Legacy Parks is making outdoor space accessible for all in East Tennessee
Frank Harvey is a man on a mission. If his name does not ring a bell, then you probably are not a rock climber or been on the receiving end of his prosecutorial hammer. Now retired from a lifetime of putting troublemakers away, Frank is laser-focused on Keller Bend, the best piece of unquarried limestone in Knoxville. His efforts to gain the attention of county leaders has spanned a couple of mayors now. It is the only multi-pitch rock wall within miles of town. Frank is one of the old-school climbing pioneers and, like many of us, has tried like hell to get the county to help make it something even more accessible.
One day, while brainstorming around his kitchen table, we collectively reached an “aha” moment. “Let’s call Carol over at Legacy Parks.” What she so wisely brought to our attention was our narrow focus on climbing. None of us had thought about the variety of potential uses over there such as bird watching and hiking. Her acute awareness of the politics was subtle. “You need to get so-and-so on board.” For Frank and the rest of us, this was golden beta. What Frank is doing would make his grandfather proud and proves conservation activism is in the blood. You may recognize his grandfather’s name, Carlos Campbell. An overlook on Newfound Gap Road bears homage to his achievements. Without Campbell, there would be no Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And without Harvey, no climbing at the Obed, Black Mountain, or the Scruffy City.
A 2002 wildfire in the Umpqua National Forest would change Carly Pearson’s life forever. She had been working in some capacity with public lands for many years as a firefighter. Now Pearson was in Oregon battling another blaze. She was helping prepare a staging area near the helicopter when everything went dark. Carly woke up at the bottom of a ravine unable to move. After being airlifted to Medford and thoroughly examined, the news was not encouraging. She had broken two vertebrae and was paralyzed from the waist down.
This didn’t stop her from eventually completing the Camino trail in Spain, mountain biking, kayaking or rock climbing through the non-profit Catalyst Sports organization. With assistance, she and others are able to get in laps at River Sports Outfitters on their indoor wall. “They have been awesome to us,” Carly notes. One Saturday each month they help train volunteers to assist climbers with varying challenges take on the same routes as everyone else.
Legacy Parks is picking up the mantle and making Knoxville outdoor spaces similarly equitable. Project manager Reid Hartsell takes considerable pride in their collaboration with Catalyst. This partnership resulted in accessibility boat ramps installed at Beaver Creek north of town so people with disabilities can enjoy the river. Carly beams when she speaks of the mountain biking trails, though.
Five days a week, I suit up to tackle Redbud Crest and Floyd Fox over at Baker Creek Preserve. Depending on my joints it will either be a mountain bike or trail running day. And more than once I have passed Legacy Executive Director Carol Evans pedaling through this 100-acre tract that will forever be the epicenter of what has become the Urban Wilderness. It was Carol’s connections and drive that put funds together to make Baker something that is nationally recognized. When I speak to her about how she was able to connect William Hastie, Marie Myers, and Forks of the River to cement the South Loop she quips, “We have four lawyers on our board.” I am sure it involved the talents of them all.
Legacy Parks acts as more than a land acquisition agent. They actually handle funds and go after the grants. Sometimes they hand projects over to the city as was the case at River Bluff Wildlife Area. This historic site was the high ground for Union troops during the Civil War as they eyed the Knoxville prize. One cannot help but think real estate developers felt the same way before it was rescued and preserved in perpetuity by folks like Carol. There’s great rock over there and trails that disappear into fall dreamscapes evocative of Walden Pond. Herons skim pocket pools beneath our city’s best overlook.
We hang off marbleized cliffs as reverberations from Lindsey Nelson Stadium echo another Vol baseball win. I’m picking Carol’s brain about how we can turn climbing into the next mountain biking here. Our case is to prove there is room for both. “We are both opportunistic and entrepreneurial,” Carol remarks. But she is way ahead of me, and I suspect everyone she encounters.
There is obviously a lot of nickel-and-dime work. It’s not all ribbon cutting and photo ops. “Everyone likes neighborhood parks.” She does not say so, but I suspect those ten-acre tract acquisitions are niggling fit makers. Carol’s not one to complain. But it’s in what she doesn’t say that catches my attention. There are projects on the horizon that excite me to no end. One of those is the rail connection from the old Kern’s bakery out to Island Home. Carol is tight lipped about this one. Greenways are bread and butter to Legacy Parks. Easements must be finessed, organizations assuaged, political feathers groomed. Carol was made for this position. Her years with the Chamber of Commerce figure prominently here.
Funding for Legacy comes from multiple places. Both the city and county ante up along with tourism revenue. Whenever the folks at Visit Knoxville bring someone into town, Carol helps them get set up with a truly outdoor experience. She knows that visitors like the idea of hiking, biking, and paddleboarding within minutes of their hotel.
The 2015 Together Healthy Knox Initiative seeks to increase access to green spaces. Sometimes those green spaces are blue in the form of the Tennessee River. More than once I have dropped a kayak or canoe via one of those handy ramps. Now Carly and many others are able to do so at Beaver Creek. There is a 44-mile water trail up there that stretches from Halls to Melton Hill, now with ADA accessibility.
But even bigger things are coming to the French Broad. In concert with TVA and the TWRA, Legacy has helped purchase Cruze Landing below Seven Islands State Birding Park. Their aim is to stabilize the boat ramp and install an adaptive boat launch like the one at Beaver Creek. There is also a second platform area below to give paddlers multiple launching options for their day outdoors which could begin with bird walks and end with paddling. Like project manager Reid Hartsell says, “After 15 years of advocating for our region’s exceptional natural resources, Legacy Parks has left a legacy of its own.”
“Freedom” and “access” are keywords for Carly Pearson though. In all our conversations she reverts to that. Sharp’s Ridge has two miles of modified trails that she bombs with her specially designed ride. I can really appreciate her need to get out unassisted. Both the trail and the adaptive bike were Legacy Parks’s doing. Her gratitude for this organization mirrors my own. “We simply couldn’t have done this without them,” she remarks.
As we wrapped our discussion, Carol deftly dropped pins on people and places for me and the climbing community to resource. Our vision is a “Connected Crags” within the Urban Wilderness where climbers will flock to Knoxville rock and bounce between Keller Bend, Ijams Crag and potential top roping at River Bluff. Just another way to increase Knoxville’s outdoor stock price. I picture climbing tourism much the same way the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club envisioned dirt trails. Like them, we will go nowhere without Legacy Parks. I have learned that climbing areas are like halfway houses; people accept them, just not always in their backyard.
But for two years in a row, climbers have spent beautiful Saturday mornings hauling tons of trash from the embankments across from the university. Although climbers did not throw the trash off the bluff, we counted 25 volunteers, all climbers, who are invested in putting forth equity to get this place on the crag map. And most of them had never climbed there.
This is no different than the mountain biking love which spawned Urban Wilderness. Build it and they will come. There are grant monies through Patagonia and Covenant Health designated for people with disabilities earmarked for Ijams Crag, now owned by the City of Knoxville. Again, accessibility is the focus. Carly is interested in climbing this area with her friends at Catalyst Sports, and I have talked to her on more than one occasion about our desire to get them on that rock. The problem is the monies are tied up bureaucratically at Ijams. I explained the climbing community’s frustrations to Carol and Carly. I can always use the advice and guidance of strong women.
Access, access, access. Carol, Reid, and Carly preach this from the rooftops. After interviewing them all, my vision has widened. Our frustrations about climbing center on this one issue. No one cares if we climb at Keller Bend because the only way to get there is to load up my canoe or commandeer Frank Harvey’s pontoon boat. This doesn’t bother the neighbors due to the self-limiting nature of this limited access. Now I know how Carly feels when she considers transitioning from indoor laps at River Sports to outdoor rock at Ijams Crag. It is just one-quarter of a mile from the parking lot but may as well be across the Himalayas for people with disabilities.
Legacy manages and procures millions of dollars in public outdoor assets. They plant trees, fund trail building in the Urban Wilderness, preserve hilltop vistas and historic sites, the list goes on and on. But it is on the human level that their impact is most felt. I rounded the corner on Sycamore walk in Baker Creek Preserve last week. A hiker had stopped and was motioning towards something deep in the woods. Curled up was a baby fawn, spots radiating like diamonds through the protected forest canopy. His face told a story of incredulity. “Right here, in the heart of Knoxville, who woulda thunk?” Legacy staff hears these kinds of stories regularly. And that’s what keeps them in the fight for all of us.