Can Ijams Nature Center Strike a Balance Between Its Increasing Popularity and Its Educational Mission?

In Cover Stories by S. Heather DuncanLeave a Comment

On a sunny spring Saturday at Ijams Nature Center, a group of girls lie on their stomachs with their faces suspended inches over the murky water of a pond, ponytails bobbing in a row. One girl swoops down her green net and squeals, “I caught another tadpole!”

Nearby, two mountain bikers in full gear swing into their seats, one shifting a backpack carrying a small, fluffy dog wearing fitted sunglasses. Parents speak in French and Chinese as they watch their young kids walk logs like balance beams and whack hanging reeds. Ivan Gutirrez has brought his 7-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son from Crossville to try the ziplines, but while they wait, they admire the sculpture of a butterfly made from saw blades.

Perry Cooper sits at a picnic table playing old Appalachian fiddle tunes. “I love Ijams,” says Cooper, who rehearses there daily for senior fiddle competitions. “It’s peaceful like the mountains, but not as far.”

Once a 20-acre, passive natural retreat, Ijams Nature Center is now a bustling recreational mecca that attracts mountain bikers, trail runners, families, treetop thrill-seekers, gardeners, and teenagers on low-pressure dates. The hub of South Knoxville’s recreational activity, Ijams is entering a new era, with a new executive director who must manage the demands of all these users rubbing elbows on 300 acres of woods, meadows, and former marble quarries.

In the past few years, Ijams has developed private partnerships and a regional profile. Its trails comprise a key portion of the South Loop trail system of the popular Urban Wilderness, tying Ijams closely with Knoxville’s burgeoning identity as an outdoor recreation destination.

These changes have not been without their growing pains and even a tragedy. A week after for-profit partner Navitat opened its treetop adventure course, a visitor died in an accident. (An investigation found the cause was a combination of equipment elements that worked poorly together, a problem not previously recognized in the industry.) Some boaters have complained about the privately controlled monopoly on boats at Mead’s Quarry lake. And last fall, a popular climbing area that had been developed by volunteers was closed to unsupervised climbing over insurance issues.

At the root of these controversies are concerns about how for-profit pressures affect the nonprofit mission, and whether limits on free access are appropriate. At the same time, the very popularity of biking and paddling at Ijams could overshadow its focus on nature education.

New executive director Amber Parker took over in February and is already juggling. She is in the early stages of planning new preschool and citizen science programs and is considering additional programming locations. And she announced at least a temporary solution to the climbing quandary last week: Giving management of “The Crag” portion of the property back to the City of Knoxville, which owns it and will assume the liability.

A priority now is raising more money—through memberships and potentially through more user fees—to make sure Ijams can continue to handle the growing number of visitors and expand its educational programs.

Paul James, who led the nonprofit for 12 years, says Ijams “used to be labeled one of Knoxville’s best-kept secrets—and it’s still sometimes labeled that way, which is amazing.” Insiders don’t have the corner on Ijams any more, and Parker promises it will be soon be even more widely known.

“There are some nature centers we talk about in whispers because they’re doing such extraordinary, innovative things for the community,” Parker says. “Ijams is going to be one of those in a few years.”

A family walks the tracks that lead toward the old Ross Marble Quarry.

A Century of Sanctuary

Harry and Alice Ijams purchased 20 acres on the river in 1910 and built a home, turning the rest into a bird sanctuary and gardener’s paradise.

“It’s amazing the Ijams family even chose that site, given the daily explosions [at the marble quarries nearby] and the way it was hemmed in between industrial sites and the river,” James says.

In the 1960s, the family property became a public nature park through a partnership among the City of Knoxville and local garden clubs. The city operated it as a passive park, even after a board of directors was formed in 1976. In 1989 the nonprofit board negotiated to run the 40 acres and hired Bo Townsend as executive director. He stayed for a decade, and then recently filled in as interim director.

He recalls that the board wanted him to quickly transform Ijams into an “aggressive” promoter of environmental education. Ijams started its “River Rescue” annual cleanup of the Tennessee River, developed a water quality forum with the Knoxville Utilities Board, and began taking educational programs to schools and offering field trips.

“In 1995, we were undergoing a $4 million capital campaign and had master plans for 100 acres, and that’s when we built the visitor’s center and the Bill Miller center down at the old home site,” Townsend says. The visitor’s center houses a small collection of native mammals, reptiles, and birds that kids can touch during nature programs and birthday parties.

When British native Paul James moved from the job of development director to running the nature center in 2004, he says, “The message was: How do we get people here? They’d say, ‘I don’t even go downtown. Why would I go to Ijams?’ I was pushing the boulder uphill a long time.” But then downtown’s resurgence, followed by the popularity of the Urban Wilderness, made South Knoxville a destination and drew more visitors to Ijams.

The nature center has continued to provide workshops and festivals for children and gardeners. But it also hosts everything from drum circles to movie nights, as well as big fund raisers like Symphony in the Park.

Meanwhile, the acreage expanded dramatically. The popular riverfront boardwalk was added about two decades ago, then Mead’s Quarry (which for years had been a “horrendous illegal dump,” James says), Ross Marble Quarry with its popular Keyhole trail, and the Will Skelton Greenway connection to Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area. The new property allowed Ijams to add paddling, climbing, and bouldering to its summer camps.

James partnered with Legacy Parks and the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club to incorporate the old quarries and develop trails around them.

“(He) took kind of a gamble with us in allowing us to expand, and I think it’s worked out well for the community and for Ijams,” says Brian Hann, a local mountain biker whose vision helped create the Urban Wilderness. “I think it’s brought a lot of people to Ijams who would not otherwise recreate, and I think that’s a great audience to capture.”

He noted that before Ijams took over the quarry, many people were riding ATVs, motorcycles, and bikes there, sometimes destructively. Now Ijams not only has cleaned up the area but also recently added permanent restrooms.

Ijams is likely to become even more of a hub once Legacy Parks completes the G&O rails-to-trails project connecting Mead’s Quarry with downtown, Hann notes. “Ijams has been key in the whole Urban Wilderness/South Loop initiative,” he says.

Ijams’ trails and Mead’s Quarry Lake, where River Sports Outfitters rents watercraft, have made the property popular for outdoor recreation—although that is secondary to Ijams’ mission of nature education.

Shifting Partners and Leaders

But many recreational visitors, like the hundreds of mountain bikers that gather there on Tuesday nights, don’t even know that the trails are run by the nature center or that Ijams offers programming.

In the last few years, Ijams has begun revenue-sharing partnerships with private companies to provide boat and bike rentals (River Sports Outfitters) and “treetop adventures” (Navitat). It earned about $18,900 last year from its partnership with River Sports and about $7,900 from Navitat, Parker says.

James says these partnerships resulted from Ijams seizing opportunities as they arose.

With Navitat, James says, “We felt it was an opportunity to experience Ijams in a different way. There was a shared excitement about people in the treetops. It’s not a rowdy experience. It’s kind of a ‘head space’ experience.”

The death on the ropes course and its temporary closure afterward didn’t seem to lessen local interest in the experience, says Bumpas, who is also president of Visit Knoxville.

Still, Ijams’ rapid evolution led to some tension in the last few years. Bumpas took over as board chair a few years ago when it became clear that no one else would take the job, she says.

“The board had gotten whipper-jawed,” she says, her phrase for being “out of sorts.” Generally, it was disengaged, with the exception of a few strong-willed board members who were putting pressure on James, she says. “Boards can sometimes overstep and get a little too into the weeds, and that had happened at Ijams.”

Bumpas says she spent the first year redefining how the board would function and working closely with James. “I discovered Ijams had become this dynamic beast and was struggling with its identity of how does the recreational component combine with the nature education part of its mission,” Bumpas says.

A contentious example emerged last September. A group of climbers who have become known as “The Quarry Boys” had cleared The Crag cliff face at Ijams and set climbing bolts for different routes, only to discover the area closed to the public overnight. Climbing would be permitted only when supervised by Ijams or River Sports Outfitters.

Bumpas says the board didn’t even know The Crag had been developed for this sport until it was done, and learned “at the twilight”—days before the park’s insurance was set to lapse—that the insurance company wouldn’t cover Ijams if unsupervised climbing were allowed.

Ijams owns little property itself. The land around the visitor’s center and near the river belongs to the city, as does The Crag climbing area, and Mead’s Quarry belongs to Knox County. Ijams leases the land for a symbolic fee; the city contract required Ijams to have insurance, while the county’s simply renounces county liability.

James says insurance companies seem to have a certain tolerance for adding more recreational activities, “but you reach a certain number—and I don’t know what that is—and carriers get nervous.”

The Crag uproar happened shortly before James resigned, but he says it was not the deciding factor.

“I had been considering moving on for a while, and it was good for me and good for the organization,” he says. James, who is now the development director for the Knoxville History Project (the Mercury’s governing body), added that Parker “seems like a great fit and I wish her well.”

Bumpas says James was not asked to resign. “Sometimes an organization starts to outpace the leadership. Paul is a good man, a Knoxvillian, and his heart is so pure. He cared so much about that organization that after a year of reflection with me and the executive committee, he recognized it was evolving faster than he could—or wanted to—keep up with.”

In the last year, a significant number of board members have turned over as well, says Bumpas, who will remain board chair until the end of June and then serve as vice chair for another year.

Navitat’s ropes and ziplines rise above Ijams.

Questions Over Access

The Crag closure led to questions about residents having to pay a private company to use public land and waterways. Southern Forest Watch, a nonprofit that successfully sued to eliminate backcountry camping fees in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, threatened in November to file a lawsuit against Ijams for restricting public access to The Crag. Southern Forest Watch and climbers argue that Ijams is protected from liability by the Tennessee Recreational Use Statute.

Even if so, the city contract required insurance, James points out.

“At the end of the day, we are a small nonprofit and can’t afford the liability,” Bumpas says. “The goal was 30 days (to reopen The Crag), and it just couldn’t happen. And it broke my heart.”

Rock climber and artist Kelly Brown, who wove many of the vine structures at Ijams, was impatient with the slow pace of Ijams’ efforts to reopen The Crag, a rock face he volunteered to make accessible to local climbers.

Climber Kelly Brown, who bolted two of the climbing routes at The Crag, expressed frustration in early April that a solution had taken so long. “It kills me. Everyone’s dragging their feet,” he says. “It’s been over six months, and now it’s spring and everyone wants to climb.” Brown, an artist whose whimsical woven-vine wigwams are a favorite feature in the children’s play area at Ijams, says it’s a good idea for the city to take over The Crag.

One of Parker’s first actions was a meeting with The Crag Committee of climbers, which all sides described as positive. Some of the climbers even agreed to help with the River Rescue cleanup earlier this month, scrambling down steep escarpments into creeks that had seemed unreachable in the past.

Climber Micah McCrotty says the meeting with Parker made the Crag Committee confident The Crag would be reopened. “She has an interesting and interactive vision for Ijams,” he says. “I was impressed with her.”

Townsend and Parker say they heard nothing more from Southern Forest Watch about a lawsuit. But John Quillen, its board president, says he and four lawyers met with the Crag Committee in January to plan a legal strategy, which included giving Parker time to settle in. Quillen says he had planned to deliver a notice of intent to sue on Monday, until the quarry was reopened two days before that. He called Parker’s claim to have heard nothing more about a lawsuit “disingenuous” but adds, “I’m happy with this outcome.”

Quillen says Bumpas and Townsend scoffed at his suggestion last fall that the city manage The Crag, claiming that insurance coverage was pending. He says he remains concerned that Parker has called the city hand-off a temporary solution, because he doesn’t want Ijams in charge of The Crag in the future.

Parker says it may be permanent, but she wants the board to consider its options during an upcoming long-term planning process.

Quillen and others have also criticized Ijams’ decision not to allow private boats on Mead’s Quarry Lake. “That quarry belongs to the citizens of Knox County, all of them. Not just the ones that pay River Sports for the privilege of renting a boat,” Quillen wrote in an email.

He sent Parker a letter Tuesday asking that the lake be opened to private boats and swimmers, saying he’d appeal to the Knox County Commission if Ijams’ board did not agree.

But fees for using county parks are nothing new. The county charges for the use of ball fields and golf greens, and has a concession with River Sports to rent boats and paddle boards at The Cove, a county park. That contract was also questioned this year by a company that was outbid, publicly claiming River Sports had privileged information about maintenance practices that allowed it to bid lower.

Ijams leaders say they’ll continue to limit lake access, although Parker says the boat rental contract will be opened to bidding in the future. County Parks Director Doug Bataille, who also serves on the Ijams board, says he’ll be part of the long-term planning process as Ijams discusses such policies.

“The benefit of rental-only access is that it helps ensure a safe and enjoyable experience by limiting the number of boats on such a small body of water,” Bataille says. “We want good public access, but safety is the most important factor.”

Hann says he “was one of the chief complainers” about the policy at first, but it now makes sense to him for the same reasons Bataille cites. “I think it had a rocky start, but it’s working out well,” Hann says, noting that private boats can now access the river at Ijams.

Partnerships like the one with River Sports allow Ijams to offer experiences it couldn’t manage on its own, Parker says. “That’s why we often work with people to bring someone in who does have that expertise,” she says. But she adds that Ijams should re-evaluate those partnerships each year. “If we ever find it’s in conflict with the mission, then it doesn’t need to happen.”

Bumpas says she thinks the for-profit partnerships provide Ijams with benefits beyond dollars—like the way Navitat’s marketing raises Ijams’ profile, too.

“(Parker) will be focused on how we maximize those partnerships and looking at new contract terms,” Bumpas says. “Those could go deeper than money—to create a unique experience for visitors so they want to come back, and also to drive revenue back to Ijams.”

A kayaker paddles across Meads Quarry lake at Ijams on a Sunday afternoon.

Moving Forward

Townsend returned to run Ijams in October until a new director was chosen. Its budget had doubled to about $1.2 million since he left, although the number of staff are about the same.

“What’s been nice is I think the nature center has taken on its own identity,” Townsend says. “When we did our search for a new director, we had applications from across the country. Ijams is viewed very favorably among other nature centers.”

It took only a few months to name a new director. Parker has a history in the region, having served as special programs coordinator and education director at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont in Great Smoky Mountains National Park from 2001 to 2008. Her most recent job was running the Chincoteague Bay Field Station in Virginia, which juggles many partnerships.

No matter how popular recreation at Ijams has become, its mission will always be education, Townsend says.

“We recognized early on that if we capture children’s imaginations at 6, 10, even teenagers—when they got older, they had an appreciation for the natural world,” Townsend says. “And so our hope was always that future lawyers, developers, and businessmen of this community would have that foundational piece within them: ‘I like nature. I want to take care of it.’”

Parker’s already planning to add extensive new preschool programming. (Some premier nature centers actually operate a half-day preschool program.) While declining to share details yet, education director Jennifer Roder says the additional preschool offerings “are going to be big.”

Parker also wants to expand the current “preschool playdate” model to offer creative, muddy, off-trail experiences to more age groups.

A recent playdate featured a “mud pie kitchen.” Naturalist Ashlind Koskela provided a big bin full of sticky mud the consistency of chocolate frosting, and the kids dug in with plastic spatulas and big spoons, “seasoning” their creations—Meatballs! Truffles!—with the dirt under their feet. A little girl shoveling up mulch said, “We need sprinkles.”

“One of the things we like to do is find leaves and sticks and make soup for the fairies,” Roder explained. “Someone gets a bonus! Miss Ashlind found a worm!”

A parent interrupted to ask on behalf of a teen-age tag-along, “Can he pick up frogs?”

“If he’s careful, yes,” Roder replied.

Elizabeth Summers and Lori Lawson said they hope to enroll their (momentarily muddy) 4- and 5-year-old in Ijams’ home school field trip program next year—this year’s home school slots filled in minutes—and wish Ijams offered a curriculum for older home schooled students, too.

“You can’t beat the price,” Lawson said. After all, it’s free. “Here you get to learn a ton and get the kids outside.”

Parker wants to further explore how Ijams can engage “underserved users” in the community, like those learning English as a second language and those who lack transportation. Ijams has already partnered with Girls Outside for guided girl hikes, and with the Boys and Girls Club of the Tennessee Valley to send inner-city youth to Ijams’ outdoor summer camps for free. (Volunteers were busy last month building new play spaces and an eating area at the camp drop-off.)

Parker wants Ijams to be a resource for local governments, too.

“Is Ijams just at Ijams, or is it broader?” she asks. “People in the western part of the county may have trouble getting here. Does the county need help with programming in other parts of the county?”

To expand adult education options, Parker envisions classes on painting and nature photography. She wants to engage visitors in citizen science projects and include more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) elements in school programs.

“Nature centers across the country now are really going to be the ‘go-to places’ for science,” Parker says. “We are seeing some changes in public policy right now, and we have to step up and find new ways to engage the public in science, whether it be climate change, how to deal with invasive plants in your yard, or how to get kids outside.”

She says she’d like to start a campaign to educate the public about invasive plants while recruiting volunteers to “help us be warriors” against the English ivy, periwinkle, and other invasives that overrun the woods around Ijams.

“We want people to have a vision of what a real East Tennessee habitat should be like,” Parker says. “Now you have to go to the Smokies to see that, and you shouldn’t have to go that far.”

Ijams plans to expand its programming for young children, who enjoy meeting the resident native wildlife and making mud pies at toddler play dates. From left, sisters Sirena Mueller, 3, and Aveana Mueller, 4, sprinkle their creations with moss and bark.

Some choose not to. Stephanie Mueller and her family live in Kodak, about an equal distance from Ijams and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but she says she often brings her daughters to Ijams because it’s less crowded and offers so many playgroups and programs for young kids. At the preschool playdate mudfest, her daughters Sirena, 3, and Aveana, 4, concentrated seriously on patting mud into aluminum pans and decorating the tops of their “cakes” with moss, mulch and nuts.

Parker acknowledges that Ijams’ popularity and all this new programming might lead to increased staff and space needs, as well as more trained volunteers. (Ijams estimates it already has 1,600 volunteers.) She’d like to create a volunteer speakers’ bureau, for example. 

“In a couple of years, we’re probably going to be looking at where to have other facilities,” she adds.

Before Ijams makes any significant changes, Parker will work with the board on redefining Ijams’ priorities in a five-year plan, Bumpas says.

Parker says she hopes to start that in fall, but needs a grant for planning public stakeholder meetings to get community input.

“We want to find a way for everyone to see Ijams holistically,” instead of from the viewpoint of a single type of activity, she says. “We want to help everyone see the whole picture and see a path forward.”

UPDATE 4/14

Parker responded to Quillen with a Thursday email in which she affirms previously stated safety reasons for not opening the quarry to private watercraft and invites Quillen to come talk with her and share his ideas. But she also disputes some of his points.

“I am glad you had the same idea that Ijams had and that ultimately it was the one that rose to the top,” she writes. Parker gives full credit to David Brace, Knoxville director of public works, for being “the driving force behind the transition of the Crag back to the city.”

She also challenges Quillen’s assertion that she had been “disingenuous.”

“To call me disingenuous is to call me a liar and that won’t fly,” she writes. “I don’t lie to my staff, the public, or the press.”

Sidebar: Greenbacks for Growing Greenspace

Ijams leaders say Knoxville’s premier nature center is in good financial shape.

However, the nonprofit has operated at a loss for the last two years. Tax documents show Ijams’ expenses exceeded revenue by about $70,000 in 2015 and by about $54,000 the previous year. (2016 returns are not complete.) Its fund balance appears to have made up the difference, but the nonprofit has been slowly drawing down its savings a little each year, to $3.8 million in 2015.

Executive Director Amber Parker says she prefers to see surpluses that can be re-invested into the organization, and will work toward that at Ijams, probably through a combination of program revenue, cost savings, membership, and fundraising.

On the plus side, income from contributions and grants increased from about $590,000 in 2014 to $644,000 the following year. Board president Kim Bumpas says she would like Ijams to focus more on meeting revenue goals.

Ijams charges small fees (usually between $5 and $15) for some programs. But parking, hiking, biking, and touring the visitor’s center are free.

Townsend says the key may be doing a better job of conveying what Ijams is and what it needs. “More and more this recreation piece has come into play, so a lot of people enjoy the park but don’t realize we are underwritten heavily by donations and membership,” Townsend says. “Many people think we’re just a city park, but the city is only about 12 to 13 percent of our budget.”

Even Marta Willard, who has brought two generations of children to catch frogs at the pond, didn’t know Ijams had a membership program. She visited on a recent Saturday with her 4-year-old granddaughter Jordan, who was dragging a stick three times her size and weaving it through holes in a big limestone rock.

Bumpas says the first priority is getting more of Ijams’ visitors to purchase memberships. Memberships brought in about $200,000 of the $1.2 million in revenue Ijams earned in its last budget year, says Parker.

More for-profit partnerships could also boost revenue. For example, Parker says she’s been talking with Yee-Haw Brewing Company about putting on some food and music events. (Yee-Haw is already the supplier of the beer Ijams sells at Mead’s Quarry.) But Bumpas says she’d also like to see Ijams offer fewer programs and events that don’t relate to nature, like Halloween fright trails and movies.

Past and present leaders agreed that it’s unclear how much more room there is for new day-to-day private concessions because of the need to protect habitat for wildlife. Parker says the strategic planning process will look at the question of the carrying capacity in different parts of the park..

“The problem used to be: How do we let people know we’re here? And now it’s: How do we manage all those different uses?” says Bo Townsend, who spent a decade running Ijams in the 1990s and recently returned as interim director until Parker came on board in February. “We may exclude people from certain areas. We’re anticipating that will get harder. So far the impact hasn’t been unmanageable, but I think it could be if we’re not careful.”

Still, Parker says an organization needs to be nimble enough to take advantage of opportunities, as Ijams did in acquiring the quarry and establishing boat rentals through River Sports. “I think of it as the ‘ready, fire, aim’ method, and I like it,” she says. “Do it and see what happens, and then you aim it more.”

Bumpas says Ijams has missed some opportunities to earn revenue from the outdoor recreation on the property, but declined to elaborate, saying such changes would be up to Parker.

“I think if people knew that every dollar you dropped went to the mission, they’d be willing to pay,” Bumpas says.

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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