Today is Earth Day. For me, this is always a time to reflect on the history of the environmental movement in the United States, and especially of those events that touched my life directly. On the day before my 22nd birthday, August 12, 1973, Dr. David Etnier discovered the snail darter in the Little Tennessee River, near Coytee Springs. In a series of legal battles that ultimately reached the United States Supreme Court, the Endangered Species Act was upheld.
Dr. Etnier became my mentor and and a treasured friend, and my colleagues from those days still work to help preserve the aquatic habitats of our region and the life they harbor.
The Endangered Species Act had been signed by President Nixon. Ironically, it was President Jimmy Carter who signed a bill in 1978 that exempted the Tellico Dam project from the Act, and permitted closure of the dam.
Despite the fact that TVA ultimately prevailed in the legal arena, Tellico was the last dam to be built by TVA, and the Little Tennessee became the last free-flowing river to be destroyed by the Federal agency.
Nevertheless, in the 35 years since the “snail darter case” was before the Supreme Court, the remarkable aquatic biodiversity of the Tennessee River watershed and the southern Appalachian region in general has continued to suffer insults. Well over 300 species of fish live in the rivers and streams of Tennessee, and many of these species are found nowhere else on the planet. Surrounding the upper reaches of numerous watersheds are vast wilderness tracts within the Cherokee National Forest. The Upper Bald River Wilderness, for example, protects a major tributary of the Tellico River, home to several endangered and threatened fish species. The Bald River spectacularly joins the Tellico just downstream from Bald River Falls, near the town of Tellico Plains.
|Bald River Falls|
Besides protecting the river, the Bald River Wilderness shelters numerous species of plants and other life forms, including many rare ones. Bald River, together with five other wild places in East Tennessee, will receive permanent protection if the Tennessee Wilderness Act is passed by Congress this year. Sponsored by Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, the act would protect an additional 2922 acres in the Sampson Mountain Wilderness area near the city of Greeneville. Sampson Mountain is perhaps the best black bear habitat remaining in the Applachian region. Other areas that would be expanded under the act are: Joyce-Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness (1836 acres), Iron Mountain near Elizabethton (3000 acres), Lick Log Ridge in the Big Frog Wilderness (348 acres) and Little Frog Wilderness (978 acres).
Protecting these ecological treasures enjoys broad support, and passage of the Tennessee Wilderness Act seems likely during this session of Congress. The Tennessee delegation is already on board. Readers who have friends and relatives in other states are urged to contact their Congressmen and Senators and ask them to support the Tennessee Wilderness Act.