Pressing Ijams to Make Crag and Quarry Accessible

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I warned you that you would receive a dose of activism through the Highlander website.  Today, I am proud to share this bit of good news from SFW.


Watchdog group presses Ijams to reopen Crag, make boating free


The Ijams Nature Center’s interim executive director said Tuesday that the Ijams Crag, the only outdoor climbing destination in Knoxville area, will be reopened “any day now,” as soon as an insurance company provides coverage for unsupervised climbers.

“We’ve been told that it is pending,” said Bo Townsend, who was named interim director of the park on Oct. 3 after Paul James, director of 12 years, resigned. “But I can’t give you an exact date because I don’t know. I thought it would have been resolved long before now.”

On Sept. 19, Ijams closed the crag to open climbing after a four-month-long search for a suitable liability insurance policy yielded only one option, which administrators were surprised to learn didn’t include coverage for unsupervised climbers. The management team had just three days to make a decision, and they felt forced to accept the plan or risk having to shut down the entire park, said Ijams’ development director Cindy Hassil. Now, only supervised climbing and instruction classes are permitted on the crag, meaning climbers must pay to play.

Members of Knoxville’s small but dedicated climbing community who worked thousands of hours to prepare the crag for public use were devastated by the unexpected development. Advocates for access to public lands critiqued the closure as unnecessary, arguing Ijams is not responsible for unsupervised climbers if they do not pay to climb under the Tennessee Recreational Use Statute.

The statute states “the landowner … or any person in control of land or premises owes no duty of care to keep such land or premises safe for entry or use by others for such recreational activities as hunting, fishing, trapping … rock climbing.”

An environmental watchdog group that sued the National Park Service over the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s backcountry fees told Ijams Nature Center on Sunday it is “prepared to take the next steps” if the crag is not reopened and the quarry’s waters made free to access by boaters. Currently, visitors must pay River Sports Outfitters to rent boats for use on Mead’s Quarry Lake — “Ijams’ current liability insurance does not authorize private boat use,” the park’s website reads.

The Southern Forest Watch, a nonprofit group, argued in a 2013 lawsuit that the Park Service was wrongfully restricting taxpayers’ access to the Smokies’ backcountry by charging $4 per-person per-night fees. On Sunday night, John Quillen, the group’s board president, emailed Townsend to say “many in the climbing community … see the same thing festering right in our own backyard at Ijams.

“As it stands, no one can climb without going through a guide,” Quillen wrote. “Similarly, no one can paddle at the quarry without paying a for-profit entity for the privilege. This is public land, and we are prepared to take the next steps, if necessary. I have been briefed by the Southeast Climbers Coalition and assured that the Tennessee Recreational Use Statutes are in full effect here. That would immunize Ijams were it not for the fact of Ijam’s insistence upon charging clients to climb. This closure has been prolonged during prime climbing season, which has the effect of negatively impacting the Outdoor Knoxville brand and sending climbing enthusiasts to the Obed.”

Townsend responded on Monday morning, saying Ijams is “in the process of reopening the climbing crag.” He said Quillen’s concern about the quarry was a new issue to him, and that he needed to discuss it with Ijams’ Board of Directors and get back to him.

Townsend told the News Sentinel on Tuesday that the park decided to purchase insurance to cover open climbing on the crag, despite some saying it isn’t necessary under the Tennessee Recreational Use Statute. He said he does not interpret the law that way.

“We’re looking into all that, but we can’t act on people’s opinions,” Townsend said. “We have to get advice from experts in the field, insurance people, lawyers etc., and we have to make the most appropriate decision for the organization.”

“They’re covering themselves so they can charge people to go use the crag,” Quillen said of Ijams’ decision to purchase insurance.

Regarding Mead’s Quarry, Quillen said that if Ijams plans to continue to charge visitors to take boats on the waters, he would like to see administrators delineate that the quarry is not on city property.

“The question for me is, is that also city land, or is that specifically Ijams’ property? Because if that’s city land, then we’re back on the same issue with the crag. … To me, the issues are linked.”