Native forest in the eastern United States is a rare treat in the wilderness world. While logged in the past, the Upper Bald River Wilderness Study Area (WSA) in Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest provides hikers an opportunity to experience remnants of old-growth hardwood forests largely as they existed before European settlement.
The Upper Bald River WSA was established in 2004 through the Cherokee National Forest’s planning process. It has the distinction of being the only brand new area recommended for wilderness protection as part of the plan, and is currently being managed according to wilderness guidelines.
The Upper Bald River is teeming with interesting sights and sounds. Hikers and horseback riders traveling on one of the three main trails running through the area sometimes spot black bear and white-tailed deer. Anglers may try their luck at one of the native eastern brook trout, or just sit and enjoy the soothing white noise of a raging waterfall.
The human history of this place is evident as well, and tells a story as rich as the natural wonder. Twelve miles of the nearly 300-mile Benton MacKaye Trail runs through the WSA. MacKaye was one of the earliest employees of the U.S. Forest Service, as well as the Tennessee Valley Authority in Knoxville. As a Harvard graduate with a degree in Forestry, he promoted a practical conservation ethic in the early 20th century, and was the first to write against urban sprawl. A wilderness champion long before there was a Wilderness Act, Benton MacKaye is best known for conceiving the idea of the Appalachian Trail in 1921. In the Upper Bald River WSA, the spirit of this conservation visionary lives on.
The headwaters of the Bald River flow from the WSA, as well as many tributary creeks, to the Bald and Tellico Rivers. These sources of fresh water are essential to maintaining the health of the native brook trout and the aquatic environment in general.
Upper Bald River is an easy 90 minute drive from Knoxville. Well-known among hunters and anglers, it is a rugged, remote area and generally sees little human use, providing an incredible wild respite from the bustle of modern city life.
One of the more important aspects of preserving the Upper Bald River WSA is the opportunity to safeguard an entire watershed in the Appalachian range. At more than 9000 acres, Upper Bald River would be the first new addition to the wilderness system in Tennessee in more than 25 years. That’s far too long to let wild places like this go without formal protection.
The Tennessee Wild campaign has worked diligently with the Tennessee congressional delegation to seek permanent protection for the Upper Bald River WSA. Last year, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) introduced legislation that would designate the entire WSA as wilderness. A similar bill is likely to be introduced in this Congress.
Adding the Upper Bald River WSA to the National Wilderness Preservation System would be a significant conservation gain not just for the Cherokee National Forest, but the entire Appalachian range. Keeping eastern forests and waterways, and the native old-growth remnants they hold, intact and healthy for future generations to experience is an act of which we can all be proud.
For more information, visit the Tennessee Wild website.