The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Hellbent Profile: Amber Parker brings nature to the people

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Amber ParkerIjams Nature Center Executive Director Amber Parker poses with opossum Opal. She was an Ijams animal ambassador for more than three years. “She came to us after her mother was hit by a car and Opal would fit in the palm of your hand. Sadly, Opal passed away earlier this year. Opossums live short lives, usually about three years, so Opal had a nice long one by opossum standards. She was beloved by all and we miss her.” Courtesy Ijams Nature Center

Each year more than 600,000 people visit Ijams Nature Center

This is the second installment of an occasional series, Hellbent, profiling citizens who work to preserve and improve the Southern Appalachian environment.

KNOXVILLE — On any given day, the parking lot at Ijams Nature Center in South Knoxville is packed with cars, trucks, and buses as folks of all ages flock to hike, climb, swim and paddle its 300-plus acres of protected wildlands.

Making sure the center’s 620,000 or so annual visitors have a positive experience interacting with Mother Nature requires dozens of full-time employees plus a generous contingent of volunteers. Ensuring the complex operation stays on course and within its $1.8 million operating budget is a tough job, but Ijams Executive Director Amber Parker has been doing it for six years now and has no desire to be doing anything else.

When Amber talks about Ijams she fairly bursts with giddy, infectious energy. This is a woman who has clearly found her place in the world, and even a brief walk along any of the center’s 21 trails makes one wonder if the land itself hasn’t responded in like fashion to her devotion.

In fact, since she was recruited to head the non-profit center in 2017, Amber has helped steer it through a period of unprecedented growth caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“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.”

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