October 25, 2021 |Eric Wuestewald | Partnerships

Five Organizations Giving Back to Nature in Tennessee

Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont

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The Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont has worked to empower underserved high school students to become effective leaders in their communities through immersive experiences in nature. Thanks to the grant funding, local students from Fulton High School were able to stay at Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a five-day environmental learning program.


The program allowed students to form a community with likeminded individuals, deepen their connections to the natural world, and plan ways to bring their experience back home and maximize community impact. In the two years following the experience, students will continue to meet with faculty monthly to plan a free community engagement and stewardship event that will host community members at a greenway, park or waterway.


Grant money also allowed for the creation of a new position focused on expanding the Environmental and Community Leaders Fellowship program to other schools.



“This grant award from Volkswagen is a game-changer for our Environmental and Community Leaders Fellowship program. Tremont Institute has dedicated the past several years to building an innovative, immersive model of programming for underserved high school juniors and seniors to explore their own connection to nature and to develop as young environmental leaders. We know that it is more essential than ever to support the next generation in preparing to lead our communities through environmental challenges, and this grant allows us to dig deeper into this work with our local youth. Because of the support of Volkswagen, dozens of high school students from Knoxville, TN will have the opportunity to live and learn in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Students will then take that experience back to their community and lead efforts to improve local environmental conditions, as well as community access to greenspace.”

– Caleb Carlton, Development Manager, Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont


VW TN Waterways

WaterWays is a water-based nonprofit dedicated to helping kids get involved in green infrastructure. Award money helped develop an environmental education program with an outdoor classroom and interpretive nature trail for local K-12 students at Enterprise South Nature Park, a 2,800-acre wooded area situated on a former Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant in Chattanooga. The program helps bring kids into nature to experience and reconnect with the outside world.

During Spring 2021, kids were brought in via Zoom classes to help with the design process, bringing in native plants, rain gardens, and rain barrels to help water community gardens. In Fall 2021, field trips will bring more children to the property, including a new cohort of 8th graders.

“This grant will have a HUGE impact on our work, allowing us to provide educational outdoor experiences with students who would have them otherwise. The first step in getting kids to care about the environment is to make the outdoors accessible to them, empowering students to learn through exploration and instilling that they can have a positive impact on the world around them. This grant not only expands our reach to many more schools and students, it enables the park to become a destination in outdoor learning.”

– Mary Beth Sutton, WaterWays Executive Director


National Forest Foundation

VW TN UKB Pitcher Whisperer 2018

The National Forest Foundation worked with the United Keetoowah Band (UKB) of Cherokee Indians to give the youth an opportunity to gain natural resource management experience and work hands-on in stewarding natural and cultural resources. The Foundation brought UKB Indians from Oklahoma—many of whom have never left Oklahoma—to their ancestral lands in Cherokee National Forest for several weeks of learning, service, and exploration.

This summer the UKB Youth Corps crew joined Forest Service Staff and the Southeast Youth Conservation Corps crew to conduct trail management and learn more about the history and culture of the land. Future activities will continue trail stewardship programs, conduct fish studies, teach plant identification and invasive species management, and visit Chota, a historic Overhill Cherokee town site nearby.

“This grant provides the opportunity for United Keetoowah Band (UKB) of Cherokee youth crews to gain experience in natural resource management, to visit their homelands and engage in hands-on stewardship of natural and cultural resources in the Cherokee National Forest.”

– Mark Shelley, National Forest Foundation


Keep The Tennessee River Beautiful

VW TN Boat Selfie

Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful used their grant money to continue the river cleanup program they’ve hosted since 2016 and raise awareness for conservation of waterways. In 2021, they hosted four river cleanups on four lakes (Watauga Lake, South Holston Lake, Tellico Lake, and Parksville Lake) with 54 volunteers within Cherokee National Forest. This year alone, the program has already removed 77,677 pounds of trash as of June 2021, including 15,355 pounds coming from the Cherokee National Forest river cleanup series. Grant money also provided for a truck to haul a boat to scouting and clean-up sites and made an AmeriCorps position possible for the first time since the organization formed.

Tennessee River lakes generate a massive $12 billion in recreation, and tourism is the second largest industry in Tennessee. Cleaning up the river not only helps repair the ecosystem but also removes trash that prevents further economic activity. At each cleanup, volunteers shared that they were unaware of the trash in waterways, including tires, Styrofoam, plastic, scrap metal, a TV and a leather couch.

“We are so excited to partner with Volkswagen and The Conservation Fund in the ‘Cherokee National Forest River Cleanup Series’ to not only protect the quality of our waterways, but also draw attention to the magnitude of the Cherokee National Forest. Volunteers that participate in one of our five cleanups will be making our community a better place and enjoying one of our country’s greatest natural assets at the same time, all thanks to this visionary grant.”

– Kathleen Gibi, Executive Director, Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful


Partners of Cherokee National Forest

Outdoor Rec Map Beauty Shot

Partners of Cherokee National Forest created, produced, distributed, and promoted a popular regional outdoor recreation map of more than two million acres of public forests, parks, and scenic byways in east Tennessee and western North Carolina. Created for print and electronic editions, the new map is the only comprehensive guide to all of the region’s public lands, including Cherokee National Forest, Nantahala National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Pisgah National Forest.

The electronic edition was promoted through social media andhttp://recreationlinks.org/, and 90,000 copies of the print edition were shipped to area visitor and welcome centers where guests have reported enjoying the changes. A survey reported that nearly 90% of frontline welcome center staff expect the map to increase the number of length of visits to their locations, which translates to further spending on food, lodging and local tourism related businesses.

“The Cherokee National Forest is teeming with outdoor recreation opportunities. This map is unique because it includes all Federal and State recreation sites in and around this expansive National Forest. The first edition was extremely popular so we are enthusiastic about the visitors it will attract to this breathtakingly beautiful area.”

– John Innes, author and designer of the Outdoor Recreation Map

The Volkswagen Community Grant Program has enabled positive change in Tennessee on an economic, environmental and social level. From cleaner rivers and forestland, to promoting youth opportunities and increasing outdoor recreation, anything is possible when communities come together.

Written by

Eric Wuestewald

At the time of publication, Eric Wuestewald was the Digital Content Marketing Manager for The Conservation Fund.