GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — Visionaries from across the Tennessee River Valley met on January 24 and 25 to discuss future endeavors for North America’s next great regional trail system at the sixth annual Tennessee RiverLine Summit. Held at the Lake Guntersville State Park Lodge in Guntersville, Alabama, the summit attracted community leaders, planners, investors and outdoor enthusiasts interested in developing, promoting and enhancing the system of recreational trails, including blueways or water routes along the 652 miles of the Tennessee River, from Knoxville to Paducah, Kentucky. Carrie Castille, senior vice chancellor and senior vice president for the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, opened the summit by announcing that the Tennessee RiverLine project is now a major initiative of the UT Institute of Agriculture.
“The University and the Institute of Agriculture are fully committed to supporting the transformational vision for the Tennessee RiverLine,” Castille announced with excitement.
In her remarks, Castille noted the similarities between the vision for the Tennessee RiverLine project and UTIA’s land-grant mission. “Our missions are so similar – serving the people of Tennessee and beyond by improving the health and economy of our state through collaboration and innovation,” she said, adding, “The Tennessee RiverLine amplifies and innovates our land-grant mission of teaching, research and outreach, and is a platform to extend our agritourism initiatives.”
A partnership between UT Knoxville, the Tennessee Valley Authority and participating communities along the Tennessee River, the Tennessee RiverLine was initially envisioned in 2016 by a student in a class led by Brad Collett, director of the Tennessee RiverLine Initiative and a professor at the UT College of Architecture and Design and Department of Plant Sciences at the Herbert College of Agriculture. Students in the School of Landscape Architecture, Plant Sciences’ Sustainable Landscape Design concentration and other majors across campus often contribute to Tennessee RiverLine as part of their curriculum. As a major initiative for UTIA, realizing the Tennessee RiverLine vision will be accelerated through the strengths the Institute provides.
“With the Institute’s focus on education through the Herbert College, a presence in every county through UT Extension, a commitment to discovery and innovation through UT AgResearch, and the ability to engage with communities through land grant university partners in Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi, the UT Institute of Agriculture and the Tennessee RiverLine are a natural fit,” said Collett. He added that “The Tennessee RiverLine team and I are excited to continue our historic efforts on behalf of all of our partners across the region with the support of UTIA.”
Since the 2021 launch of its Tennessee RiverTowns Program—a framework for collaboration between community partners and Tennessee RiverLine staff—enrolled communities have facilitated more than 75 recreation and stewardship events that offered nearly 2,500 participants new river experiences. The growing staff supports these 20 enrolled communities, inclusive of 46 cities and counties in three states home to 1 million people, and more than 220 local volunteers by providing capacity, resources and technical assistance.
The Tennessee RiverLine’s ongoing Community Planning Initiative builds on this grass-roots enthusiasm to inspire and empower river communities to discover and realize their own local vision for North America’s next great regional trail system. Through the 652 to YOU program, communities identify their own aspirations for a transformed relationship with the river, and the Tennessee RiverLine’s planning and design staff enables progress toward fulfilling those aspirations by providing conceptual designs and a funding strategy for a priority project, such as new river access areas, riverfront parks, trails, greenways, signage systems and pavilions.
Inspired by the Tennessee RiverLine vision and with support from the Tennessee RiverLine team, many communities across the region are making meaningful progress toward vision implementation through local planning and infrastructure development efforts.
One of the best demonstrations for how the Tennessee RiverLine is already having a substantial impact on river communities is unfolding in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. This community has embraced the vision and Tennessee RiverTowns Program to celebrates its river heritage and connect a group of like-minded residents to each other and the river through annual paddling events. This grass-roots momentum is catalyzing transformational investments in river access and quality of life amenities through the Connect South Pittsburg Project. Many other communities are also making meaningful progress toward vision implementation.
Castille thanked the many partners investing in the trail system to enhance economic development, public health, resource stewardship and equitable access to river spaces and experiences across the region. “The Tennessee RiverLine is ‘Powered by Partnerships,’ the idea that we can accomplish something working together that no one entity can accomplish alone,” she said. Castille thanked Tennessee Valley Authority in particular as a steadfast financial supporter and thought leader for the initiative.
“TVA is pleased that the Tennessee RiverLine is now a major initiative of the UT Institute of Agriculture,” said Allen Clare, vice president – River and Resources Stewardship at TVA. “This step forward will not only enhance the outstanding efforts of the Tennessee RiverLine, but also will strengthen the ongoing stewardship work of TVA Natural Resources as it protects, preserves and improves the Tennessee River system and its public lands across the Valley. We look forward to this exciting partnership.”
Castille also noted that UT Extension has made a substantial investment in the Tennessee RiverLine initiative to help it reach even wider audiences.
“UT Extension has a 100-year history of partnering with our communities to help them thrive through fostering community and economic development, promoting the health and well-being of community members, developing 4-H youth leadership, supporting natural resource management and strengthening agricultural production,” said Ashley Stokes, dean of UT Extension. “Several communities along the Tennessee River are experiencing challenges with economic development and the Tennessee RiverLine Initiative paired with the ongoing work of our UT Extension agents and specialists can help our communities in many ways, including employment opportunities, community health, natural resource sustainability and agritourism opportunities. The UT Extension investment is aimed at supporting our mission to benefit communities, and we are happy to see this funding bring the Tennessee RiverLine into UTIA. Knowing the opportunities and challenges facing our river communities, it is exciting to think of ways UT AgResearch and the Herbert College of Agriculture can also support Tennessee RiverLine in the future.”
Finally, Castille thanked the summit participants for their interest in exploring new ways to enhance the region through the Tennessee RiverLine Initiative. “Just as a river flows, there is so much work that has already been accomplished behind us, and yet there is so much potential ahead. I am excited for all that the Tennessee RiverLine and you, our partners, are positioned to accomplish in the years ahead,” she said.
For more information about the Tennessee RiverLine, please visit the initiative’s website: tnriverline.org.
Through its land-grant mission of research, teaching and extension, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture touches lives and provides Real. Life. Solutions. utia.tennessee.edu.
–Patricia McDaniels, UTIA