Ijams to reopen climbing crag before watchdog group sues
Travis Dorman , USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee7:51 p.m. ET April 7, 2017
(Photo: Paul Efird)
More than six months after Ijams Nature Center closed Knoxville’s main outdoor climbing spot due to a lack of insurance, the park announced Friday it will reopen the crag by giving the land back to the city.
The nonprofit park previously had a contract with Knoxville for ownership of the land that required it to maintain “personal injury liability insurance covering the premises.” By ceding the crag, Ijams’ leadership can avoid finding a private insurer to cover unsupervised climbing, which proved difficult and time-consuming.
Beginning Saturday, climbers will once again be able to use the Ijams crag free of charge, provided they sign liability waivers. Ijams’ agreement with the city is temporary while the park works out a long-term solution, according to a news release.
Ijams closed the crag on Sept. 19 after a four-month-long search for liability insurance yielded only one option, which administrators were surprised to learn didn’t cover free climbing. After the closure, only supervised climbing and instruction classes were permitted on the crag, meaning climbers had to pay to play.
Members of Knoxville’s small but dedicated climbing community who worked thousands of hours to prepare the crag for public use — known as the Crag Committee or the Quarry Boys — were devastated by the unexpected development.
Eight days later, then-Executive Director Paul James stepped down to be replaced temporarily by former director Bo Townsend. Townsend filled the position for nearly five months until Ijams hired Amber Parker, who took the reins on Feb. 20.
Parker attributes those changes in leadership, in part, for the length of time it took to reopen the crag.
“But also because there was a lot of due diligence that had to happen,” she said in a phone interview Friday. “We had to work with the insurance companies; we had to look for other insurers that might be willing to cover that. … And really we could not find another private insurer that works with organizations like us that was willing to. So then we had to go back to the city and there had to be those negotiations and discussions, so it’s just taken a while.”
John Quillen, the board president of an an environmental watchdog group called Southern Forest Watch, suggested back in December that Ijams resolve the insurance issue by giving the land back to the city. The organization, which lost a 2013 lawsuit against the Great Smoky Mountains National Park over its implementation of back country fees, threatened in November “to take the next steps” if the crag was not reopened.
Once 2017 began, displeased with Ijams’ lack of progress on the issue, Quillen met with members of his organization, the Quarry Boys and a team of lawyers to form a “legal action plan” to force the park to reopening the crag.
Quillen was eager to charge ahead with a lawsuit based on the premise that by denying free access to the public, the park allegedly broke agreements with companies that donated money for the crag’s development.
But the Quarry Boys favored diplomacy rather than coercion, and met at least twice with Parker to discuss the issue.
“They weren’t wanting to burn any bridges with Ijams or the climbing community,” said Southern Forest Watch member Laurel Dunn, who called the Quarry Boys “really nice guys.”
Amber Parker (Photo: Courtesy of Chincoteague Bay)
The Quarry Boys came away “very impressed” with Parker, who member Micah McCrotty said “seems genuinely interested in the community.”
“We came away from that meeting thinking she actually wants to get this done,” he said. “And so John’s a great guy and he does great work, but we had full confidence that she would take care of it, and we knew it was going to be a matter of time.”
Quillen said Southern Forest Watch planned to send a letter to Ijams on Monday outlining the potential lawsuit.
Parker said she knew “absolutely nothing” of the threat of legal action, and said, “if that were in existence I would know about it.”
“We have really good relations with the climbing community,” she said. “I’ve met with the Crag Committee and they understood the constraints that we had. They’re already aware that the crag is open. They’re very excited, so, you know, relations are good.”
“This has been an ongoing process for quite a while and it just happened to culminate right about the time that i got here,” she added. “It’s been hard work on the part of Knoxville city and the previous leadership here to make that happen. I just happened to be able to come in and snatch a little glory at the end.
“I’m just really glad to be here for it. Certainly really all the credit goes to the folks that have worked so hard to make it happen.”