Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, October 8, 2021

From privet-filled to nearly pristine

Reflection Riding plan features area’s precious natural assets

In 1886, as the story goes, a dense, decorative shrub known as privet took root in what would become Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Although the party who introduced the fertile plant has faded from local memory, privet continues to thrive in the area more than 150 years later.

Mark McKnight, president and CEO of Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center, has gone toe-to-toe with privet, which grows like weeds wherever it’s left unattended, and lived to tell the tale.

When McKnight assumed leadership of Reflection Riding in 2017, the plant had a stranglehold on about a dozen of the arboretum’s 300 acres. At the time, he likened the patch to a jungle.

“As long as you cut privet back, it’s a beautiful hedge,” he explains. “But if you ever stop, or if it goes to seed, the cat is out of the bag.”

Over time, privet had smothered the native plants in the flood plain where it had spread at Reflection Riding and become the dominant species, creating a lopsided ecosystem.

“That’s never a good thing,” McKnight continues. “Even when a native species overwhelms everything else, something is out of balance.”

Judging by the size of the largest trunks, which McKnight says were as big as dinner plates, the privet at Reflection Riding was between 40 and 50 years old.

To return balance to the area, the nonprofit hired an invasive plant control company out of Nashville to cut the privet and spray the stumps.

“These weren’t weeds we could just send kids to pull out of the ground; we needed professional help,” McKnight says.

Two winter weeks and $25,000 later, the company was finished and Reflection Riding’s volunteers went to work removing what the pros had left behind. This labor of love took 2,000 hours and saved thousands of dollars in additional fees, McKnight says.

Then, when the spring sun warmed the soil, something natural – but also magical – happened.

“The native seed bank was still there,” McKnight says. “The plants that had been there for thousands of years were still in the soil. And with the privet gone, they started to grow.”

Among the plants that stretched their limbs for the first time in several decades was Trillium lancifolium, which McKnight says is endangered in Tennessee.

For years, the privet at Reflection Riding had starved the species, which McKnight says would dutifully begin to grow each spring and then die due to a lack of sunlight.

“It bloomed everywhere,” McKnight says excitedly. “The best part is we don’t know a lot about it, as very little scholarly research has been done. And now it’s growing beside our parking lot.”

Peering into the woods, the casual observer might not be able to spot the plant. But it’s there, and its reemergence was a significant win for McKnight, who the board brought on to give new life to not only the Trillium lancifolium but also Reflection Riding itself.

What is now known as Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center began in 1925 as an idea in the mind of Chattanooga lawyer John Alexander Chambliss.

With his wife, Margaret, and the collaboration of Marie and Harold Humphries, Chambliss created a farm with a variety of views and called it a “riding,” an 18th-century term for a landscape that unfolds as one rides through on horseback.

Over the next two decades, Chambliss then developed what he called a botanic drive-thru. In 1951, he named the attraction “Reflection Riding” and began marketing it to tourists.

Little changed until 1970, when a second organization, Chattanooga Nature Center, was founded on the same sprawl.

In the years that followed, Chattanooga experienced a renaissance that transformed the city from the dirtiest in America – according to Walter Cronkite – to a beautified mid-sized Southern town complete with an internationally renowned aquarium and a Volkswagen manufacturing plant.

Tucked away on the western flank of Lookout Mountain, Reflection Riding and Chattanooga Nature Center were not a part of the rebirth, McKnight says.

“This place is a little out of the way, and it takes a bit of effort to get people here,” McKnight says. “So, we didn’t participate in what was taking place elsewhere, and as a result, we were left behind.”

Fast forward to McKnight’s arrival, and all was not well. Reflection Riding’s revenue had dropped by nearly half, the board of directors was shrinking and the organization was still composed of two separate entities.

As the former marketing director of sporting goods retailer Rock/Creek Outfitters and co-founder of outdoor experience website RootsRated, McKnight enjoys connecting people with nature.

So he seized the opportunity when Rock/Creek co-founder Dawson Wheeler asked him if he would like to steer Reflection Riding through a merger and about-face.

Reflection Riding’s trajectory changed following McKnight’s arrival. In 2020, the organization earned nearly five times more revenue than it had in 2016 and was experiencing a steep rise in donations, memberships and grants.

In addition, McKnight recruited new leaders to the board, which merged at the end of 2018.

McKnight’s accomplishments did not end there. He also developed new partnerships throughout the region, secured a $1.8 million conservation easement that will preserve the organization’s 300 acres and completed a strategic planning process.

McKnight recruited acclaimed landscape architecture firm SCAPE to assist with the planning process. Based out of New Orleans and New York City, the firm had impressed him with its master plan for the 430-mile Chattahoochee River.

“We wanted to match the quality of the original development and how special this place is. And SCAPE has not only won awards for its work but it’s also obsessed with the places where land and water and people meet,” McKnight says.

“Their challenge with the Chattahoochee project was reminding people the river exists. Millions of people drive over the river every day, but they don’t notice it.

“So, SCAPE created a plan that draws people to the river and allows for more interaction.”

Developed from the fall of 2020 to the following spring, Reflection Riding’s strategic plan – “Framework for the Future” – combines the input of more than 800 participants, including staff, board members, volunteers, nearby residents and community members, creating a rubric to guide the institution forward while preserving and expanding its current programs.

The framework is focused on multiple objectives, including restoring and stewarding the ecological integrity of the Riding’s native habitats and promoting what McKnight calls “ecological literacy” in Chattanooga’s diverse communities through hands-on experiences.

The framework also envisions an activity hub near the site’s northern entrance that will lead to a new visitor center with scenic views of Lookout Mountain, connections to trails and educational programming.

It also outlines the restoration of native plant communities throughout Reflection Riding, including grasslands, endangered prairies, pine savannas, wet meadows, bottomland forest and more.

In addition, the framework includes an expanded nursery located next to a new visitor center that offers space for education, group gathering, receptions and sales, as well as plant propagation.

Nearby, a new canopy walk will raise the existing boardwalk above the projected flood levels of Lookout Creek and lead to a forest school and kindergarten.

Finally, a new wayfinding system will transform the site’s existing trails into a system of thematic loops that allow visitors to explore different aspects of the site, including geology, hydrology and cultural history.

The keys to unlocking Reflection Riding’s future are time and money, McKnight says. He hopes to have the components of the framework completed by 2030, but he wants the institution to have a permanent endowment in place before it presses forward.

“That’s the only way we’ll be able to sustain the changes for the next generation,” he says.

In the meantime, McKnight will be keeping his eyes peeled for privet.

“Over the next couple of years, we’ll have some intense follow-up to do,” he sighs.

But with Chattanooga community reengaged at Reflection Riding, he says the task is doable.

“Pulling privet is a big part of our education mission. I’ve brought in old colleagues from Rock/Creek, big companies like Blue Cross and even school groups.

“Everybody thought I was crazy, but we need to be teaching kids what this stuff is.”

After the child of a friend visited Reflection Riding as part of a school visit, the acquaintance stopped McKnight downtown and said the youngster came home and started pulling privet out of their backyard.

“That means we’ve succeeded,” McKnight laughs, “which is a good sign for the future.”