Academics & Admissions

New grant forges path to sound outdoor recreational growth

With a $10,000 grant, UVA Wise will help develop user-friendly educational outreach materials providing best practices for recreational use and eco-tourism development
in the High Knob region.

This month, UVA Wise, for the first time, received a highly-coveted grant
from the Virginia Environmental Endowment (VEE), a non-profit foundation
committed to improving the quality of the environment through pollution
prevention, natural resource conservation and environmental literacy.

UVA Wise’s Associate Professor of Biology Wally Smith will oversee the
year-long educational outreach project—creating interpretive pamphlets,
online materials and guidelines, instructive videos, lesson plans and an
economic development resource toolkit, all aimed at showing outdoor
adventurers and entrepreneurs how to limit harmful environmental impact
and promote activity and growth.

A key component of the project is educating the public and potential
economic development partners of the unique resources located in the
500-square mile High Knob Region, home to the headwaters of the Powell
and Clinch Rivers.

These two watersheds–two of the nation’s most biodiverse–contain one of
Virginia’s highest concentrations of rare and federally-protected terrestrial
and subterranean wildlife.

“We were really excited to get this grant, especially from VEE which has a
long history of funding outstanding programs. Our work wouldn’t happen
without the financial support they are providing,” Smith says. “It levels up
a lot of work we are doing to cultivate a sustainable form of economic
growth that minimizes environmental costs.”

In the spring, students taking Smith’s UVA Wise conservation biology course will research sustainable practices and draft some easy-to-understand educational materials for recreational outdoor enthusiasts and the eco-tourism economic development toolkit.

“Students need those skills. They will take technical information and
translate it into something the public will use,” Smith says. “It gets
students involved in work that connects them with decision makers,
potential employers and the scientific community.”

For the past two years, Smith and UVA Wise have partnered in the High
Knob Regional Initiative (HKRI)—a collaboration of local, state and federal
governments and agencies; regional outdoor entrepreneurs; higher
education institutions; environmental non-profits and recreational users—
working together to encourage an outdoor economy around the High
Knob region. They’ve developed a blueprint for tourism development, but
they need informational materials to educate recreational users, local
decision makers and outdoor activity entrepreneurs to ensure
sustainability and protect natural resources.

An example is the rare freshwater mussels found along the Clinch River.

“No one is going to purposely hurt them, but if a canoe drags over a shoal
at low water, they could crush them. We want to help people avoid those
impacts while still enjoying the river,” Smith says.

They have geographically focused on eight communities surrounding High
Knob, a 4,200-foot summit in the Jefferson National Forest and the highest
elevation in the Cumberland Mountains Physiographic Province.

“We’ve developed many new outdoor assets in the past few years
including trails and community parks. However, we are growing so quickly
that we are starting to experience some growing pains,” Smith says.

Along with increased outdoor activity from the COVID-19 pandemic, the
rise in recreational traffic has led to overcrowded trails, water quality
issues, trailside vegetation damage and other harmful environmental

“It’s a part of the bigger national conversation right now. During the pandemic so many people were getting outside, and a lot of them who are doing it for the first time lack the educational experiences needed to cultivate proper outdoor etiquette. We can reach those people so they won’t unintentionally harm what we have here,” Smith says.

The educational materials developed by the project will also help support
the $1.5 million High Knob Destination Center (HKDC), which is currently
being constructed at the base of Stone Mountain, the home of High Knob

The center will be both a welcome center and environmental education
site connecting the High Knob region’s recreational activities with the
nearby shops, hotels and restaurants in Norton. It will also serve as a
place for visitors to learn more about the recreational area, including
educational exhibits and programming. The educational materials will be
available at trailheads, posted online and eventually at the new High Knob

“This grant will help to flesh out some of the materials they will need. The
city has obtained funding to support the building of the facility, but not the
programming, and this will help with some of that,” Smith says. “It will help
educate about what is here and showcase the scenic areas we have.”

User-friendly interpretive pamphlets and evidence-based fact sheets will
provide helpful information but also guide outdoor enthusiasts on ways
they can minimize their footprint on the environment. Part of the plan is to
reach out to recreational groups to find ways to work together, including
hikers, rock climbers, mountain bikers, off-road vehicle users, and

Smith and his team will work with a videographer to interview outdoor
enthusiasts to create videos for the High Knob recreation center and share
on social media to illustrate recreational use guidelines.

The grant funding will also develop an outdoor economic development resource toolkit. It will include a listing of regulations, key regional economic development partners and a guide to best management practices to proactively minimize environmental impacts when planning new outdoor projects like trails or campgrounds.

“It’s a good time to refocus and educate on best management practices
as they develop these assets. So much of our communities’ success is
tied to formalizing how we are building them and ensuring that we build
them responsibly,” he says.

In the next few weeks, Smith will seek guidance from a wide range of
experts and regional partners for developing the educational materials. For
example, he hopes to bring the U.S. Forest Service, state conservation
and wildlife resource agencies, and local outfitters to the table.

“We want the crafting of this to be as inclusive as possible, not just the
College. We want to create a roundtable so they can provide their
expertise and information, help craft what the message needs to be and
help review the materials once it’s put together,” Smith says.

Smith and his UVA Wise students will begin putting the materials together
this winter with the hopes of getting them in the hands of people when
they venture outdoors in the summer.

Smith intends for the materials to be “living documents” that will adapt
and change over time.

“We can do academic research at UVA Wise, gather other regional
research, and translate it into something meaningful to help the
community and economic development and transition it into action,” he

His hope is the work will build the foundation for a lasting model, not only
for Appalachia, but beyond.

Smith says environmental considerations are often viewed as an impediment to economic growth, but he sees great potential for this guide as a way to positively change that.

“I’m excited for the guide because I believe we can show that following
best practices in protecting the environment helps financially so there is
less maintenance and costs from communities needed on the back end,”
he says. “It’s a long-term goal but we have a shot at making a model
everyone can use.”