By Frances Lamberts

When Sebastian and Nicole, visitors from Bonn, Germany came last year, the travel route and destinations reflected the love of America’s open space and parks and its landscapes of great natural beauty.

They included the Blue Ridge Parkway driving down from Washington, D.C., days of hiking in the Roan highlands and Great Smoky Mountain Park, Hunting Island, Cape Hatteras and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and several other coastal parks in the Carolinas. Of historic cities on the route, Savannah stood out for  them for its many green spaces and old trees.

But the adventure of whitewater rafting through the Nolichucky Gorge was by far, they said, the “highlight of the entire journey.”

In February 1965, President Lyndon Johnson had sent a special message to the Congress and later that year held a White House Conference on Natural Beauty.

“For centuries,” the message said, “Americans have drawn strength and inspiration from the beauty of our country. It would be a neglectful generation indeed … which failed to preserve and extend such a heritage for its descendants.”

In similar manner before him, utility but also their beauty had motivated Teddy Roosevelt to urge preservation of unique landscapes and forests and all “the lesser and mightier forms of wildlife.”  Even tiny songbirds, he wrote, “add by voice and action to the joy of living of most men and women.”

President Johnson, too, admitting that “beauty is not an easy thing to measure … in the gross national product,” it is nonetheless a road to satisfaction and pleasure and a good life. He held that it should be considered “one of the most important components of our true national income, not to be left out simply because statisticians cannot calculate its worth.”

His effort, therefore, was to reverse an ongoing “blighting” of the countryside through a national beautification movement and legislative action.

This came to include the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, established by Congress in 1968. Of the many sources of wonder and amazement which the settlers found here, Johnson said, none was greater “than the power and majesty of American rivers.”

In the 50th anniversary year of the law which now preserves “outstandingly remarkable” sections of about 200 of the nation’s (and one of Tennessee’s) rivers, wonder and amazement is what Nicole and Sebastian – on their honeymoon then – reported from rafting through the Nolichucky Gorge.