By Heather Lose, Tennessee State Parks and The Tennessee Conservationist Magazine
Memphis had a problem, and it was collecting in the ditches outside the city’s T.O. Fuller State Park. Thousands of illegally dumped used tires were moldering along the roadside, collecting rain and breeding mosquitos, creating an unhealthy, unsightly mess. In 2019, several partner agencies teamed up to fix the problem. They turned those tires into trails. And now they’re winning awards.
Solving a Problem and Building Community
Initially conceived purely as a way to clean up the neighborhood and recycle a bunch of rubber, the Tires to Trails project soon became a community-builder, too. Volunteers from the neighborhood met project stakeholders along the roadside to literally haul over 24,000 dumped tires out of ditches and into trucks bound for Bristol’s Patriot Tire Recycling, where they were reduced to rubber crumb.
The crumb was then transported back to T.O. Fuller to be mixed with other materials and poured into forms. When the mix had dried and the wooden forms were pulled away, the park and its community had one of the longest rubber-bearing trails in the United States.
The new trail was designed to follow the route of an old golf cart path. After more than a century in operation, the park’s popular golf course was closed in 2011. Since then, the greens have become a thriving native grassland and prairie space for wildlife, with a state-of-the-art interpretive center focusing on green energy and sustainable building practices.
Founded as Shelby County Negro State Park in 1938, T.O. Fuller State Park was the first state park east of the Mississippi River open for African Americans. It was renamed T.O. Fuller State Park in 1942 to honor Dr. Thomas O. Fuller, a prominent Black educator, pastor, politician, civic leader and author.
The Tires to Trails program received funding from a Tire Environmental Act Program grant of $250,000 from the Tennessee Department of Conservation’s (TDEC) Office of Policy and Sustainable Practices, a special litter grant of $200,000 from the Tennessee Department of Transportation and a Federal Highway-Recreational Trails Program grant of $280,000 from TDEC’s Division of Recreation Resources. Other partners include the City of Memphis, Shelby County and Memphis City Beautiful.
In September 2022, the Tires to Trails project won a national Project Excellence Award from the Society of Outdoor Recreation Professionals at the National Recreation Conference in Knoxville. This annual award is presented to exemplary outdoor recreation projects with criteria including unique or special circumstances; problem-solving; level of innovation and creativity; impact or effect of a project; and collaborative team effort.
“This is a wonderful recognition of an outstanding program,” said David Salyers, TDEC commissioner. “We have seen great success with Tires to Trails, and the award is a tribute to all who have worked to make it successful.”
Tires to Trails at T.O. Fuller also won a 2023 Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Award in August – one more well-deserved accolade for this innovative, full-circle project that benefits the environment, the park and the park’s visitors.
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