Urban Wilderness Ecological Inventory


The Knoxville Urban Wilderness provides recreational opportunities for hikers, mountain bikers, bird watchers, and general outdoor enthusiasts. Little is known about the ecological benefits of these parks.

In January 2015, I began a Research Associate position at the University of Tennessee Knoxville (UTK) under professor Mike McKinney, where I led an initiative to create an Ecological Inventory of the Urban Wilderness that will guide efforts to manage and restore existing land parcels and strategically acquire new ones. Our project team included the City of Knoxville, Legacy Parks FoundationDiscover Life in America, and other UTK students and faculty.

Knoxville Tennessee’s Urban Wilderness is a collection of public and private land parcels that comprise 1000 acres of forested land within an urban landscape. These lands have been preserved primarily for outdoor recreation and to protect cultural heritage, as several Civil War forts and historic mining operations can be found on these sites. The Urban Wilderness provides ecological benefits to the area as well, but these assets had not been quantified or examined in a holistic manner.

Outcomes of the initial Urban Wilderness Ecological Inventory project included:

  • An assessment and compilation of existing information on ecological attributes of the Urban Wilderness, such as native and invasive species composition, prior land use, geological characteristics, etc. Synthesizing this information into a database provided a more holistic view of the Urban Wilderness and the ability to identify knowledge gaps.

Much of the Urban Wilderness consists of a native hardwood overstory with a highly invaded mid-story. In this photograph, taken in March 2015, nearly all of the leafed-out plants are non-native honeysuckle, multiflora rose, and privet.

  • Citizen science-based invasive plant surveys throughout the Urban Wilderness. These surveys had a dual function of creating useful data for managers while educating participants about invasive plant identification and impacts. We completed surveys of apx. 500 acres in six parks in spring 2015. These plant mapping events were based on protocol from the Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System (EddMapS). The data from these surveys were uploaded to the EDDMapS database, and were turned into a GIS feature class in an Urban Wilderness geodatabase that will be used by the City of Knoxville and other organizations to prioritize invasive plant management efforts.

University of Tennessee students map invasive plants in the Urban Wilderness

  • An Urban Wilderness BioBlitz held on August 22, 2015. We recruited experts and community members to find, identify, photograph, and catalog species using the citizen science app iNaturalist. Around 40 volunteers showed up and identified hundreds of species over the course of one day! See our data for High Ground Park here and for River Bluff Park here.

Volunteers gathered at High Ground Park on August 22, 2015 for the Urban Wilderness BioBlitz


BioBlitz participants had fun identifying hundreds of species of plants, animals, and fungi


  • A report on the land use history of the Urban Wilderness. We investigated written records and interviewed landowners and historians to synthesize knowledge on past land use that helps provide context for current conditions.
  • A report of study findings and management recommendations.



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