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By David A. Ramsey • Mar 3, 2019 at 12:00 AM

The northeastern region of Tennessee has long been referred to as "America's First Western Frontier." This stems from events of the mid to late-1700s when intrepid settler/explorers of the original 13 Colonies began to wonder what lay to the west, beyond the great Appalachian crest. This early attraction to the western wilderness resulted in the formation of America's first democratic constitution, right here in Northeast Tennessee — four years before the Declaration of Independence. And that attraction to the wild unknown, what lies beyond the next ridge or bend in the river or trail, has never left us.

Roughly a century after exploring and settling the wilds of the First Frontier, Americans had crossed the continent, discovering as they went new regions of indescribable beauty and grandeur. And many of them soon recognized these places as singular American treasures, which would need to be preserved if they were to survive the mass westward expansion of the still new nation. Through the visionary efforts of men such as Ferdinand Hayden, John Muir and, of course, Theodore Roosevelt, a new ethic for preserving our wild treasures evolved and has fortunately persisted to the present.

Evidence of our strong, inherent fascination with wild places and adventure in the great outdoors is more prevalent than ever before; a quick look at the growth of the outdoor industry in the last decade tells the tale in numbers. According the Outdoor Industry Association's latest research, outdoor recreation (which includes many forms of outdoor sports and leisure) generates the following for the U.S. economy:

– $887 billion in consumer spending

– 7.6 million in direct national jobs

– $65 billion in federal tax revenue

– $59 billion in state and local tax revenue

Consumer spending for outdoor recreation is almost greater than that of the petroleum and pharmaceutical industries combined, and is third overall behind only health care and financial services. In our own region of the southern Appalachian Mountains, those communities that recognized, more than a decade ago, the potentially powerful economic powerhouse that outdoor recreation could be are the same communities that are now thriving, drawing in new industries with new jobs and enjoying greater quality of life for their residents.

Leaders and decision makers in Northeast Tennessee have now begun to recognize the extraordinary value of outdoor recreation as a major component of economic development and overall improvement for their communities. Over the past three years the work of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership's Outdoor Task Force has generated tremendous interest and energy for developing an outdoor economic engine to benefit the whole region.

This is all to say we still feel that powerful connection to the outdoors. After all, it's where we once lived, learned how to survive and create and grow our families and communities. Now, even in this modern ultratechnofied world, we are seeing that the great outdoors, including the truly wild parts that remain, can sustain us again, economically, recreationally, spiritually.

Recently, someone asked me about the actual need for the just-passed legislation expanding some of our federally designated Wilderness Areas in East Tennessee. Certainly, I could have expounded all day on this subject, but I kept it short and simple. First, I told him we all owe a debt of gratitude to Congressman Phil Roe and Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker for sponsoring the bill and should thank them accordingly. Then, I replied that when you look at all the once-wild places we have conquered and developed, cut down, paved over and built on in America, it's awfully hard to argue against keeping a tiny bit of it the way it was when our forbears heard their own call of the wild, and followed it right here to America's First Western Frontier.

As the great conservationist, David Brower, once said, "The wild places are where we began. When they end, so do we."

David A. Ramsey is a regionally and nationally recognized writer and photographer from Unicoi, TN. His recently released book, Rocky Fork: Hidden Jewel of the Blue Ridge Wild, is available at www.ramseyphotos.com and at Mahoney's in Johnson City.

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