The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

The days the Earth stood still (Part 2): South Knoxville’s Ijams Nature Center weathered Covid with grit, gifts and gratitude. Naturally.

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Sweep netting for insectsMembers of a Covid-era outdoor education class at Ijams Nature Center net insects. The South Knoxville nature center weathered the Covid-19 pandemic with donations, federal loan guarantees and common-sense maneuvering, like moving all educational programming outside. Photos courtesy Ijams Nature Center.

Ijams posted record visitation during pandemic even as resources were challenged

(This is the second in an occasional Hellbender Press series about the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the natural world. Here's the first installment about air quality improvements in the Smokies.)

Individuals and organizations can learn a lot from a pandemic.

You up your technology game. You innovate and run harder and get leaner. You realize the importance of face time (the real face time). 

You learn the power of allies and those who really love you.

And in the case of Ijams Nature Center in South Knoxville, you learn just how much people need and value the natural world and the outdoors, especially in times of acute stress and uncertainty.

Ijams played host to a record number of visitors in 2020; there was no usual winter slowdown. Parking lots were full virtually every day during the height of the pandemic that claimed the lives of at least 600,000 people in the U.S. That visitation trend has continued at Ijams, with the coronavirus somewhat comfortably in the rear-view mirror.

An estimated 160,000 people visit the popular nature center annually, but there’s no exact count. Officials said the 2020 visitation substantially surpassed that number, and they plan a visitation study because a very porous border prevents an accurate count.

“The one great thing that has come out of Covid, is that people have recognized the importance of nature in their lives; they’ve recognized it as a place for solace, a place to get out and be safe and feel comfortable,” said Ijams Nature Center Executive Director Amber Parker

“The sheer mass number of people coming were new to Ijams, or maybe come once or twice coming multiple times a week,” said Ijams Development Director Cindy Hassil.

“We were so excited to be this refuge for everyone,” Parker added.

The two women spoke on a sunny spring afternoon on the fetching expanse of stone terrace behind the visitors center in the shade of tulip poplars, red buds and dogwoods. Cardinals chirped and early 17-year cicadas throbbed behind a natural green curtain.

The South Knoxville center of conservation, environmental education, fitness and recreation was hit hard when people needed it most. It suffered a decline in revenues of at least $200,000 from its annual $1.2 million 2020 budget during the height of the Covid-19 crisis. Its book store and visitor center were closed, events were canceled and overall ancillary income all but ceased for at least three months.

Thanks to the federal Paycheck Protection Program, many individual instances of charitable giving, and increased membership, Ijams never laid off or furloughed any of its 24 part- or full-time employees. The center also benefited from city and county government public health expertise and uniform application of Covid-19 safety protocols, Parker said. 

And in one case, a company that was forced to cancel its regular holiday client party instead donated its $10,000 cost to Ijams.

“Ijams is beloved, and people really support this organization. Our donors were incredibly generous to us last year, in a way that was so heartwarming, and important,” Parker said. 

Ijams never really closed completely — there are 10 entrances to the grounds — but the book store, gift shop, bathrooms and visitors center were shut down between late March and late May 2020. 

It was costly, but the deficit, offset by donations and federal pandemic efforts such as the PPP, was manageable.

“I have colleagues around the country who run other nature centers who closed their doors for nine months or more,” Parker said.

But visitation boomed at Ijams, and by late summer 2020, the nature center returned to education programs, offered outdoors or via Zoom. Center educators still followed strict sanitation protocols.

Gradually, Ijams was even able to offer refuges of sorts for performing artists and audiences, including Shakespeare on the Square, which was displaced from its Market Square location last summer by restrictions on large public gatherings. It became Shakespeare off the Square, and its actors performed at the nature center.

“Ijams was one of the first organizations to offer outdoor programming for theater and the arts,” during the pandemic, Hassil said. Safety remained the No. 1 priority as programs expanded to include high school and Knoxville Opera productions.

Meanwhile, nature center programmers organized online content targeted at offsite constituents. That brought a lot of nature neophytes into the Ijams fellowship, Parker said.

The center learned online technology was actually — maybe paradoxically from the perspective of a very real 318-acre native forest and other habitats — a good way to connect with folks in the Knoxville area and beyond.

Parker recalls 50 people on a Zoom presentation discussing backyard wildlife habitat, and realized many on the call may not have the mobility or access to travel that would enable to get up and close with the Ijams landscape and its educational programs.

“We can use these technologies to provide equal access, and I think that’s gold,” Parker said. “We want to meet people where they are.”

Still, Hassil said, “We learned all these different communications styles, and I’ll tell you, I really prefer face-to-face meetings.”

All the while, as Ijams managers met via computers or phones, Parker said there was always the overarching question: “How do we forward the mission during this time? Mission is key. Mission has to be followed. Mission has to be actuated.”

She put out the call to pull all possible stops on creativity, and told staff: “Whatever you want to do. I don’t care. Let’s give everything a try. We’ll see what sticks.”

All programming was moved outside, for starters. That led to initiatives such as impromptu “pop-up” events and lessons for Ijams visitors. They’d happen by a display and suddenly meet captive and native wild animals, or receive lessons in aquatic life, and generally get involved with the natural world.

Another free amenity, serendipitously installed in October right before the virus began its pernicious creep around the globe, also attracted a lot of people to the park.

The Primal Playground course, designed by South Knoxville trainer and fitness expert Mark Rice, features all-natural exercises such as rock lifting, scrambling and running.

“There’s a lot of research on the importance of green exercise,” Parker said. “People who exercise in nature exercise at a higher level, and they are better stewards of the environment because they are using it.”

Use of the fitness course soared in part because so many gyms were closed because of pandemic restrictions. Instead of lifting free weights, fitness junkies lifted boulders, Parker said with a laugh.

Toddlers and children also love clambering over the natural course and its features, which made for multigenerational enjoyment of the nature center.

A parkour group even used it, to the delight of center staff and visitors.

There were never any documented cases of Covid-19 transmission at Ijams, and Parker is proud of that. But she is most proud of the resilience of her staff, and the fact she was able to keep all employees on board as economic and financial insecurity worried people as much as the novel coronavirus itself.

The closure also afforded Ijams the chance to thoroughly clean and spruce up its public facilities, and trail crews and other natural resource managers were able to get a lot done in the woods and fields.

Indeed, the reopened visitors and bookstore fairly sparkle, and the grounds remain an artful mix of the groomed and the natural.

All indications are this calendar year will be a remarkably successful one, coming on the heels of the closure of so many Ijams amenities.

Sales of gifts and books are returning to normal, and a beer garden at Meads Quarry stands to turn a healthy profit.

There are no more spaces for weddings this year, and summer camps are completely full for the first time in Ijams’ history, Hassil said.

“People are looking for authentic experiences, now more than ever,” Parker said.

Many are also looking for familiar comforts, near and far from home. On the natural grounds just adjacent to the visitors center and staff offices, a local group of young cousins and friends relaxed around a picnic table and laughed on the warm spring day. An older couple wound their way through nearby park trails punctuated by education signage and a bench dedicated to one of the original Hellbender Press founders, the late Rikki Hall.

ijams rikki

Two bicyclists from California and their friend from Ohio sat sipping coffee in the heat, taking a break with their helmets still attached to their heads. They said they fared fairly well during the pandemic but still traveled east in search of places with the open beauty and uncrowded nature of Ijams.

Cicadas and the holes through which the insects entered this life were everywhere, and their alien thrumming filled the air in a shaded glade.

Sarah Oliver and her crew of cousins were resting after training a handsome leashed dog and taking a slow hike to further her recuperation from a foot injury. 

Ijams is a familiar place for her and her family. They live just down the street, and they know Ijams’ 12-mile network of trails intimately. 

“I grew up around here. I’ve hiked almost all the trails so I know pretty much all of it,” said Oliver, 24, in a syrupy South Knoxville drawl. She and her younger family and friends agreed the center provided a natural respite to the local pressures of the novel coronavirus. 

They were glad things were returning to normal, and a younger member of the group said she looked forward to swimming this summer in Meads Quarry Lake. Oliver noted the many new amenities at the nearby expansive swimming hole, namely the boat and paddle board rentals from River Sports, and food and beer sales.

“It’s a lot different than when I was a kid,” Oliver said, speaking of Ijams but maybe the world.

ijams oliverSarah Oliver, left, and her younger cousins live nearby and hiked frequently in Ijams throughout the pandemic. Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press


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