It’s Now or Never. By Pat Byington

Last February, I traveled to Tennessee to see Bald River Falls, one of the most visited waterfalls in the region. Visually spectacular at over 80 feet high, Bald River Falls is the gateway to the Bald River Wilderness Area.

It was a rainy and chilly 33 degrees, the bridges were freezing over, and to my surprise on that late February afternoon, the Tellico River, alongside the Bald River, was teeming with kayakers. Slowly passing by people in wetsuits, carrying their kayaks, I peered at the cars and license plates on the side of the road: Pennsylvania, New York, Iowa, Texas, Colorado and Oregon. These people were serious whitewater enthusiasts and the reason they had chosen to be in rural Tennessee on a wet and bone-chilling weekend in the middle of winter was because of the Tellico River’s clean and clear rushing waters.

It’s not just the kayakers who have discovered this outdoor paradise. Throughout the year, fly fishers, hunters, horseback riders, hikers, backpackers, and thousands of windshield tourists journey to Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest. Along with year round recreational opportunities, outdoor related businesses from local sandwich shops to outdoor manufacturers (one of the largest maker of kayaks in the world is Jackson Kayaks in Sparta, Tenn.) are locating near protected lands and rivers in Tennesee. The outdoor recreation industry in Tennessee alone generates $8.2 billion in consumer spending each year and creates 83,000 jobs.

An entrepreneur once told me that every successful business needs a “special sauce,” that extra “something” that separates a place, product or business apart from all the others.

For Tennessee’s wilderness areas, clean and clear water is the ‘special sauce’.

And the reason the surrounding streams, creeks and rivers are so clean and clear is because the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 1984 made it so.

It was signed by President Ronald Reagan. Three decades later, Reagan would be proud of the bill he signed into law, but I imagine he would say today the job is not finished.

Back in 1984, one of Reagan’s closest friends and allies in the South, Governor Lamar Alexander, was also a champion of the original Tennessee Wilderness Act. Today, Senators Alexander and Bob Corker have introduced a new Tennessee Wilderness Act three times in the past four years.

Upon passage, this bill will permanently protect the headwaters of the Upper Bald River by designating one new wilderness area, The Upper Bald River Wilderness, and by adding additional acreage to five others in the Cherokee National Forest, assuring kayakers, fishermen, hunters, local businesses and future generations will forever have clean and clear water.

This month, Congress will have its last chance to pass the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2013. If you care about the outdoors, if you care about the local economy, and if you care about clean and clear water, now more than ever, your member of Congress needs to hear from you. Tell them that you support the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2013. Tell them that they should support Tennessee’s senators and finish the job.

And then, read them President Reagan’s own words: “I just have to believe that with love for our natural heritage and a firm resolve to preserve it with wisdom and care, we can and will give the American land to our children, not impaired, but enhanced. And in doing this, we’ll honor the great and loving God who gave us this land in the first place.”

–Pat Byington is the Executive Director of Wild South.