KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — A project that started in Knoxville and is flowing up to Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky is ready to sign up communities to make "North America's next great regional trail system" a reality.
The Tennessee RiverLine project started in 2016 to create a network of trails to paddle, hike and bike along the 652-mile length of the Tennessee River. Now it is taking the next step by signing up its first batch of RiverTowns to participate in the project.
Communities have until August 14 to sign up for the RiverTowns project. The inaugural group of RiverTowns will be announced at the end of September.
Dustin Toothman is part of the Tennessee RiverLine project and wants people to see the Tennessee River as something that connects communities, instead of something that just flows through them.
"That's really what it's about, is getting people to think about it more than just on-river experiences, but being in the communities," said Toothman. "We want to create better access and educate people about everything that is along the river."
The School of Landscape Architecture at the University of Tennessee's College of Architecture and Design started working on the idea four years ago. In 2019, it set up its first pilot program at five locations, including Roane County. The program includes efforts to create more access points from the water into communities from Knoxville to Paducah, Kentucky.
"Recreational tourism is huge," said Toothman. "We're thinking about being able to provide that to all the communities, as well as the economic development that will drive."
The RiverLine Partnership now includes support from several groups, such as TVA and the National Park Service.
Toothman calls the RiverLine a "generational project" that will increase recreational usage of the Tennessee River. In turn, it may create generations of people who care about the river and provide environmental stewardship.
"It is one of the most biologically diverse freshwater systems in America," said Toothman. "When you look at it as 1.2 million acres of public land, I had no idea before working on this project the context of how much the river impacts."