Many years ago, a college age North Carolina native accepted a counselor position at Camp Alpine in Mentone, Ala. Years later, Mark McKnight is celebrating his first year as Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center’s president, a year with a list of very noticeable accomplishments.
Mark’s camp counselor gig amplified his love of the outdoors, and he grew to appreciate our area’s geology, scenic beauty and ecological diversity. After graduating from Hampton-Sydney College with degrees in English and religion, a conversation with Dawson Wheeler, co-founder of Rock Creek Outfitters, brought Mark to Chattanooga, where he built Rock Creek’s brand into a force to reckon with in the outdoor world.
Within the retail platform, Mark was able to continue to connect people with the outdoors through many forms of recreation on public lands, including the wildly popular trail race series that still exists today. These trail races, with engaging names like Brow Beater, Savage Gulf and Stump Jump, showcase the many striking opportunities for enjoying the outdoor world in our community.
Mark then ventured into the start-up realm as co-founder of Roots Rated, once again connecting people with the great outdoors. His next gig was in the consulting business, after another call from Dawson piqued his interest - Reflection Riding was looking for a president to shake things up and carry this well known (but in need of a revamp) environmental education facility into the future. Reflection Riding hit the jackpot when Mark accepted the position.
During Mark’s first year, he took a deep look into both what Reflection Riding is doing and needs to do in this community. Mark assessed the management of this nonprofit from an ecological standpoint, recognizing that promoting biodiversity through better ecosystem management is imperative. He introduced successional fire as a natural method to maintain habitat and removed approximately 18 acres of the non-native invasive privet plant, replacing it with native plants. (Caterpillars don’t like privet, which means no songbirds, which means no predators, which results in an unhealthy ecosystem.) Removing privet and replanting with natives also eliminates homogenous woods and replaces them with Tennessee native forests.
Mark and his staff have increased and diversified programming for all ages. With updated marketing strategies, these exciting programs are well attended and reviewed. Want to learn to mountain bike? How about a guided nighttime canoe trip or a raptor training workshop? Want to feed the red wolves? Attend a few campfire concerts or the Earth Day Festival? You get the idea ... this place is hopping with fun for all ages.
In the spirit of the Lookout Mountain Conservancy, Mark’s quest is to make outdoor activities available to everyone, even changing Reflection Riding’s admission from fee-based to donation-based. “What we do has to reach everyone. Access, equity and inclusion,” stated this innovative leader. The organization is finding its visitors are happy to make a donation upon entering this nirvana and often many of them contribute again as they leave or purchase a membership. It’s the organization’s hope these excited visitors will become long-term supporters.
Mark hopes the community will become more devoted to the future of Chattanooga’s Nature Center and Arboretum by taking a leap of faith and investing in the future of this highly unusual 317-acre property that sits just six miles from Chattanooga’s center. “For those who believe in what we’re doing, we need them to invest in us. It’s time for smart growth while honoring the legacy of our founders - the Chambliss and Humphrey families and the Chattanooga Junior League,” Mark said.
Mark harnessed today’s technology to get this non-profit running lean, meaning more of your donation dollars go directly to the mission of connecting people with nature. The use of several software packages makes the business side of this non-profit run very efficiently, and utilizing inter-organizational apps means the staff gets out from behind the desk faster, leaving more time to be in the field, teaching and engaging visitors.
Reflection Riding is a truly fantastic place to unplug, but this savvy organization knows that technology can be leveraged as a great teaching tool and encourages visitors and staff to use the app iNaturalist to record what they see on the property and in their own circles of the world.
School field trips, the native plant sale, and summer camps have been Chattanooga favorites for years. With Mark’s magic, these events (and many new ones), coupled with a new attitude, have lit a spark. Exciting things are going on here, and you don’t want to miss the opportunity to be involved! Find out more at reflectionriding.org.