The Upper Bald watershed is graced with subtle beauty, such as this white clintonia nestled among New York ferns.
At a mid-point about one and a half hours south of Knoxville, two hours northeast of Chattanooga and three hours north of Atlanta is a dark spot on the map. No cell phone towers. No roads or rushing traffic. No digital billboards.
But not empty. Deep in the Cherokee National Forest in east Tennessee lie more than 9,000 acres of towering poplars and oaks, mountain streams rushing headlong into waterfalls and the tiniest of wildflowers advertising nature's grandeur. On a warm Saturday in May, I left the trappings of civilization to join Jeff Hunter for a walk through this wild place.
Just 10 minutes down the quiet trail I started to unwind. With no voicemails to check, we were left with messages sent only by warblers and wind. Hunter is with Tennessee Wild, a coalition of eight organizations seeking wilderness designation for special places, like this one, in the Cherokee forest. Wilderness is the highest form of environmental protection for federal lands; roadbuilding, logging and mechanized travel are not allowed, while hiking, hunting, horseback riding and many other activities are. Only Congress can designate wilderness.
On June 9, senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker introduced the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2010 (pdf here), the first wilderness bill for Tennessee in 25 years. The proposal calls for almost 20,000 acres to be permanently protected, including the Upper Bald River watershed where Hunter and I hiked parts of the Brookshire Creek Trail and Benton MacKaye Trail.
"It's not like the wilderness out west, with huge landscapes," he says. "It's more of a subtle beauty, the understory, the wildflowers. When I take people out here and they see this, they get it. They say 'Of course, we have to protect this.'"
The U.S. Forest Service agrees the Upper Bald River area (pdf here) and additions to five of the Cherokee's 11 existing wilderness areas should be so designated, and has been managing these places as wilderness for years. The proposal is backed by a variety of people – sportsmen, business owners, local lawmakers and religious leaders.
"I grew up hiking in the mountains of East Tennessee and know firsthand that these beautiful landscapes should be preserved for generations to come," Senator Alexander said at a press conference. We must save some of the dark spots on the map where people can experience true wilderness "so that they're not afraid of bears and can enjoy sleeping under the stars."
For more on what McCue and Hunter saw in the proposed area, go here.
View Senator Alexander's speech on the floor of the Senate: youtube.com/watch?v=0_mLYxEIOnw
Hear Jeff Hunter talk about wilderness on WUTC: wutcana.wordpress.com/2010/06/11/tennessee-wilderness-act-introduced
Around the Region
In a move heralded by environmentalists and denounced by the coal industry, the Corps of Engineers in June suspended a "one size fits all" permit for mountaintop removal mining in six Appalachian states (W.Va, Ky., Va., Tenn, Pa. and Ohio). The so-called Nationwide Permit 21 allowed coal companies to dump rubble into streams if they met a set environment guidelines standard for all such mines. After a year of review and public comment, the Corps determined the process has resulted in significant impact to aquatic resources; almost 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachia have been destroyed or damaged by mountaintop removal mining, according to government estimates. The permit suspension is an interim measure while the agency reviews permanent changes. In the meantime, coal companies must get an individual permit under the Clean Water Act, which includes more public notice and input. usace.army.mil/CECW/Pages/nnpi.aspx
Almost 18 months after the catastrophic failure of a coal-ash waste pond in Kingston, Tenn., the EPA has proposed the first-ever national rules for the disposal of coal ash from power plants. Up to now, regulation of the waste – which contains mercury, cadmium, arsenic and other contaminants associated with cancer or other health effects – has been left to the states. The EPA says the new rules will require liners and other controls for new dry-ash landfills and existing surface impoundments (such as at Kingston). The EPA was taking public comments on whether to regulate coal ash as a non-hazardous or hazardous waste, which entails stricter requirements. A final rule is expected by year's end. epa.gov/coalashrule
A group of citizens in Bartow County is fighting plans by the Georgia Department of Transportation to build a highway from Rome to I-75 that crosses numerous streams and watersheds in the county. The group says that GDOT's preferred route for the 411 Connector would harm, even possibly wipe out the Cherokee darter, a federally threatened fish found only in northwest Georgia that would suffer from the stormwater runoff, filling-in of 36 acres of floodplain and other impacts in the Pettit and Nancy Creek watersheds. Other potential routes are shorter, less expensive, and less environmentally damaging, says the Coalition for the Right Road.
A conservation easement on 884 acres in Pocahontas County means the mountain view along three miles of the Cass Scenic Railroad will be protected forever. Landowners George and Mickey Deike donated the easement on their farm to The Nature Conservancy and West Virginia Land Protection Authority in May. The easement borders one mile of the Monongahela National Forest, providing a buffer for the largest red spruce forest in Central Appalachia, and also protects much of the 4.4 miles of passages of Cass Cave, one of the state's most important private caves, and Leatherbark Run, which supports a brook trout fishery and is the water source for the town of Cass. wvfarmlandprotection.org; nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/westvirginia