27-acre expansion to Urban Wilderness

Betsy PickleOur Town Outdoors, South Knox

Getting outside has never been more important for Knoxvillians and East Tennesseans. Those who live close enough to take advantage of South Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness value the 50 miles of hiking and biking trails that let them get close to nature.

While other entities have been forced into intermittent or dormant activities since March 2020, the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club has kept its doors – the outdoors – open. In fact, it has even grown.

In April 2021, the club, in a 50-50 partnership with the city of Knoxville, purchased 27 acres adjoining the William Hastie Natural Area and gifted its share to the city.

New trail under construction on the south side of the Hastie property

“We haven’t added that much acreage or mileage to the Urban Wilderness in quite some time,” says Matthew Kellogg, executive director of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit. “It’s just pretty unique that the stars aligned for that project to happen.”

With property values in South Knoxville skyrocketing, it was practically a miracle that the site became available to the club.

“It’s been just forestland for years, and the Rainey family that owned it put it on the market,” says Kellogg. “We heard about it through the multi-listings. We put it under contract the day it was listed – within a couple of hours of it being listed actually – because we knew that with the real-estate market being so hot that if we didn’t hop on it, it would most certainly get developed in a different manner.”

He doesn’t mean to criticize.

“I don’t think the club is afraid of development and housing and those sorts of things. We think it’s integral to our community and the economy that we’ve helped to create.

“But, this land in particular, I think most people always thought that it was already park space just because it bordered the park; it’s how you entered in from Sevierville Pike to Margaret Road. You would pass through this property, and it was on both sides of the entrance road. I think most users thought it was already protected land.”

AMBC hired a trail planner to assist with gathering stakeholder input and worked with director Sheryl Ely and the city’s Parks & Recreation Department to come up with a good working plan for those acres, making it a better hiking experience at William Hastie and also improving the mountain bike opportunities.

“AMBC’s first trail project was at William Hastie, so it’s really neat to be back in that park with a pretty ‘groundbreaking’ project for us because we’ve never purchased land as an organization,” says Kellogg. “And so, it’s another way for us to fulfill our mission statement, which includes protecting access. By doing this, we put our money where our mouth is.”

Thanks to a combination of professional builders and volunteer crews, the property will be opened to the general public this spring, he says. Click link to see two tracts just purchased:

AMBC_Margaret Road

In the beginning

Randy Conner and Brian Hann headed up the original trail work at the William Hastie Natural Area. Joe Walsh, now retired, was director of the city’s parks department at the time.

“We evidently made a good enough commitment to the community and to the parks department that they let us continue to do our thing at other parks,” Kellogg says. “The rest is history. It’s neat to be back in that same park expanding access and doubling down on our mission.”

There aren’t many large pockets of forestland left to add to the Urban Wilderness.

“There are certainly going to be places where either tracts of land or connections that need to be made permanent are going to happen in the future,” says Kellogg. “It’s organizations like Legacy Parks and AMBC and the city of Knoxville that just need to keep tabs where parcels need to be secured.

“We’ve been really lucky to maintain all of our access over the years, but that won’t always be the case. … The (James White) Parkway project – that was obviously a huge access moment that came up to a crescendo back then. I think that by settling the parkway debate and by having the city invest at the Urban Wilderness Gateway Park, it just goes to show what direction the administration wants the community to go.

“I’d say that not only business but residents have followed very quickly.”

Economic, health impact

Ridership has “definitely” increased since the Covid-19 pandemic showed up here in March 2020.

“We’ve been doing a study with the University of Tennessee on the number of users within the Urban Wilderness,” Kellogg says. “They just completed the first full year of trail-count data for the Urban Wilderness and are starting to compile that data and analyze it.”

Charles Sims, associate professor of economics at UT’s Haslam College of Business and director of the Energy and Environment Program at the Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, is going to revisit the economic impact data and update his much-cited 2015 report on what the Urban Wilderness is doing for the local economy. Eugene Fitzhugh, an associate professor of kinesiology, recreation and sports studies in UT’s College of Education, is using the data to determine the health impacts that the Urban Wilderness has on the community.

“UT has committed to three years of research within the Urban Wilderness, so they’re essentially one year in at this point,” says Kellogg. “AMBC has championed this with a grant from our parent organization, the International Mountain Bike Association, IMBA. We applied for that grant with the assistance of UT and have been thrilled to have the brainpower, if you will, behind it because the club certainly wasn’t able to do this caliber of research.

“They’re going to be doing tests on physical-exertion levels on pump track, which is research that hasn’t been done before. They’re going to be putting devices on willing and able participants that will essentially monitor all their vitals while they’re on the pump track and the jump line.

“All these health apps that you have on your phone that tell you, ‘Thirty minutes of walking does this for you,’ that’s because they’ve researched the calorie output that it takes to walk at certain paces or to ride a bike or to do this, that or the other. Those are all segmented into individual sports. … But pump tracks have never really been studied. Now that we are fortunate enough to have a fantastic facility here in town, the university is going to take advantage of it and study it. It’s really cool.”

AMBC doesn’t limit its activities to the Urban Wilderness. The club has been working with Knox County Parks & Recreation director Joe Mack, who was hired last year, to put in new trails at Concord Park in West Knox County. Legacy Parks has partnered with them, with funding from the club and County Commissioner Larsen Jay. And it helped out on trails at TVA’s Loyston Point Recreation Area in Andersonville.

Of course, there’s still more to do in South Knox.

“We hope to be breaking ground at I.C. King (Park) on the trail plan that has been in place for a number of years over there but hasn’t been acted upon,” says Kellogg. He says Mack “is eager to partner with organizations like ours to get projects that are shovel ready implemented.”

The AMBC executive committee is Erin Donovan, president; Grant Barton, vice president; Marshall Stair, treasurer; and Matt Morris, secretary.

The club meets the third Monday of each month with a livestream on Facebook and YouTube, gathering in person when Covid permits.

Info: ambcknox.org.

Betsy Pickle is a veteran entertainment, features and news reporter who particularly enjoys spotlighting South Knoxville.

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