The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Choose your own adventure in Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness

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frsunflowersNot all of the Knoxville Urban Wilderness is true wilderness, of course. This monoculture field of sunflowers planted at the Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area does, however, attract lots of wildlife.  Courtesy Visit Knoxville

Spring study to quantify visitation, economic impact

Physically, the Urban Wilderness is 1,000 acres of natural and recreational land in South Knoxville. Visitors can enjoy hiking across Civil War battlefields, running on naturally surfaced trails, swimming in old quarries, and mountain biking on expertly designed tracks. But the Urban Wilderness is much more than a place. 

“It’s something special for Knoxville and defines us as a recreational community,” said city Deputy Chief of Economic and Community Development Rebekah Jane Justice. She was named the city’s first Urban Wilderness Coordinator in July 2017, and is still the city’s go-to expert on this ambitious, ongoing land-preservation and recreational project. “It’s about so many things, including building our local economy in a unique way.” 

The Urban Wilderness is, many will say, a boon to Knoxville’s economy, both in increasing tourism and for the businesses around it, including coffee shops, breweries, and restaurants. But hard numbers about its impact are still being developed. In 2015, University of Tennessee economics professor Charles Sims wrote a white paper projecting that if the Urban Wilderness grew to a national destination, it could have an economic impact of more than $29 million annually. 

Now that the Urban Wilderness is more established, actual numbers about usage are more easily captured than when Sims authored his paper. Matthew Kellogg of the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club said that his club received an equipment grant from the International Mountain Bicycling Association for trail-counter devices to quantify how many people use the trails — and where and when. Currently Kellogg’s group is calibrating 11 newly placed trail counters in the Urban Wilderness. By spring, the group hopes to be collecting reliable data. 

Among the things this data will be used for is a multi-year study by University of Tennessee kinesiology and recreation professor Eugene Fitzhugh, a frequent lecturer about urban trails their impact on a community’s physical activity.   

From preservation to reinvention

Cut off from the rest of the city by the river, South Knoxville was not always on everyone’s radar. But in 2007, historians and archeologists worried that the remnants of three Civil War forts there, Fort Dickerson, Fort Higley, and Fort Stanley, could be destroyed by development. At that point, Knoxvillians began to talk seriously about protecting the remaining natural ridgetops in the city, said Carol Evans, executive director of Legacy Parks Foundation

A private, not-for-profit, Legacy Parks Foundation was formed in 2005 with the blessing of city and county officials as a way to raise private funds for the support of the area’s green spaces, public parks, and waterways. Evans, a former marketing executive, took the executive director’s spot in 2007. Since then the group has preserved almost 1,000 acres of forest and farmland and added more than 600 acres of parkland to Knox County. 

The potential development of the ridgetops “... caused everyone to look at [South Knoxville] differently,” Evans said. The Aslan Foundation purchased two pieces of property to preserve them, lands that are now High Ground Park and the Loghaven Artist Residency, and, in 2008, the Legacy Parks Foundation raised $1.5 million to buy the 70-acre River Bluff Wildlife Area. People from all over the city contributed. 

At the other end of what was then called, somewhat inelegantly, the “Urban Wilderness and Historic Corridor,” Brian Hann and other members of the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club had been developing bike trails. [They actually had already been developing them on private parts of property — not entirely “officially.”] 

“You had a historic hub on one end and a recreational hub on the other, with the south waterfront in the middle,” Evans said. “It all aligned at just the right time.”

One of the most recent additions to the Urban Wilderness is Baker Creek Preserve. The 100-acre property, donated by the Wood family a few years ago, is home to the Baker Creek Bike Park and Baker Creek Play Forest. 

The Urban Wilderness also includes Ijams Nature Center. For years, that forested city gem was something of a secret known mainly to the area’s bird watchers and weekend amblers. Today, popular family attractions at Ijams include paddleboat rides at Mead’s Quarry and a Navitat tree canopy adventure. 

Until now, the Urban Wilderness has lacked a central focal point or obvious entryway, which will be provided by the Urban Wilderness Gateway Park, currently under construction at the southern end of James White Parkway, where what locals call “the road to nowhere” dead-ends. With land along James White Parkway given to the city by the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the city is investing $10 million in the project, which will eventually connect Baker Creek Preserve and Morningside Park, across the river. 

“It will better connect the surrounding neighborhoods to amenities,” Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon said. “It will also serve as a jumping-off point for visitors who want to come and create an outdoor adventure of their choosing.”

One of the first phases of the park is done, and the next phase will include landscaped parking areas, shaded structures, expanded play areas, pedestrian pathways, restrooms, and more. 

“It’s exciting to see these innovative plans and community collaboration come to fruition,” Kincannon said. “The park build-out is continuing, so there’s a lot more to come.”

The Urban Wilderness Alliance, which manages the area, includes the city, Knox County Parks and Recreation, Legacy Parks Foundation, Ijams Nature Center, Aslan Foundation, Appalachian Mountain Bike Club, and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. 

In deciding what group does what, Justice said, “It’s a question of who’s good at what?” Legacy Parks, for example, is terrific at land acquisition and stewardship; the city is good at crunching numbers; and the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club, Justice said, “builds the best bike trails in the South.”

These stakeholders also work closely with neighborhood groups, volunteers, and businesses. Justice said the stakeholders have loosely followed a four-year plan put together in 2016, but they are flexible enough to respond if a grant comes through for some specific project, or if a tract of land suddenly becomes available. 

A livable city 

One of the most surprising things about the Urban Wilderness, Carol Evans said, is how its identity has grown — organically and authentically. 

“It isn’t forced,” she said. For her, watching businesses and opportunities flourish within and on the boundaries of the Urban Wilderness has been one of the real pleasures of the ongoing project. People now see the protected green spaces and ridges as amenities and not as spaces for development. They enhance growth — they don’t prevent it.  

“Being livable matters,” Evans said. 

Given a choice in where to live, people will always pick the place with better outdoor amenities, said Ed McAlister, the founder of River Sports Outfitters. McAlister has been touting Knoxville as a walkable, bikeable city since then-mayor Victor Ashe established the city’s greenways in the early 1990s. 

While people always talk about getting outdoors and exercising more, this year’s changes mean more of them are actually doing it. 

“They’re riding bikes, they’re in boats, they’re walking,” McAlister said.

McAlister thinks one advantage of the Urban Wilderness is the opportunity it affords “for the average person to go out and do something and feel good about it.” 

Instead of stressing about getting to the mountains to hike, visitors can just step out of their cars and take a stroll to the Forks of the River to see the sunflowers. 

“You have to make it comfortable for people to try,” McAlister said. 
Matthew Kellogg said the focus on the average user is why the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club spent seven years building easy and moderate trails in the Urban Wilderness before tackling a mountain-bike trail.  
“We built up a lot of goodwill doing that,” Kellogg said. 

More recently, with a grant from International Mountain Bike Association and Bell Helmets, the club built the Devil’s Racetrack at Baker Creek Bike Park in Baker Creek Preserve. 

Within the mountain-biking community, “It put Knoxville on the national map instantly.”

Nick Geidner, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Tennessee, has recently started taking his family to the Baker Creek Preserve. He said that while loading up after riding recently, they talked to visitors from Maryland, Ohio, and Virginia, all of whom had heard about the Urban Wilderness and came to check it out. 
Kellogg said that as the Urban Wilderness grows more popular, stewards will need to guard against it being “loved to death,” as has happened to some trails across the country, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic has driven people outdoors for safe recreation. 
For now, he said, many cities are studying what the Urban Wilderness stakeholders have done, looking to duplicate it. As a recreational destination, this city is on par with any other, he said.

“We’re Knoxville, and we’re really proud of what we have.”

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