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Expanding Oak Ridge Trail System Will Impact Regional Outdoor Recreation

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Heather Duncan

On a recent fall morning, Jon Hetrick, parks and recreation director for the city of Oak Ridge, picked his way down an abandoned railroad track near Elza Gate Park. Branches whipped his face as he pushed past honeysuckle and junipers growing between split wooden railway ties covered with moss. He stepped over a cowering box turtle.

“Right now it’s pretty much an overgrown mess,” Hetrick said. Some portions can’t be walked at all, running behind wildflower fields and through woods.

But within a few years, 4.6 miles of these tracks are slated to be removed and replaced with an asphalt greenway. It connects the popular Emory Valley and Melton Hill Lake trail systems right past two public schools, Roane State Community College, and commercial businesses. The route will end across Scarboro Road from the Y-12 National Security Complex.

Federal funds will pay 80 percent of the $4.4 million price tag. Although it may also seek some corporate donors, Oak Ridge has included the rest of the cost in its capital improvement budget.

Park advocates say it wasn’t hard to convince the city council to invest: Trail development is considered a key to enticing more people to live in the formerly “Secret City” built to develop atomic weapons during World War II. Population growth is needed to expand the tax base, spreading out the burden of maintaining the city’s aging infrastructure, said City Council member Jim Dodson.

Trails, mobility and sense of place were all emphasized in a “City Blueprint '' for growth approved two years ago by Oak Ridge City Council. Leading to the document, public meetings and surveys revealed that residents place a high value on the city’s natural assets. The rails-to-trail project was among the ideas the Blueprint endorsed. Another was constructing an East Fork Poplar Creek trail, which was recently finished with the help of volunteers and local partners like the Clinch Valley Trail Alliance and Legacy Parks. Oak Ridge also opened new “dirt lab” mountain bike and pump tracks at Haw Ridge Park last year.

Councilman Jim Dodson says the city’s efforts are already paying off; the number of homes being built a year is growing from 20 or 30 to around 100. He and Hetrick agreed that locals have grown even hungrier for trails since COVID-19 curtailed indoor events.

“Trails in general are just very popular these days, especially since the COVID pandemic,” Hetrick said. “People are really wanting to go out and do outdoor recreation. We’re seeing tremendous growth, tremendous usage.”

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Heather Duncan

That enthusiasm was visible at a public meeting to share the design of the rails-to-trail project and invite feedback about parking, amenities like benches and water fountains, and a name for the trail. The next step will be negotiations with CSX, which has indicated support for the project and has already offered to remove the rails and ties, Hetrick said. The railroad last used the line around 2006, to transport materials to build the Buffalo Mountain Wind Farm, Hetrick said.

Linda Grobelny, who lives on Culver Road in a neighborhood near the tracks, came to last week’s meeting with concerns about how the city would work with property owners near the trail. But she’s looking forward to reaching Melton Lake safely by foot.

“We’d like a nice walking trail near the home,” she said. “We try walking in the industrial area on Warehouse (Road), but it gets a little risky with the cars.”

Dodson, who teaches art at Jefferson Middle School, suggested the city could hold half-marathons and other running events on the trail instead of shutting down streets.

“As a city council member as well as somebody who is a teacher at one of the schools that will be adjacent to the new rails-to-trails project, I’m very excited about that -- not only for the city of Oak RIdge but for my students here who can utilize that as a jogging path,” Dodson said. “We could even use it in our cross country meets and things like that.”

Although this trail has been in the works since 2012, it has become part of a larger vision. Oak Ridge consulted the non-profit Legacy Parks Foundation about how it could create a homegrown version of the Urban Wilderness trail network in South Knoxville.

Legacy Parks has arranged and temporarily held trail and park easements to expand recreational options in Knoxville, leading to the creation of a loop of popular Urban Wilderness trails. Combined with the beginner and expert-level mountain biking trails and skills tracks at Baker Creek Preserve, this has helped make Knoxville into a regional mountain biking attraction and caused property values to increase in nearby neighborhoods. An economic study found that this Urban Wilderness generates $21 million a year in economic impact.

Carol Evans, executive director of Legacy Parks, says Oak Ridge has just as much to offer outdoors enthusiasts -- more, if you count its rowing facility that hosts national events. The town boasts 150 miles of shoreline. Yet the former Secret City seems to have inadvertently kept its natural riches under wraps, too.

“Surprisingly to some of us, they have a very extensive greenway system -- I think it’s 100 miles of trails and greenways -- which they are not known for,” Evans said. “And so I think the work we would love to continue with them is the visibility of recognizing some of the unique assets they have, very very similar to what we discovered in Knoxville.”

The Appalachian Mountain Bike Club, which maintains many of Knoxville’s trails and holds events in the Urban Wilderness, served as a model partner. The Clinch Valley Trail Alliance stepped up to serve a similar role in Oak Ridge, Evans said.

The Alliance was created about four years ago to create and maintain biking and hiking trails in the Anderson County area, and now maintains about 80 miles of trail, said co-founder and vice president Brad Spears.

Last year, Legacy Parks created a guidebook of natural assets in Anderson and Roane Counties and the city of Oak Ridge. Evans says it functions as a menu of potential projects for local governments or donors to pursue. The non-profit also acquired easements to facilitate the city’s South Fork Poplar Creek greenway project and for several recreation areas on state or federal land. It’s now creating wayfinding signage to help Oak Ridgers more easily find and use their greenways.

Looking ahead, Oak Ridge parks advocates are also casting an eye toward the Bull Run Fossil Plant, a coal-fired power plant near the Clinch River that is being decommissioned by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 2023. Dodson and Evans said that property could eventually be incorporated into the existing system of nearby parks and greenways on the waterfront.

The Department of Energy is also a potential partner in significant trail development. “There are so many natural resources here, and the access to them is increasing as the Department of Energy shrinks its footprint,” Spears pointed out.

The Clinch Valley Trail Alliance works with the Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee to maintain trails on some of the land DOE has cleaned up or retired from use. Many Department of Energy sites nationwide have kept undeveloped, natural buffers to maintain secrecy and security as well as to protect neighbors from exposure to potentially dangerous contamination. As a result, these areas have often remained natural landscapes rich in biodiversity. The Oak Ridge area is no exception.

Evans said Legacy Parks is involved in continuing conversations with the U.S. Department of Energy about granting public access to Pine Ridge, a part of the Oak Ridge reservation, which has the potential for 40 miles of trail.

Outside Oak Ridge, Anderson County is already home to Windrock Park, a 73,000-ace biking and off-roading park in Oliver Springs. And it will soon host the new Aspire Park in Clinton, planned to have 18 miles of biking and hiking trails.

Evans notes that Oak Ridge is perfectly placed between Windrock and Knoxville as a base for visiting mountain bikers. “It’s almost like we’re becoming the epicenter here,” he said.

Having all these projects within less than an hour of each other can help counties in the region develop a joint identity as a destination for outdoor recreation, Evans said.

“A wonderful characteristic of outdoor recreation is it can be noncompetitive,” she said. “More is better... Travelers don’t know where the county line is, nor does it matter.”

Regional biking opportunities continue to expand. Legacy Parks is also working with Cocke County on developing a mountain biking trail system. Meanwhile, the National Park Service has proposed mountain bike trails as part of the Foothills Parkway extension in Sevier County.

“When those two come to fruition we’ll rival any other destination in the country to be able to go one place and you could ride somewhere different every day,” Evans said.

Oak Ridge is also working with other local governments to connect trail systems across the region. “Part of the overarching goal would be, once we get to the end of this trail on Scarboro Road, to connect it to the other end of Melton Lake Greenway and ultimately cross the Solway Bridge and connect to the Cedar Bluff area,” Hetrick said. “In the long run, we’d be part of a trail system to connect all the way to the Smokies.”

The public can make comments on the Rails to Trails design, suggest a name for the trail or ask a question by emailing railstotrails@oakridgetn.gov. Learn more at http://orrecparks.oakridgetn.gov/rails-to-trails.