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Nestled against the Tennessee River across from downtown Chattanooga on the southwestern side of Stringer's Ridge, hundreds of acres of green space will become one of the region's premier outdoor destinations.
The National Park Service's long-awaited land management plan for the Moccasin Bend National Archeological District went public this morning, detailing the future of the area.
"Moccasin Bend represents the next big thing for Chattanooga for preserving open space, enjoying outdoor recreation and learning about our unique Native American and Civil War history," Michael Wurzel, director of the Friends of Moccasin Bend, wrote in a Sunday opinion piece in the Times Free Press.
The National Park Service will discuss the plan at a public meeting Thursday at Outdoor Chattanooga in Coolidge Park.
If the plan comes to fruition, the land will feature nearly 800 acres of green space, an extension of the Tennessee Riverwalk, a visitor center, a pavilion, historical hikes, ranger-guided water tours, parking, restrooms and hiking.
It combines history with what Brad Bennett with the National Park Service calls "appropriate recreational opportunities."
"We want people to remember what the purpose is of this park," said Bennett, director of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, of which Moccasin Bend is a unit. "It's not 'Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Recreation Area,' but certain types of recreation in certain places are perfectly appropriate. We hope folks have the opportunities to learn what happened in the area while enjoying the outdoor benefits."
Two of America's most historic events had ties to the land.
It is home to some of the same routes used for both the Trail of Tears and the Battles for Chattanooga during the Civil War.
"The historical aspect is really important to stress," Bennett said.
The land was the gateway to freedom for many slaves, and successive American Indian cultures used and occupied it for nearly 12,000 years, providing the basis for the district's national importance, according to the National Park Service.
The management plan is the next step in the completion of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
Once it is completed, the Chattanooga area will have about 10,000 acres of nationally protected land, with more than 100 miles of trails.
"This isn't a city park or a county park or a state park," Bennett said. "This is a national park owned by all Americans."
The park's original general management plan was completed in 1988, but the Moccasin Bend National Archeological District was not part of the park until 2003. The updated plan released today will provide guidance for the future expansion of Moccasin Bend.
It will start with an extension of the Tennessee Riverwalk, which will travel through the North Shore to the proposed visitor center at the Gateway Site on Hamm Road.
Visitors will be greeted by three historical trails: the existing Brown's Ferry Federal Road and Blue Blazes trails, and the yet-to-be-built Historical Road Trace.
The hikes will feature wayside exhibits – large signs giving overviews of the history of the area and the trails with site-specific images and information – and can all be done in an afternoon.
Ranger-led tours that now take place on the west side of the nationally protected land will continue under the proposal.
Visitors to the Chattanooga area contribute more than a billion dollars each year to the local economy, according to the Chattanooga Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
More than 1 million visitors to the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park alone led to $81.5 million in economic benefit, according to a report released last week by the National Park Service.
And activists believe the plan for Moccasin Bend will bring in more visitors who will continue to pump money into surrounding businesses.
"The fact that you can get there so quickly, experience a short hike spending a couple hours of your day touring Chattanooga, we estimate an additional 250,000 visitors a year will come just to visit Moccasin Bend," said Tricia Mims, executive director of the Friends of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
Those visitors will add an estimated $15 million to the local economy, Bennett said.
One of the site's the biggest benefits, Bennett believes, will be for Chattanooga's students.
He envisions school field trips and grandparents bringing their grandchildren to learn about the area's history. He also believes it will help the rest of Chattanooga's tourism industry, such as the Tennessee Aquarium, Ruby Falls, Rock City and other local attractions.
"This experience will add one more day to those visitors' trips," he said.
But the experience comes with an initial cost.
The operational cost for the park in 2016 was $3.4 million. Under the proposal, that would increase to an estimated $4.1 million annually. And building the visitor center, trails, restrooms, parking lot and other features will cost an estimated $3.5 million.
The expense would be borne by a combination of private and federal money.
The Friends of Moccasin Bend have received several hundred thousand dollars in grants, allowing them to start on some of the preliminary work as soon as possible, Mims said.
There is also a federal matching program that could be available through the National Park Service Centennial Act passed in 2016 by Congress.
The National Park Service and the friends group will continue to tap into the private sector, Mims said.
"This is Chattanooga's specialty," she said. "This is what we do well; public and private partnership. It's the Chattanooga way."
Moccasin Bend is home to more than just ample green space.
The land features a mental hospital, the region's wastewater treatment facility, a city-owned golf course, television towers and a firing range. A wastewater storage facility is planned directly across the street from the Gateway Site.
"We can co-exist with those uses," Bennett said.
However, the firing range will have to go.
"Until the firing range is relocated, we can't do the full expression of the plan," Mims said.
The city, county, federal government and law enforcement agencies are working to relocate the range, but it won't be moved until there is a viable replacement plan.
The groups have met in the last several weeks to discuss other options, and Mims and Bennett are hopeful a deal will be reached soon.
"I'm not going to go asking the mayor for any money," Bennett said. "If that can be delivered, that is a beautiful thing."
Once the public meeting is held and the National Park Service reviews the public comments, some of the groundwork likely will begin this year.
Bennett hesitates to put an estimate on when the entire area will be completed. The land-management plans used to cover 20 years.
"We no longer even put that kind of date on it," Bennett said. "This is the long-term plan for the national park. We're in the forever business."
If you go
What: Public meeting on the long-term land management plan for Moccasin Bend Archeological District.
When: 4-7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Outdoor Chattanooga in Coolidge Park
How to give feedback
Online: Comments can be submitted through May 30 at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/chch
In person: Comments cards will be available at the public meeting.
There will also be someone there to write down verbal comments.