KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A new University of Tennessee study is looking into the usage of the Knoxville Urban Wilderness or KUW, as well as its economic impact.

The KUW is made up of more than 60 miles of trails and greenways located within Knoxville’s city limits. The KUW includes a nature center, lakes, historic sites, playgrounds, five city parks, and a 600-acre wildlife area.

Throughout the study in 2021, researchers counted more than 300,000 users across the KUW system. The team came to that number using infrared sensors at different locations which counted visitors 24/7. Each time a person passed the counter, a timestamp recorded the exact day and time, and the timestamped passes were downloaded to an online software platform. There were also undergraduate students on the trails observing and communicating with trail users about their activities.

According to the study, the most popular trail head was the Baker Creek Preserve, followed by the Ijams Nature Center.

Additionally, researchers found about 51% of all users were on a mountain bike, 34% were walkers, and 10% were using the trails to run. They also found that 95% of all KUW users were white and 80% were adults.

One of the minds behind this study, University of Tennessee Associate Professor for the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sport Studies, Eugene Fitzhugh, said the diversity in our community is not represented in the KUW.

“We’re going to try and figure out at UT what types of activities people really want to come to enjoy at the Urban Wilderness,” said Fitzhugh. “How do we get more people of color and more women to come to the trail system?”

Another mind behind this study is looking into the economic side of things.

Charles Sims is the Director of the Energy and Environment Program at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee. Sims said he did a similar report in 2015, where he found it was estimated the KUW enhances the local Knoxville economy by nearly $15 million. Sims wanted to revisit the topic.

Sims said he dissected what people spent at the trails and in the City of Knoxville, as well as what it costs people to travel to the KUW. He said when all that spending is put together, it’s in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Sims also shared a reminder for those who maybe don’t see the value of these natural areas.

“I think it’s tempting to say that these forested areas are being wasted, that they should be converted into apartments or converted into businesses and commercial buildings,” said Sims. “I think it’s important to remember they are generating economic impacts in their natural state… We can reproduce commercial buildings and apartment buildings anywhere, but it’s really hard to reproduce this type of trail system that we have here.”

Fitzhugh said moving forward they hope to use this knowledge to improve the KUW and entice a more diverse group to hit the trails.

You can view the study below: