Awe and advocacy in a Tennessee forest

June 9, 2009

When Congress acts to designate new National Forest areas as wilderness, local economic, political and ecological issues come into play. But what if spiritual values also influenced advocacy and decision making? That is what a small group of Episcopalians asked themselves as they set out on a wilderness retreat held June 4 to 7 in the Upper Bald River Wilderness Study Area of the Cherokee National Forest in southeast Tennessee, just south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Guided by Jeff Hunter of the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, the group hiked two miles in along the Bald River to a base camp. From there they explored some of the trails in the 9,912 acres of the study area that's under consideration for designation as a wilderness area in the heart of the southern Appalachian mountains.

The most impressive features of the area for Bob Marshall, co-founder of Christians for the Mountains, were the pristinely clear stream and the number of songbird species.

It's important to act now on a wilderness designation, Marshall pointed out, since it's almost a century since the area has been logged and there are many valuable trees here, particularly poplars, which are used for furniture and construction.

Marshall, a member of St. Christopher's Church in Charleston, West Virginia, together with Fred Krueger of the interfaith Religious Campaign for Forest Conservation, led conversations on the spiritual reasons for designating the area as wilderness.

Hunter commented that he was impressed with "the seriousness with which these folks undertook this task ... Despite two days of rain they spent many hours praying, reflecting alone in silence, and respectfully discussing as a group."

Jeff Rossini, volunteer webmaster for the Diocese of Tennessee's Living in Creation ministry had looked forward to several days "in the woods, to quiet life down a bit and do some introspective thinking." But, he added, "ultimately, it was the intentional and inspirational conversation we shared that meant the most to me. Our talks were full of terrific insights."

For Rossini, who has only lived in Nashville for 11 months, the retreat offered a first experience with a wild, secluded area in Tennessee. The Bald River Gorge area, he noted, will serve him "as an icon of all the natural lands in the state" in need of protection.

"One of the values of living in these areas for a few days is a sense of humility about how small a piece we are in the whole system of nature," said Marshall. "After you've been there a while you slow down and get into the flow of life within this calmer, quieter area, where you become more observant, you become part of the whole system of nature, and within that listen to God."

Next steps for the participants will be to publish a statement, to be titled "God's Gift of a Beautiful and Bountiful Land." The statement, which will begin with prayer, Krueger emphasized, will first be used to raise awareness of the value to religious congregations of the Bald River area and of wilderness generally. As endorsements are gathered from a broad range of Christian individuals and groups, the statement will become the foundation for advocacy in the public policy arena.

Krueger is first circulating the statement among a circle of religious leaders who expressed interest in it but could not attend the retreat. Robin Gottfried, who teaches in both the economics and environmental studies departments at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, a participant in the retreat, will continue his involvement as the process moves forward, according to Krueger.

The key to advocacy, feels Rossini, is education. His experience as a communication professional leads him to believe that the public often is not aware of conservation initiatives. "Faith communities can be a fantastic jumping block for that education to spread," he said.

Hunter hopes that more groups will visit the Cherokee National Forest and see the blessing of wild public lands for themselves. "If another church group wanted to hike in the Cherokee, I would be happy to lead them," he said.

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