Legislation would add 4,446 acres to Big Laurel Branch Wilderness Area

Published 11:40 am Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Big Laurel Branch Wilderness Area in Carter and Johnson Counties is among wilderness land in the Cherokee National Forest up for expansion in a bill introduced in the U.S. Congress earlier this year.
The Tennessee Wilderness Act was first introduced by U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker in 2010 after measures spelled out in the legislature were recommended by the U.S. Forest Service in 2004. The senators reintroduced the act in July 2014, and for a third time this past March.
Alexander and Corker’s legislation would create one new wilderness area and expand the boundaries of five others already established within the Cherokee National Forest. The proposal would add 4,446 acres to the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness, which already contains a total of 6,332 acres. It would also add 2,922 acres to the Sampson Mountain Wilderness in Washington and Unicoi Counties, adding to the area’s total of 7,967 acres.
In 1986, the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness became part of the now over 109 million acres National Wilderness Preservation System.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines a wilderness area as an area of undeveloped federal land “retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements…and which generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.” The act further states wilderness areas have “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation” and may contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational or historical value.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport, including motor vehicles, motorboats, wagons, carts and bicycles, are generally prohibited on federal lands designated as wilderness areas.
“The Tennessee Wilderness Act would preserve federally owned land that has been managed as wilderness area since 2004,” Alexander said in a release. “Creating and expanding these wilderness areas would have no effect on privately-owned land and will not increase costs for taxpayers. This legislation would help protect some of the wildest, most pristine and beautiful areas in East Tennessee and give millions of visitors to our state an additional reason to come enjoy our outdoors.”
Cherokee National Forest Public Affairs Officer Terry McDonald said the Cherokee National Forest is supportive of their official designation as wildernesses, joining the more than 66,000 acres of the Forest already designated as such.
“The 11 designated wildernesses in Cherokee National Forest mean different things to different people,” McDonald said. “They all offer opportunities to experience nature with little influence from humans. Wildernesses provide clean air, water, and habitat critical for rare and endangered plants and animals. In wilderness, you can enjoy challenging recreational activities including hiking, backpacking, climbing, hunting, fishing, bird watching, stargazing, and extraordinary opportunities for solitude.”

Among the most dominant features of the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness are the numerous streams, which drain from a major northeast-southwest-trending ridge, which includes the completely forested southern end of Iron Mountain.
Hidden behind Iron’s Mountain’s double parallel crests are the valleys of Big Laurel Branch and Little Laurel Branch. The former, on the western side of the crest, eases out of seclusion and eases onto the banks of Wilbur Lake on the edge of the wilderness.
Sheer rock walls border the lake, and Big Laurel Branch gracefully plunges 50 feet to join the lake. Waterways here typically plummet over cascades, slides and short falls into hollows covered with rhododendron and laurel and separated by narrow ridges that run east-west from the main ridge.
The wilderness contains mature stands of hardwood forest along the Appalachian Trail as well as yellow and white pines and eastern hemlock.
From Watauga Lake, which forms most of the southern Wilderness boundary, many of the cliffs along the eastern side of the main crest can be seen. Just south of Watauga Lake lies Pond Mountain Wilderness, where hunters come seeking deer and grouse.
The Big Laurel Branch Wilderness is home to abundant wildlife, including black bear bobcats, and coyotes. The Appalachian National Scenic Trail follows the entire length of the crest of the Wilderness, a distance of about 5.8 miles, with a shelter about midway.
In addition to the recreational amenities, the forests contained within the Laurel Branch addition provide protection for the area’s pristine waters. This includes Watauga Lake and the Watauga River, both of which are important fisheries. Wilderness designation will also protect the viewshed of Iron Mountain from Watauga Lake and nearby communities.
The area also contains an abundance of wildflowers.
“I grew up hiking the mountains of East Tennessee, and conserving what are some of the wildest, most pristine and beautiful areas in our state gives future generations of Tennesseans the same sort of opportunity,” Alexander said. “This legislation takes important steps toward protecting our natural heritage, and gives the millions of people who visit Tennessee each year an additional reason to come and enjoy our outdoors.”
“Millions of people visit Tennessee every year to experience our incredible God-given outdoors, and this legislation would ensure the Cherokee National Forest is preserved for future generations,” said Corker. “I thank Senator Alexander for his lifelong commitment to protecting wilderness areas, and I’m hopeful Congress will consider and pass this legislation in the near future.”
The Big Laurel Brnach Wilderness is just north and west of Elizabethton. The area can be accessed via Watauga Dam Road (to the south) and Tennessee Highway 91 (to the north). Those wishing to see the area can backpack in and camp at one of the Appalachian Trail shelters or in one of the several campsites found along the trail.

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