Plan to expand Tennessee’s wilderness areas still stalled in Congress

9:29 am | October 22, 2012

CHATTANOOGA (AP) — A bill that would add nearly 20,000 acres of wilderness area in Tennessee — including 4,446 acres in Carter and Johnson counties — remains stalled in Congress after more than a year.

The bill has support from both parties and the Forestry Service. It doesn’t cost federal money. It closes no roads, takes no private land and doesn’t deprive local communities of tax revenue from the acreage.

“There is no opposition to this,” Jeff Hunter, director of the Tennessee Wilderness Campaign, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The measure passed out of committee with bipartisan approval, but the full Congress hasn’t taken it up for a vote.

“It’s mired down in Congress because Congress is bogged down in partisan issues and they are not accomplishing much,” Hunter said.

All the land is now part of the Cherokee National Forest in East Tennessee. Declaring the acreage as wilderness areas would give the forest, streams and wildlife added protection from off-roading, logging, mining and road building.

The bill proposes to create one new wilderness area, Upper Bald River in Monroe County, with just over 9,000 acres that would cover an entire watershed that is home to black bear, white-tailed deer and native brook trout.

The bill would expand five existing areas, Big Laurel Branch in Carter and Johnson counties, Sampson Mountain in Unicoi and Washington counties, Joyce Kilmer Slickrock, Big Frog and Little Frog.

“It takes an act of Congress to create or expand wilderness areas,” said Jay Mills, who as a co-founder of Southwings, volunteers his small plane and piloting skills to help policymakers learn about conservation issues.

Jim Jeffries, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Majority Leader Harry Reid controls what comes to the floor.

“The Tennessee Wilderness Act was passed in a bipartisan way by the Senate’s Energy Committee, and Sen. Alexander continues looking for ways to get it passed by Congress and signed into law,” Jeffries said.

“There’s only been one Congress since 1964 that has not added acreage to the wilderness preservation system,” Hunter said. “We could be looking at the possibility of this Congress, the 112th Congress, not passing any wilderness bills at all.”

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