in Eastern Tennessee, the Cherokee National Forest stretches from Chattanooga to Bristol and along the North Carolina border. The 640,000-acre forest is the largest tract of public land in the state, and lies in the heart of the Southern Appalachian mountain range.
The Cherokee is popular with hunters, anglers, boaters, campers, birdwatchers and hikers. It contains great places to hike, including the Appalachian Trail, John Muir National Recreation Trail, and the Benton MacKaye Trail. However, these forest lands are threatened by road building, logging and mining.
The last time wilderness was designated in the state was more than 25 years ago, with the passage of the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 1984. This bill protected over 32,500 acres of wilderness in the Cherokee National Forest, designating the Big Frog Mountain, Bald River Gorge, Citico Creek, and Little Frog Mountain wilderness areas.
Leading the effort to protect this wilderness years ago was the Cherokee National Forest Wilderness Coalition, coordinated by Will Skelton—a Knoxville attorney. Skelton now volunteers for a new group, Tennessee Wild, which has formed to ensure the Cherokee stays as it is now for generations to come.
Tennessee Wild is a coalition of organizations working to protect wilderness on some of the most pristine areas of the Cherokee National Forest. Formed in 2009, Tennessee Wild is comprised of members of the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, Southern Environmental Law Center, Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, Cherokee Forest Voices, The Wilderness Society, The Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, The Sierra Club and the Campaign for America’s Wilderness of the Pew Environment Group.
Tennessee Wild would like to see additions to existing wilderness in the Bald River Gorge, Big Frog, Little Frog, Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock, Big Laurel Branch and Sampson Mountain, and the designation of one new wilderness in the Upper Bald River. These areas total just over 20,000 acres and were all recommended by the Forest Service for this highest level of protection.
Wilderness designation will preserve important watersheds and habitat for native brook trout, black bear, bobcat, Grey fox and White-tailed Deer. The areas are also prized for hiking, wildlife viewing, boating, fishing, photography and camping.
Since formation of the coalition, support for wilderness in the area has grown exponentially. Organizers have been on the ground tabling at events, speaking to groups, leading hikes, and improving trails, all to educate the public about wilderness and the citizen effort to the protect the Forest. Members of the coalition have also reached out to their elected officials about their wilderness proposal, talking to them about the wilderness values of the areas, and the public support for protecting more of the Cherokee.
“We are hopeful that our current political leaders, especially Representative John J. Duncan Jr. and Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker will act to protect these additional areas,” says Skelton. “Let the words of John Muir, inspire us to action: ‘Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.’”
In addition to working to designate wilderness on the Cherokee, Tennessee Wild is also dedicated to raising public awareness about wilderness and promoting volunteerism and the sound stewardship of Tennessee’s wild places.
Learn more by visiting the Tennessee Wild website.