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Protecting Headwaters for Downstream Residents

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Bald River Falls
Cherokee National Forest

It’s a resource so precious that Georgia leaders have considered helping themselves to it by nudging the boundary between that state and Tennessee near the city of Chattanooga.  The water that flows along the Tennessee River is the primary drinking water source for Chattanooga’s 170,000 residents.  Before that water gets into the Lower Tennessee River Watershed, it passes through the Little Tennessee Watershed by way of the Tellico and Little Tennessee Rivers.  And pouring into the Tellico River via a picture perfect waterfall are the contents of the Bald River.  No wonder so many Chattanooga residents are interested in protecting the Bald River Gorge Wilderness area.

Unnamed Falls on Upper Bald River
Cherokee National Forest
Jeff Hunter says even after heavy rains, the waters in Bald River Gorge run clear.  “This is headwaters forest, it’s where the Bald river starts, it’s running clean, it’s running clear…The forest acts like a giant sponge and filters water, releases it slowly and it keeps the water clean not only for humans downstream, but for the fauna here, crawdads, salamanders, Southern Appalachian stream brook trout which are very popular with the fly fishermen, it’s worth protecting.”  Hunter is Director of the Tennessee Wilderness Campaign for Wild South, an organization that wants to ensure that Bald River Gorge is designated as “wilderness” according to federal standards.  The campaign looks to protect nearly 20,000 acres of Cherokee National Forest as wilderness, preventing any type of development from jeopardizing the landscape or the quality of the waters that flow from it.  It would also protect forest in the Ocoee, Watauga and Nolichucky River watersheds.

Snail in Bald River Gorge Wilderness
Cherokee National Forest was invited along on a media day hike to see a small piece of the wilderness chosen for protection.  We hiked Brookshire Creek Trail where we saw silent snails and roaring waterfalls, rattlesnake plantain and towering trees. We experienced the awesomeness of a small part of Cherokee National Forest where a coalition of conservation groups called the Tennessee Wilderness Campaign of WildSouth wants to keep the land in its most natural state.  A wilderness designation would still allow hiking, fishing and camping while it would limit activities like road building or logging.
Tennessee’s former governor, now US Senator Lamar Alexander, has introduced the Tennessee Wilderness Act in Congress in the past, where the otherwise bipartisan effort has gotten lost in partisan gridlock.  Hunter said anyone interested can voice support with their senators.  “They can contact their Congressional representatives, Senator Lamar Alexander hopefully will be reintroducing the Tennessee Wilderness Act sometime  this year.”  Hunter described the wilderness effort as a matter of preserving heritage, while Alexander has publicly described it as representing pioneer values.
Hunter is hopeful about the Tennessee Wilderness Act passing in 2014, which just happens to be a reelection year. “Next year is the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. That’s the historic legislation that created our  nation’s wilderness preservation system, so what better time to protect this area, the first new wilderness area in Tennessee in 27 years than on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act?”  

Ferns in Bald River Gorge Wilderness
Cherokee National Forest

Whether you’re concerned about clean water sources or just enjoy hiking to pristine waterfalls, you can read some history behind the Tennessee Wilderness Act in the recent op-ed piece by outdoor enthusiast Will Skelton and learn how you can support the efforts at

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