“COVID taught everyone something,” Amber explained. “It taught everyone that the outside is safe. It also taught everyone that outside is awesome, it’s a place you want to be. And so with everyone going outside, our visitor numbers increased dramatically and have not gone down from that.”
Despite the inevitable headaches and pitfalls associated with a massive increase of visitors, Amber takes it all in stride. After all, she’s doing what she feels she was born to do.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” she’s said. “But we have to be careful about how much toilet paper we have now along with everything else.”
Amber stressed the importance of a facility like Ijams for those Knox Countians who can’t easily visit or explore the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which offers a taste of what the region looked like before massive development changed the landscape.
She said that she’s been amazed by how much Ijams is loved by its regulars, many of whom volunteer on a regular basis to help the center run smoothly.
Volunteers, in fact, are a key resource when it comes to dealing with one particularly acute recurring problem: invasive species, especially plants like English ivy and privet.
“We estimated that we cleared about seven acres of invasive plants as of last year,” she said. “Some people might not say that’s all that much, but when you’re hand-pulling every bit of it, it’s a lot.”
One of the key missions of Ijams is education, and much of that is devoted to clearing up misconceptions about invasive species.
“They are just not what our native East Tennessee landscape is,” she explained. “My dream is that people can come here and they can see what a true East Tennessee landscape is, because that’s our heritage and our history.”
Ijams is just one of many, many parks and nature preserves around the world that fight similar battles against imported flora and fauna that are able to run roughshod over local species due to a lack of predators.
“We all have invasive plants and animals, we all seem to share them around,” she said. “We’re all trying to do our jobs in various places to help people understand how beautiful this world is and how diverse it is without that kind of competition.”