It takes people to keep nature natural
In researching “hikeability” in and around Chattanooga, I found one glaring contrast: In Chattanooga, there are miles and miles of eminently accessible hiking, with more on the way. Officials speak with excitement of “connectivity,” of soon being able to walk from Camp Jordan to the Riverwalk, or the Riverwalk to Cloudland Canyon State Park in Georgia.
All this is free and open to the public, and the public eats it up. “People just love the Riverwalk,” said Rick Wood, Tennessee director of the Trust for Public Land (TPL). “It is valued and it is cherished.”
Cross the Georgia border and you’ll find that people there also value Cloudland Canyon—to the tune of a $5 parking fee per visit or $80 for an annual park pass. Georgia’s state parks began charging admittance a few years back after the budget-challenged state directed its park service to become self-supporting.
And people who really cherish their park not only pay the 80 smackers, they also volunteer their time to maintain its trails, stage its events, provide its programs and sell serious hot dogs to raise it funds.
Case in point is Greg Foster of Friends of Cloudland Canyon State Park, who spends a hefty portion of his life with chainsaw in hand, cutting fallen trees off existing trails or bossing around groups of college kids who arrive to carve out new ones.
He says another volunteer group, Southern Off-Road Bicycling Association (SORBA), was instrumental in building the park’s extensive new Five Points network of hiking/biking trails, which Foster describes as “the talk of the Southeast.”
Foster also coordinates an adopt-a-trail program whereby Friends volunteers keep park trails free of garbage and underbrush.
“The only time the state actually sends a paid maintenance person out to fix something is if it’s kind of an emergency thing,” he said, “like a tree is leaning and people could get hurt.”
So why do Georgians not only pay but also labor for what Chattanoogans get free? TPL’s Rick Wood says it has something to do with the fact that 80 percent of America’s population lives in cities. “So the resurgence is happening in cities,” he said. “Cities are reinvesting in themselves.”
Parks are an important quality-of-life factor in cities, said Wood, but greenways have an extra perk: “It’s not just for fun but it becomes a commuter route,” he said. “It becomes a way of transportation.”
Furthermore, he said, the Riverwalk has proved that providing a public amenity can make solid fiscal sense for a town. “Now the river is a place you want to be,” he said. “We’re very proud when a broker or realtor or a developer has in their brochure, ‘Buy this home or lease this office—it’s right next to the Riverwalk.’”
Ruth Thompson of Outdoor Chattanooga says it’s not just a matter of cities in general but of this one in particular. “We are lucky in Chattanooga because as public funding diminishes for public lands, we have private entities that are willing to step up in and fill in the gaps,” she said.
For Chattanooga’s wealth of public land, she gave credit in particular to the Lyndhurst Foundation and the Lula Lake Land Trust, as well as to SORBA and TPL.
Rick Wood acknowledged that yes, government funds for public land are drying up. “There’s less federal money, there’s less state money, and there’s less city dollars out there to purchase property,” he said. “Now we find ourselves raising private capital to help plan and implement and construct that park.”
In the case of the Riverwalk, said Wood, about 25 percent of the funds were private, and there were also gifts of land.
As for maintenance, said Wood, Chattanooga, just like Georgia, relies on volunteerism. The new Stringer’s Ridge city park, for example, would probably not have been possible without its Friends group.
“They can’t arrest anybody and they can’t really police it, but they can go up there and manage it,” said Wood. “If a trail needs maintenance, they can fix it. If they’re seeing somebody up there doing something they shouldn’t, bad behavior, they can put peer pressure on them or they can call the police.”
Also, he said, the Friends raise funds.
Greg Foster said that public trails throughout the U.S. are volunteer-maintained, that government entities no longer even budget for it. “That’s never going to reverse itself,” he said.
Wood agreed that, right or wrong: “I think right now it’s reality.”