Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, December 17, 2021

A path to nature for more

TPL’s Durant working to give all Chattanoogans access to park space

Unlike poet Robert Frost, who described coming upon two roads and taking only one, Noel Durant is simultaneously walking down a pair of paths.

He’s moving briskly along one – an unfinished portion of the South Chickamauga Creek Greenway that stretches for 3 miles from the intersection of Shallowford and Moore Roads to Faith Road.

This section of the greenway is still closed to the public, but as the Tennessee director of the Trust for Public Land – which is developing the trail – he’s free to walk its length and informally inspect the work of the crews laboring to complete the project.

Once finished, the section on which Durant is walking will fill a middle segment of the 12-mile greenway, a serpentine path that begins at Camp Jordan in East Ridge and winds alongside South Chickamauga Creek to the Tennessee Riverwalk near downtown Chattanooga.

At 6 feet tall, Durant’s stride would quickly carry him along the 10-foot-wide path of wooden planks, but his hurried pace turns his southward walk into what would be a light jog for many people. There’s simply so much to see.

Durant stops, leans over a handrail and looks toward a cluster of trees that rise out of the shoreline and stretch 120 feet upward to greet the walkway.

“There’s a cool plant species growing on the sides of those trees,” he says, pointing toward a coarse red mass called resurrection fern. “It’s brown most of the time, but when it gets moisture this time of year, it springs back to life.”

Durant, 35, is plodding along the second path, which is figurative. This trail consists not of planks and handrails but of time and toil. At its center lies his reason for serving as the director of a land trust.

The son of not just two Signal Mountain residents who loved the outdoors but also the very woods in which they essentially raised him, Durant says he has a deep appreciation and respect for nature.

His reverence for the outdoors fuels his work with the TPL. While he enjoys his ability to access Chattanooga’s natural amenities, it’s not enough for him to lace up his hiking boots and explore a trail on Signal Mountain, or to hop on his mountain bike and tackle Stringer’s Ridge – he wants all of the city’s residents to be able to have access to similar experiences.

To Durant, the story about Chattanooga’s outdoor amenities is a story about equitable access to resources. And nearly 35 years after the Tennessee Riverwalk first opened, the city is only at the trailhead, he says as he stops at the greenway’s access point for Cromwell Hills, a 200-unit public housing community.

To reach Cromwell’s connection to the greenway, Durant has traversed a mile of walkway construction that took crews two years and $4 million to build.

Durant says this will be money well spent once the greenway is complete because it will offer the residents of Cromwell immediate access to not only nature but also the economic opportunities that lie beyond the trail’s connection to the Tennessee Riverwalk.

“The story of Chattanooga’s experience with the outdoors depends on your ZIP code,” he says. “Close-to-home access to nature is not universal in this city. And we’d love to change that. We’d love for everyone to have access to a neighborhood park within a 10-minute walk.”

Durant says Cromwell Hills is a good example of why it’s important to not only prioritize close-to-home access to the outdoors but to also understand who those spaces will serve and how those people will utilize them.

“Cromwell Hills houses over 400 residents, many of whom are dependent on a transit system that’s not always running. And the quarry, rail lines and creek hem them in. They’re effectively isolated.

“The greenway will not only provide them with close-to-home access to the outdoors, but it will also serve as a viable transportation alternative to Amnicola Highway and the employment and education opportunities there.”

With 35,000-plus people living within 1 mile of the greenway, the trail can potentially have a significant impact on the city’s economy, Durant adds.

Completing the greenway, however, has taken decades, and is requiring the quick-gaited Durant, who began serving at the TPL’s Tennessee director Nov. 1, to walk at a bureaucratic pace.

“This work is not easy. It’s complicated. There are many intricate components,” Durant says with the voice of someone who knows it takes years to grow a meadow and has the patience to do the slow work.

The South Chickamauga Greek Greenway rose out of the early success of the Tennessee Riverwalk and the notion of building a path that emulated the city’s tributaries, Durant recounts.

South Chickamauga Creek, which flows from McLemore Cove to the Tennessee River, was the logical choice, he continues. Not only is it scenic but it’s also home to species found nowhere else, including the Chickamauga Crayfish and a specific kind of snail darter (a small ray-finned freshwater fish).

After responding to the city of Chattanooga’s request for proposal in 1993 and securing the contract, the TPL began working on the greenway the following year.

By 2015, only the 3-mile gap was left undone. Closing it has required a multifaceted cooperative effort between the TPL and the City of Chattanooga, each of which is developing a segment of the gap.

The TPL retained the most complicated portion – the stretch that runs past Cromwell Hills – because navigating both the topography and the human-made structures along its expanse required the kind of flexibility only private developers have, Durant says.

“We needed to navigate railroad bridges, as well as deal with the regulatory oversight that comes with building within the floodway of a creek. Those factors lent the project to private development. When something came up, we were able to work directly with the contractor and engineers.”

As Durant walks back toward where he started, he passes under one of two CSX railroad trestles that cross this section of the greenway.

“We had to negotiate with the railroad to build under its right of way,” Durant explains. “Coming up with a design that met the railroad’s criteria took time.”

The TPL also had to drum up the funds it needed to undertake the project. In the end, money from private philanthropy, public state grants and capital funding from the city of Chattanooga made it possible for the TPL to complete its portion of the gap.

“These things took time,” Durant says. “But they’ll be worth the effort and expense.”

Beyond the still hypothetical fiscal benefits of the completed greenway lie the tangible benefit of natural preservation – an issue so close to Durant’s heart, it’s become his life’s work.

“Chattanooga has amazing public spaces, but they’re not universally known or loved. For these spaces to remain as they are, we need everyone to know and love the nature that’s close to home and to say the city’s public lands matter.

“You don’t have to be a mountain biker or rock climber to enjoy the outdoors. It’s a universal experience; it’s for everyone.”

Preserving nature and creating engaging outdoor experiences, however, is not for everyone. Rather, it’s for people like Durant, who all but grew up with his feet planted in soil and developed a heart and mind focused on taking care of the space outside his doors.

A Chattanooga native, Durant graduated from McCallie School in 2004 and then studied natural resources management at Clemson University in the hopes of working in the environmental field.

A fire management internship with the National Park Service took him west on wildland firefighting assignments. There, Durant encountered skilled firefighters called hotshots. The level of challenge and sense of adventure appealed to Durant, who joined the Alpine Hotshots.

During his last season with the crew, he spent 14 days fighting a fire deep in the Trinity Alps in California. When he returned to the truck and checked his voicemail, he learned his dad had undergone two heart operations while he was in the woods.

“I had wanted to become a smokejumper, but that reoriented my priorities,” Durant recalls.

After returning to the Chattanooga area in 2010 to be close to family, Durant joined the Lula Lake Land Trust in Lookout Mountain, Georgia as its land manager. He continued his land trust work in 2013 when he became the TPL’s Chattanooga program director.

In 2017, Durant and his wife, Erin, moved to Crested Butte, Colorado, an isolated mountain community, where he served as executive director of the Crested Butte Land Trust.

Durant’s role placed him in charge of conservation and stewardship in the Gunnison Valley, which he says is populated with people who are well-connected to the land.

“When you live there, you are of there. Everyone has a shared love and respect for the place.”

Durant says this level of understanding made many things possible. It also taught him lessons about leadership that are serving him well in his current role with the TPL, he adds.

“When standup paddle boards came along, they made the Gunnison River more accessible. So, we found ourselves with a new form of recreation that was threatening a natural resource,” Durant remembers.

To find a solution, Durant invited ranchers, recreationists and wildlife advocates to gather together under the umbrella of science.

“If there were blue herons on a property that were sensitive to human pressure, then we studied them to figure out when it would be OK for recreationists to float past,” he explains.

Durant says the experience taught him the importance of shared values.

“That was not an easy process, but to our core, we agreed that place was special and we wanted to see it inspire others for generations to come.”

Durant and his wife returned to Chattanooga in 2020, their first child in tow. He then rejoined the TPL as its institutional giving manager.

Although Durant can’t say when the greenway will be complete, he’s hoping it will be opened to be public in 2022 – complete with resurrection ferns, Chickamauga Crayfish and diverse outdoor lovers from across the city.

George Dusenbury, regional vice president of the TPL, says he’s confident Durant will shepherd the greenway to completion and is looking forward to the work Durant will oversee across all of Tennessee in the years to come.

“The Trust for Public Land’s Tennessee office has had a series of outstanding directors since we began working in Chattanooga nearly four decades ago. We knew the next chapter of our work in the state would require someone with deep connections to the region, as well as innovative ideas about how to organize residents, supporters and other stakeholders.

“Above all, we needed a leader who understands how great parks and public spaces could and should benefit all members of a community. We conducted a rigorous national search and found the ideal candidate in someone who was already at home in the Tennessee Valley.”

When Durant is not endeavoring to restore Tennessee’s public lands and create more parks, he joins his wife in stewarding a farm for a local family.

“We love the rural community and taking care of animals and a place that rely on us,” he notes. “It gives us a different perspective on why Chattanooga is important.”

Even during those hours, Durant says his thoughts press against the edges of the property and escape to the public lands beyond it, where he hopes to motivate generations of people to become good stewards of the natural resources others have passed down to them.

“I still value my time outside, but I don’t get as much satisfaction as I used to out of figuring out how many days I can spend riding my mountain bike. Instead, I wonder what I can do that will be a public good for a long time. That’s what I care about.”