Family fumes over Reflection Riding/Nature Center change

Family fumes over Reflection Riding/Nature Center change

November 30th, 2011 by Pam Sohn in News

The sign of the newly combined Chattanooga Nature Center and the Reflection Riding Arboretum & Botanical Garden stands inside the tent for the celebration party. They are merging into the Chattanooga Arboretum & Nature Center.

Photo by Jenna Walker/Times Free Press.

TIMELINE

1927 -- John and Margaret Chambliss began purchasing overworked farms that would become Reflection Riding.

1956 -- The couple established Reflection Riding as a nonprofit trust and put the land in conservation for the public. The trust requires the land be open to the public for education and enjoyment.

1979 -- Acreage was broken off the tract and donated to the local Junior League for the establishment of a nature center.

2010 -- The Nature Center announces the restructuring of the two adjoining properties and organizations.

Source: John Chambliss, news articles

A name change and reorganization of the governing boards of Reflection Riding Arboretum and the Chattanooga Nature Center last July have members of Reflection Riding's founding family upset.

"I would like to know why it was done. Everything is pointing toward the detriment of what I call Reflection Riding," said John Chambliss, a grandson of Reflection Riding's founding couple, John and Margaret Chambliss.

"The aboretum's management responsibility was given to the Nature Center, and they have no experience managing a 300-acre arboretum. None whatsoever," Chambliss said.

The blended public face of the organizations has been renamed the Chattanooga Arboretum and Nature Center.

The center's new board also will control Reflection Riding's $3.75 million endowment and trust fund, Chambliss said, and the staff and the funds already have been redirected to work at the Nature Center.

The new board's president, John Mitchum, disagreed with Chambliss and said the change -- which he terms a restructuring rather than a merger -- is better for both the Nature Center and Reflection Riding.

Though the change was to make a stronger and more efficient organization, he said, "in combining the lands and budgets and staffs ... we don't plan to be smaller, we plan to be bigger."

Mitchum, a local real estate broker who has been on the Nature Center board for about 10 years, said the change will allow the two organizations to make one funding request from donors and foundations at a time when gift dollars are diminishing.

Several of John and Margaret Chambliss' grandchildren have written letters to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, decrying the change.

"The name John and Margaret Chambliss chose was erased. The arboretum newsletter was replaced with the Nature Center's newsletter. The PR in the newsletter, signs, news releases, and websites shows a pattern of eclipsing Reflection Riding and reshaping it in the image of the Nature Center. What travesty is this?" wrote Ann Chambliss, a granddaughter living in Winter Park, Fla.

Betsy Chambliss McLean, of Wenatchee, Wash., and another granddaughter, said her grandparents spent decades of travel, research and hard work on their development of an accessible landscape for public enjoyment.

"Neither I nor any of the out-of-town grandchildren or great-grandchildren were made aware of the name change, or the mission change, before the announcement of the merger with the Chattanooga Nature Center was sent out," she said.

But at least one grandchild, Nelson Irvine, favored the change and was a member of the planning committee that adopted it. He said the board is aware of the concern, but it is premature for him to comment.

Mitchum said the endowment still will be governed by the Reflection Riding Land Conservation Trust, which will have a new nine-member board announced next month by the new Chattanooga Arboretum and Nature Center executive board. The trust board will serve as the executive committee of the Nature Center, he said.

Mitchum declined to name the new board members for either organization.

"Reflection Riding's name is not gone away and not diminished," he said. "The board is keenly aware of the fondness and affection to the name of Reflection Riding. We honored the name by retaining it in the Reflection Riding [Land Conservation] Trust. We did not shut down the trust."

He said both organizations had annual operating budgets of about $400,000 to $450,000. He declined to say what the new single operating budget will be.

There is no public money spent on either the old Chattanooga Nature Center or the new Chattanooga Arboretum and Nature Center, he said.

But Mitchum said he and the new executive board members are sensitive to the Chambliss family's concerns, and some signage about Reflection Riding still may be arranged, along with an application for recognition of Reflection Riding as a state historic site.

Reflection Riding is a 300-acre arboretum and botanical garden established in 1956 by John and Margaret Chambliss as a means of studying and conserving native plant life.

The name Reflection Riding, however, was something not always understood by the public. Ridings were a typical English creation of the mid-18th century to encompass the progression of scenery in a place as seen from a carriage or by horseback.

The term "riding" was chosen by the elder John Chambliss to define the type of place he wanted to establish, according to his family.

Mrs. Chambliss added the word "reflection" to draw attention to the natural beauty in the surrounding ponds and creek, but also to emphasize the area as a place for reflection, according to the arboretum's website.

Follow the latest Chattanooga news on Facebook