Posts Tagged ‘Tennessee’

Tennessee Rivers at Risk

Monday, June 15th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

By Cody Burchett

According to a report released this May by the nonprofit Tennessee Clean Water Network, surface water enforcement actions issued by Tennessee state regulators have dropped 75 percent since 2008.

Of the 53 enforcement orders issued last year by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, more than a quarter were related to paperwork rather than pollution events. The Clean Water Network concludes that this low number of enforcements is not due to a lack of violations, and that TDEC “needs to be more aggressive in taking swift, effective enforcement action.”

More than 30 percent of Tennessee’s surface waterways are impaired by pollution, according to a 2012 assessment by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency. Among these are portions of the Holston and Harpeth Rivers located in northeast and middle Tennessee, both of which were listed in this year’s annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers report by the nonprofit American Rivers. The report highlights major waterways facing an upcoming decision this year that could significantly impact the river’s health.

Lawsuit Defends Blackside Dace

Monday, June 15th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

A federal lawsuit filed in Knoxville, Tenn., alleges regulators failed to meet legal obligations to protect a threatened fish endemic to Appalachian streams. Four citizens groups, including the Sierra Club and Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment, claim the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement failed to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about adverse impacts to the federally protected blackside dace before issuing a permit for a 1,088-acre mountaintop removal mine in Claiborne County. Under the Endangered Species Act, agencies must ensure their actions are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species.

Appalachian communities are still at risk

Friday, May 29th, 2015 - posted by tom

Mapping the encroaching threat from mountaintop removal


One thing we at Appalachian Voices particularly pride ourselves on is our ability to work in the realm where technology, hard data and storytelling converge.

Over the years, we’ve applied these skills to develop tools on like What’s My Connection? and The Human Cost of Coal to show in compelling and unmistakable fashion how mountaintop removal coal mining is ransacking Appalachia’s communities and natural heritage.

Last month, we unveiled our latest project, Communities at Risk, an mapping tool revealing how mountaintop removal has been expanding closer to people’s homes in Central Appalachia — even as coal is in decline — and posing increasing threats to residents’ health and the environment.

EXPLORE: The Communities At Risk From Mountaintop Removal Mapping Tool

We used Google Earth Engine, U.S. Geological Survey data, publicly available satellite imagery, mining permit databases and mapping data from SkyTruth to develop the interactive map and identify the 50 communities that are most at risk from mountaintop removal. The resulting map offers the first-ever time-lapse view of the destruction’s encroachment on Appalachian communities.

Behind all the data and coordinates, of course, are real people and communities, and that is what drives our work. The communities most at risk from mountaintop removal suffer higher rates of poverty and are losing population more than twice as fast as nearby rural communities with no mining in the immediate vicinity. The health statistics are equally troubling; a 2011 study found double the cancer rates in counties with mountaintop removal compared to nearby counties without it.

Our goal with Communities at Risk is to ramp up the pressure on the White House to end this practice, which remains the single-most overwhelming environmental threat in the region. In the early days of President Obama’s administration, promises were made that regulating mountaintop removal would be based on science. The science on the dire impacts is definitive, yet the administration has failed to act accordingly.

WATCH: Communities At Risk — End Mountaintop Removal Now

Appalachians are working hard to reinvent their economy and outlast the fall of King Coal. Much of that future rests on protecting the air, the water, and the region’s unparalleled natural beauty.

It’s incumbent on the Obama administration to help revive this region that has powered the nation’s economic ascendancy for generations. As citizens have argued for years, cracking down on the continuing devastation of mountaintop removal is critical to moving Appalachia forward.

For Appalachia,

Tom Cormons

Video Shows Rare View of Mountaintop Removal Mining

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015 - posted by cat

Cat McCue, Communications Director, (434) 293-6373;

A short video released today by Appalachian Voices with stunningly detailed drone footage provides a rare view of mountaintop removal coal mining and the increasing proximity of this destructive form of mining to people living in Appalachia. The video also includes interviews with local citizens who want to end mountaintop removal mining and transition their communities in a more just and sustainable way.

View the video here (4:30).

Trip Jennings, an award-winning videographer who has worked with National Geographic, produced the video in partnership with Appalachian Voices and with support from Patagonia. Using camera drones and time-lapse photography, Jennings weaves images of the region’s natural wonders, the destruction from mountaintop removal, and the resiliency of the Appalachian people into an unforgettable tableau.

You’ll hear from Norman, a former coal miner who would like to see more rooftop solar and other forms of clean energy in the region …. Kathy, a coal-miner’s daughter-turned activist who is witnessing it moving ever-closer to communities … and Carmen, a young person determined to stay and create positive change in her hometown.

Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit regional organization, released the video as part of its “Communities At Risk” project, a data-based, online mapping tool showing the increasing encroachment of mountaintop removal mining on communities even as coal is in decline in Appalachia. The group’s aim is to educate Americans about what’s at stake in Appalachia and urge President Obama to end mountaintop removal mining.

“This is no way to leave a legacy,” says Kate Rooth, campaign director the organization. “It’s incumbent on the Obama administration to help revive this region that has powered the nation’s economic ascendancy for generations, starting with ending mountaintop removal mining.”


State Legislative Updates

Monday, April 13th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

While lawmakers in Washington, D.C., might get most of the spotlight, the legislators in state capitols across the region are busy making — and blocking — laws that affect Appalachia’s land, air, water and people. Here are spring updates from state legislatures around the region.


Session convened Jan. 6, adjourned March 24

Perhaps the most publicized and contentious environmental law to pass during the Bluegrass State’s 30-day legislative session was an update to existing oil and gas drilling rules that addresses some of the challenges posed by fracking.

A new energy law creates an Environmental Regulation Task Force to review how electricity reliability in the state is affected by federal environmental regulations. The task force, which environmental groups say is skewed toward industry, will produce a report by December 2015.

Gov. Beshear also signed a bill that helps local governments finance water and energy efficiency projects. A committee hearing on the Clean Energy Opportunity Act, which would require Kentucky utilities to meet a certain portion of electricity demand through energy efficiency and renewables, was cancelled due to a March snowstorm, but a hearing during the legislative interim is expected.

It will be more difficult for timber companies designated as “bad actors” to operate in the state without paying civil penalties and remediating logging sites under another new law. And new rules regarding how local governments can handle stray horses and cattle provide guidelines for identifying owners and for gelding, or sterilizing, male animals if an owner is not found. — By Molly Moore

North Carolina

Session convened Jan. 14, adjourns early July

Since the legislative session began in January, the rules regulating oil and gas drilling in North Carolina went into effect and the state’s long-standing moratorium on fracking was lifted. A bipartisan bill introduced to “disapprove” the rules was left to expire in March.

The first law passed this session clarifies technical issues with the Coal Ash Management Act passed last September and removes a previous legal requirement that the state develop rules to limit air pollution from fracking operations. A three-judge panel ruled in favor of Governor McCrory, who claims that the Coal Ash Management Commission is unconstitutional because there are more legislative appointments than executive. The ruling means that progress cleaning up coal ash throughout the state will stall. It also affects the commission that wrote the fracking rules, which could impact the validity of the drilling regulations.

The bipartisan Energy Freedom Bill, which would open up the state to third-party sales for solar projects, was introduced in March. The bill is supported by environmental groups, large businesses and the military, but strongly opposed by Duke Energy, which currently has a monopoly on the state’s power production.

Though polls show that North Carolinians overwhelmingly support renewable energy options, Gov. McCrory continues to push for opening the coast to offshore oil drilling, which is a possibility now that President Obama is allowing states to pursue offshore drilling in the Atlantic. — By Sarah Kellogg


Session convened Jan. 13, adjourns late April

At the end of March, a bill to transfer oversight of surface mining in Tennessee from federal to state regulators had passed through a state Senate committee and state House subcommittee. The Primacy and Reclamation Act of Tennessee would end the federal Office of Surface Mining’s 31-year term as the regulatory agency charged with ensuring that coal mining operations in the state abide by surface mining and mined-land reclamation laws. That responsibility would pass to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. In 1984, the federal agency assumed oversight of surface mining in Tennessee due to the state’s poor enforcement of environmental laws.

The Tennessee Mining Association says a return to state regulation will lead to faster approval of mining permits. Opponents of the bill argue that fees levied on coal companies to pay for the costs of administering the regulatory program would be insufficient, and leave the state bearing an added cost.

A bill to provide a general permit for noncommercial gold mining appears idle for the year; opponents were concerned the bill could damage water quality and trout populations in the Cherokee National Forest. And a bill to help finance renewable energy and energy efficiency was moving through legislative committees at press time. — By Molly Moore


Session convened Jan. 14, adjourned Feb. 27

In the 2015 legislative session, Virginia electric utilities lobbied for what they described as a partial rate freeze, though consumer advocates said that average electric bills could still increase and the legislation would make it more difficult for regulators to catch utility over-earnings or require refunds. But amendments on the same bill declared solar energy development and energy efficiency programs as in the public interest, and the legislation passed.

Another bill would have joined Virginia into a regional network of states limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Through pollution allowance auctions, this initiative would raise funds for efforts such as coastal adaptation to sea level rise and renewable energy workforce training. The bill did not receive a vote, but this concept will likely be reintroduced next year.

Two new laws that passed will increase the size of nonresidential solar installations that can sell power back to the grid and encourage renewable energy and energy efficiency for multi-family and commercial buildings.

Meanwhile, Gov. McAuliffe reiterated his strong support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, one of three proposed pipelines that would, if built, carry fracked gas across ecologically sensitive areas. A bipartisan bill would have prevented interstate companies from entering and surveying private property without the written consent of the owner, but that legislation failed to pass, as did an attempt to make public service corporations using eminent domain subject to the Freedom of Information Act. — By Hannah Wiegard

West Virginia

Session convened Jan. 14, adjourned March 14

Governor Earl Ray Tomblin received criticism from mine-safety and environmental groups for signing the Coal Jobs Safety Act, a law that United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said “marks the first time in West Virginia history that our state has officially reduced safety standards for coal miners.” The legislation also prevents citizens from suing coal companies for violating Clean Water Act standards if those standards were not specified in the state mine permit, along with several other industry-supported changes to environmental rules.

The state also lowered the number of aboveground chemical storage tanks that need to comply with safety regulations by roughly 75 percent — the storage tank rules passed in the wake of the 2014 Elk River chemical spill. The legislature did agree to strengthen water quality standards for a 72-mile stretch of the Kanawha River so that it can be used as a backup drinking water source for the now-notorious Elk River intake.

A bill that would have allowed “forced pooling” for horizontal oil and gas wells narrowly failed. Forced pooling, which is currently allowed for vertical wells in the state, requires all mineral owners to lease their land for drilling if a certain percentage of other mineral owners in an drilling tract agree.

Two bills intended to expand the scope of agricultural cooperatives and make it easier for growers to sell at farmer’s markets also passed. — By Molly Moore

The Girls of Atomic City

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 - posted by molly

The Untold Story of Women Who Helped Win World War II

By Denise Kiernan

Back when African Americans and Caucasian Americans couldn’t drink from the same water fountains and women were an anomaly in the workforce, a team of young women unknowingly helped enrich fuel for the world’s first atomic bomb in the hills of East Tennessee.

In this New York Times bestseller, author Denise Kiernan unravels the secrets of Oak Ridge, Tenn., the administrative headquarters of the Manhattan Project. The classified town, cloaked in secrecy, was practically built overnight to house 75,000 people by the end of World War II. Through dozens of conversations with surviving workers and residents, Kiernan reveals an astonishing history. — Review by Meredith Warfield

Read an interview with Denise Kiernan.

Looking on the bright side, states seek solar benefits

Monday, February 16th, 2015 - posted by Kimber

By Eliza Laubach

Photo courtesy O2 Energies

Photo courtesy O2 Energies

U.S. jobs grew nearly 20 times faster in the solar industry than the whole economy’s national average, reports The Solar Foundation. Recent findings by the research nonprofit project a slowdown by 2017, when a federal tax credit is scheduled to monumentally shrink. In the meantime, however, some southeastern states are catching the rays of the burgeoning industry with policies encouraging growth in both privately-owned and utility-scale solar.

The Georgia House of Representatives is expected to pass a bill that will remove a major economic barrier to rooftop solar for homes and businesses: the lack of financing options. State law currently outlaws third-party financing, when an investor buys a solar panel and sells the electricity to the host site at a reduced rate. The bill would allow this type of solar leasing, thus eliminating the need for up-front investment when a utility customer considers buying a solar panel.

Net metering, a model that allows a rooftop solar producer to sell excess electricity back into the grid, was bolstered in South Carolina this December. Utilities agreed to compensate rooftop solar producers at the same rate they charge for electricity. The agreement also restricts utilities from levying additional fees on rooftop solar owners.

A tactic utilities say offsets their cost of connecting solar panels to the grid, standard fees discourage potential rooftop solar installations. The Virginia Utilities Commission allowed Appalachian Power Company to levy such a fee last month. Homeowner associations across Virginia also tried to block rooftop solar installation, for aesthetic reasons, despite a bill passed last June banning them from doing so.

In North Carolina, the Utilities Commission renewed an order that requires state utilities to provide standard contracts when buying electricity from independent solar installations that generate five megawatts or less. Duke Energy and Dominion Power, meanwhile, had pushed to lower that threshold to installations 100 kilowatts or less. Solar energy advocates argued that negotiating custom contracts with Duke and Dominion would cripple independent solar development in the state. Duke owns only 4 percent of the solar energy in its portfolio, according to Charlotte’s National Public Radio syndicate.

Last month, The Tennessee Valley Authority announced that it will offer its version of a standard contract for up to 100 MW of renewable energy development. Projects between 50 kilowatts and 20 megawatts are eligible, and the contracts last for 20 years. While solar energy represents only 1 percent of nationwide electricity generation, the solar installation sector is already larger than familiar fossil fuels, such as coal mining, oil and natural gas, The Solar Foundation report found.

Sandhill Cranes: A Winter Spectacle in Southeast Tennessee

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by allison

By Jenni Frankenberg Veal

Each winter, thousands of redheaded, long-legged sandhill cranes descend upon the mud flats and grain fields along the banks of the Tennessee River at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Southeast Tennessee.

This winter spectacle is inaugurated by the sandhill crane’s distinctive, rolling cries, which emerge from Tennessee skies in late October and early November and continue as the cranes overwinter in the region through February.


During winder migration, visitors to Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge can view thousands of Greater sandhill cranes. Photo courtesy Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

The 6,000-acre Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in rural Meigs County, Tenn., lures the cranes with its landscape of shallow water and food, offering acres of corn, millet and grain sorghum along with water and mudflats. The cranes roost in the shallow water, and probe for invertebrates in the mud.

Of all 15 crane species in the world, sandhill cranes are the most numerous and wide-ranging. Six subspecies of sandhill cranes have been identified since the early 1700s. Three of these subspecies — Lesser, Greater and Canadian — migrate and three subspecies — Mississippi, Florida and Cuban — do not.

The majority of Greater sandhill cranes breed across the Great Lakes region. In late summer and early fall, the birds leave their breeding grounds and congregate in large flocks before beginning their southward migration to traditional wintering grounds in southern Georgia and central Florida. In recent years, however, sandhill cranes have remained further north for the winter months in Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and even in southern Ontario on Lake Erie.

Beginning in the early 1990s, sandhill cranes began stopping at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge on their way to and from their wintering grounds in Georgia and Florida. Today, as many as 12,000 spend the entire winter there.


The bird’s colorful markings are on display above. Photo courtesy Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

“Sandhill cranes use the Tennessee River as a travel corridor,” says Kirk Miles, Region 3 wildlife manager with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. “We average, at least for the last five years, about 15,000 sandhill cranes using the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge. However, more and more, the birds are using other fields along the Tennessee River as well.”

Greater sandhill cranes are the largest sub-species of crane, and average six to seven pounds and close to five feet tall with a wingspan stretching more than six feet wide. Their feathers are varying shades of gray, and the forehead and crown are covered with red skin. Adults have a white cheek patch.

Sandhill cranes mate for life — which can be two decades or more — and remain with their mates year-round. Cranes nest on the ground and often have two eggs, which the pair tends together.

Particularly during spring mating season, but also throughout the year, sandhill cranes will “dance,” which can include bowing, jumping, running, wing flapping and even throwing sticks and grass into the air.

The Greater sandhill crane rebounded from near extirpation in the 1930s when the population was estimated at 25 breeding pairs. Since that time, hunting regulations along with protection, restoration and management of wetlands have allowed the population to increase to more than 87,000 birds.

Today, hunting occurs on four of the six migratory populations of sandhill cranes in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. Lesser sandhill cranes have been hunted since 1961 west of the Mississippi River, and Greater sandhill crane hunting opened in 2011 in Kentucky and 2013 in Tennessee. The season begins in late November and ends in January.

Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a Chattanooga-based writer and naturalist who enjoys promoting the region’s historical, cultural and natural assets through her work with the Southeast Tennessee Tourism Association. Visit her blog at

Be cool and keep fighting

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014 - posted by thom
After the tumultuous midterm elections, not that much has changed and our job in Washington, D.C., remains much the same.

After the tumultuous midterm elections, not that much has changed and our job in Washington, D.C., remains much the same.

For the next couple of weeks, you’ll have a hard time turning on the TV or going online without seeing reactions to the midterm elections. Most pundits will analyze what happened, and some will try to tell you what it means.

Here’s what it really means: maybe not that much.

To put things in historical perspective, let’s take a moment to look back at some very recent elections and their outcomes.

2008: Democrats take the White House and a supermajority in both the House and Senate! They proceed to pass climate legislation, stop mountaintop removal coal mining, usher in a new age of clean energy take a few moderate steps toward reducing the amount of permits issued for mountaintop removal coal mining.

2010: Republican wave! The GOP takes the House by a wide margin and nearly takes the Senate. They proceed to remove EPA’s ability to regulate carbon pollution and then expedite all mountaintop removal permits create a fuss while federal agencies continue to take moderate steps towards limiting coal pollution.

2012: Democrats keep the White House, and improve their numbers in both the House and Senate! They proceed to make permanent changes to coal mining and coal ash regulations while stopping global warming in its tracks make no headway on coal mining regulations, allow mountaintop removal mines to be permitted, and take only moderate steps on coal ash regulation and carbon emissions.

We don’t know what the future holds, but considering what happened yesterday there are a few things that we can be pretty sure of moving forward.

The politics of Virginia and Tennessee are not much different today than they were yesterday. No major incumbent lost their race, and the election’s outcomes gives us no reason to believe federal office holders from either state will change their behavior going forward. Appalachian Voices, for one, is happy to continue to work with members from both states and both parties.

West Virginia and Kentucky are still in Big Coal’s stranglehold. But like coal itself, the industry’s power is finite. We can’t say how soon the politics of coal will change in Central Appalachia, but we will continue to work with our allies in those states to change the conversation. For now, members of the two states’ delegations will continue to vote the way they have for years.

After 30 years as an advocate for coal miners and the coal industry alike, Rep. Nick Rahall lost to his Republican challenger, Evan Jenkins, in the race for West Virginia’s 3rd district. Rahall was the senior Democratic member and had a firm grasp on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Clean Water Act. His replacement in that role will likely be someone who opposes mountaintop removal coal mining. For that, we can be all be happy.

North Carolina’s Senate election was a bit of a surprise. Though, aside from Democrat Kay Hagan being replaced by Thom Tillis, the rest of delegation is unchanged.

Appalachian Voices has worked hard to build relationships with members of Congress and their staffs in both the House and the Senate. But we have known for a long time that getting comprehensive legislation through Congress is not a good short-term goal.

The White House, on the other hand, is armed with the science and has the legal authority and moral obligation to take on mountaintop removal, coal ash pollution, climate change and other threats. President Obama was never going to be able to rely on Congress to act on those issues. So from that perspective, nothing has changed.

It’s okay to be excited about a candidate you like winning an election. It’s okay to be bummed when a candidate you like loses. But it’s not okay to get so caught up in it all that you forget the big picture.

As we see it, the job before us has not changed. Our responsibilities to Appalachia, and yours, are the same today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow.

We will keep fighting for a better future for Appalachia, and push every decision-maker, regardless of their political leanings, to stand with us. We will fight to end to mountaintop removal and for a just economic transition away from fossil fuels. We will fight because no one else is going to do it for us, and we will need you there by our side.

Getting Wild: The Tennessee Wilderness Proposal

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra

By Chris Samoray

My pulse thumps and I breathe harder. At a furious pace, I forge uphill quicker than the river beside me rolls down the mountainside. Grasses reclaiming the path swipe my ankles. Insects buzz near my open ears, which strain to hear the slightest sound — a crack in the trees or a rattle in the dirt. I’m alone and out of my element, but with each foot forward, concerns fade.

On this particular day, I’m tromping along the Brookshire Creek Trail, a 6.7-mile stretch in the Cherokee National Forest’s Upper Bald River Wilderness Study Area. Although the Upper Bald site hasn’t yet received wilderness designation, it certainly feels wild. My three stops to ask for directions and the five miles of winding, up-and-down dirt road to an unmarked trailhead located in the “east corner of the parking area” can attest to that. Or maybe I’m just in need of a lesson in confident map-reading.

The Bald River pours over an unnamed waterfall that shelters a shallow swimming hole in the Upper Bald Wilderness Study Area. The Upper Bald is one of six areas included in the Tennessee Wilderness Act, which would designate more wilderness in the Cherokee National Forest. Photo by Chris Samoray.

The Bald River pours over an unnamed waterfall that shelters a shallow swimming hole in the Upper Bald Wilderness Study Area. The Upper Bald is one of six areas included in the Tennessee Wilderness Act, which would designate more wilderness in the Cherokee National Forest. Photo by Chris Samoray.

Either way, I’m drawn to the Upper Bald by nature’s lure. And it’s this attraction that has hooked the Upper Bald as a candidate for official wilderness designation in the Tennessee Wilderness Act.

A Guide to the Wild

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
- Wilderness Act of 1964

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964, and to date, the nation’s wilderness system includes 758 areas that cover nearly 110 million acres in all but six states. Wilderness areas are managed by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management, and are designated within existing federal public land. While wilderness areas are similar to national parks and forests, in many ways, they’re governed with more regulations.

Activities such as logging, mining and livestock grazing are allowed in national forests but are strictly prohibited in wilderness areas. And unlike national parks, once an area receives wilderness designation, new roads generally can’t be built.

“Wilderness designation is the ultimate level of protection for an area,” says Laura Hodge, who works for wilderness organizations Tennessee Wild and Wild South.

This doesn’t mean that wilderness areas are less open to the public though. While the main goal of a designated wilderness area is to keep it wild, visitation is encouraged. Traditional forms of outdoor activity such as hiking, camping, horseback riding, hunting and fishing as well as other non-mechanized recreation, such as rafting and skiing, are all welcomed in wilderness areas.

“There are no areas that keep people out,” says Hodge. “This is public land. People are welcome everywhere.”

What’s forbidden in wilderness areas is machinery. Even using weed eaters and chainsaws to maintain trails is off-limits — crosscut saws and other hand tools are the preferred methods of trail maintenance.

Ultimately, wilderness areas aim to provide a safe haven free of alteration from human impact. Each chunk of land set aside helps preserve clean air and water and wildlife habitat and, in doing so, ensures that future generations will have the opportunity to explore pristine places like the Brookshire Creek Trail.

Although Brookshire is 6.7 miles one way, my hike stretches only five miles, both ways. I plan to turn around at a cascading unnamed waterfall along the Bald River, about 2.5 miles in.

Almost immediately after setting out on the trail, the path runs into a small stream that empties into the nearby Bald River. Opting not to sacrifice dry boots, I dance over a few stones to reach the other side just a few feet away.

From there, the narrow trail follows the tumbling Bald River up the mountainside, occasionally recruiting me for more small river crossings. The uphill trudge is slight, and a heavy canopy shades the path. But I’m following water, and water means insects. In August, bugs ruled supreme.

The Tennessee Wilderness Act

The Tennessee Wilderness Act, first introduced in 2010 by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and later co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), would add nearly 20,000 acres of the Cherokee National Forest as official designated wilderness. With slightly more than 9,000 acres, the Upper Bald River Wilderness Study Area is the largest of the six tracts included in the proposal, and the only one that does not currently have any designated wilderness.

Photo by Chris Samoray

A stream crosses the Brookshire Creek trailhead. Photo by Chris Samoray.

The Upper Bald is also adjacent to the Bald River Gorge Wilderness, and the two combined cover much of the Bald River Watershed. If passed, the Tennessee Wilderness Act would safeguard nearly the entire watershed, helping to protect four of the area’s threatened or endangered aquatic species, including the Citico darter and smoky madtom fish, as well as native brook trout. In the eastern United States, Hodge says, this extent of watershed protection is rare because of population density and land availability.

The bill would designate Tennessee’s first new wilderness in nearly 30 years, but the state’s three-decade lull hasn’t been for lack of trying.

In the past five years, the Tennessee Wilderness Act was introduced two other times, and despite a survey given by Tennessee Wild showing broad support, the bill was thwarted by an adjourning Congress on both occasions. Similar to previous introductions, the 2013 introduction awaits a floor vote.

In the meantime, people appear eager to satiate their outdoor appetite. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, Americans currently spend $646 billion on outdoor recreation annually, and the industry fuels 6.1 million American livelihoods. In Tennessee, outdoor recreation provides 83,000 jobs and generates $8.2 billion in consumer spending. In neighboring North Carolina, the numbers are more than double at 192,000 and $19.2 billion. Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia closely follow in North Carolina’s footsteps.

“Wilderness does not prevent jobs, it creates jobs, particularly in southern Appalachia,” Hodge says. “Think of the visitors who go to the Smokies. It shows the public has an interest. If we don’t protect these areas, they’ll be gone.”

Communities bordering proposed wilderness areas of the Tennessee Wilderness Act seem to support outdoor recreation, too. Tellico Plains, which is near the Upper Bald area in Tennessee, recently rebranded itself “The Little Town with the Big Back Yard,” and in August, the mountainside community earned “Trail Town” recognition from the Benton MacKaye Trail Association and the Southeastern Foot Trails Coalition.

A Wilder World

Back on the Brookshire Trail, the charm of falling water scatters insects and breaks my daydream. Down a steep embankment to the left is the unnamed waterfall.

I scramble down a small water runoff path and lose the boots and socks. Stepping carefully to the river’s center, I aim to lounge on moss-covered rocks bathed in river mist and tree shadows for an afternoon picnic. A chilly plunge into the swimming hole at the base of the waterfall washes down my meal.

Just beyond the waterfall, the trail meets the lower waters of Brookshire Creek and then joins with the Benton MacKaye Trail, only deviating from MacKaye for a short distance when Brookshire goes up to its terminus at Beaverdam Bald, a small open area at 4,260 feet with mountainous views into North Carolina.

If the Tennessee Wilderness Act passes, the amount of wilderness in the Cherokee National Forest will increase from 66,000 acres to more than 80,000 acres, about 12 percent of the forest. But Hodge notes that this lingers below the national average of 14 percent. Still, the additional acreage would provide increased protection for wildlife in a region that’s among the country’s most biodiverse. And not only would nature reap the benefits, but so too would we.

Nature gives us a chance to revisit our roots, and by the time I begin my return trek, I feel rooted in the forest. I walk slowly, allowing the running water and fresh air to recharge my being for just a little longer. Without the aid of modern tools though, I’ve lost the ability to survive here for long. I’m a visitor only, and must return to civilization. But for a brief moment, I’m welcomed in a prehistoric home: the wild.