Tennessee’s North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy President Taft Sibley on the behind the scenes of creating Walden’s Ridge Park
This is the second installment in a series detailing the trail construction and modernization of Walden’s Ridge Park in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
By Lucy Higgins • September 8, 2022
From nine to five, Chattanooga, Tennessee local Taft Sibley works in property management. Outside of those hours, however, he spends his time in an entirely different managerial role. As president of the North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy, Sibley has spent the past six years working to spearhead and develop Walden’s Ridge Park, a 200-acre, multi-use park with over 10 miles of trails designed for mountain bikers, climbers, and hikers. Now, as the park nears completion, Sibley reflects on the hard work, collaboration, and community support that have been instrumental in creating a project of this scope.
Trails are Common Ground: Where is the project currently at? Is there a date for the park to be opened?
Taft Sibley: Today, we’re done with about 98 percent of the trails. We are in the process of getting our parking lots built. Once everything is built out, we’re going to hand this park over to Hamilton County, and they will own it and maintain it for perpetuity.
We had our fair share of road blocks. But when something as good as this happens, you work hard and you talk to the right people and you figure out your way around them. You just keep on moving.
TaCG: There are a lot of stakeholders and user groups working together within this project. How have you managed all of these different user groups? What are folks’ roles?
TS: We drafted an MOU (memorandum of understanding). And that MOU designated different roles. Like, the Land Trust of Tennessee is a nationally accredited land trust and they’ve got full-time staff. So we kind of sculpted those roles appropriately; the Land Trust for Tennessee was mostly on helping us fundraise and doing some admin work, putting up conservation easements, helping with due diligence.
Myself and Tim Laramore (executive director for the North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy) have worked on project management: communication, volunteer coordination, timelines, community outreach. SORBA (Southern Offroad Bicycle Association; Chattanooga branch) has played this wonderful role of finding the vision and helping make the trails exactly what we want them to be. It’s like having a blank slate. They’re like, “What do you want?” And we’re like, “We want this,” and then they do it. They’re out there on the weekend with shovels and rakes keeping things in shape so when we open [the trails] up, they’re ready to go.
We’ve been working closely with Hamilton County about, “Hey, what does it look like when we open, and how is this thing going to be maintained?” Because we’re handing over a two-million-dollar asset, and it’s going to require more work than just a couple of trails through the woods. So we’ve developed a maintenance plan and some initial budgets that we think it’s going to take to keep it right.
Then we’re really working with our elected officials to say, “This isn’t just a bunch of hippies in the woods. These are doctors and lawyers and accountants who come to our hill and eat in our restaurants and stay in our AirBnBs.” And they see the value of that. The city of Chattanooga has jumped on board and helped us in a variety of different ways. They’ve offered to assist with long-term management and maintenance, too. I think it’s almost like one of those Field of Dreams things where if you build it, and you’ve got the energy, and you’ve got the design and you bring people together to create this community—and it’s something the community wants and needs—then it just kind of takes its course. The water that rains on the top of the mountain eventually makes it to the sea.
We’ve had a handful of folks say, “Where are the green trails?” Our response to that is that Chattanooga has great biking trails. We’ve got 25 or 30 miles of paved river walk, we’ve got all of the gravel grinding you could do 15 minutes from town. We feel like it’s not our park’s job to serve that sector of bikers. We’ve found we have everything in the spectrum except this one, so that’s what we want to provide.
TaCG: As you look back on this project, what’s been the greatest part for you on an individual level?
TS: It’s been building community and seeing all of these different people come together and jump on board. We’re talking thousands and thousands of volunteer hours. We’ve had people who’ve worked professionally surveying properties come out and spend their Saturdays with us, so we can save a few thousand dollars to hand those surveys to engineers. We’ve seen foundations and business and politicians and regular Joes and kids out there turning rocks. Everybody has helped with this project. And it’s so cool to see everybody take ownership and take part in this.
I’m so invested in this park; I want to lend a hand from now until I’m an old man. But at the same time, I’m going to have to let go of my baby and let someone else take ownership over it. You can get onto Youtube and learn how to pass the bar or learn how to change oil but there’s not a Youtube video on how to make a park. So it’s taken some time, but it’s working. We’ve had the opportunity to build this park and have it be exactly what the community needs. And that’s a pretty cool thing, right?
Walden’s Ridge Park is slated to open around the New Year, 2023.