Sunday, June 1, 2008

Who will protect the Old Forest, Memphis' oldest living ancestor?

Guest Editorial
Sunday, June 1, 2008 - Commercial Appeal
Who will protect the Old Forest, Memphis' oldest living ancestor?

By Naomi Van Tol

Three months ago, the Memphis Zoo cut 4 acres of the Old Forest of Overton Park to make way for a new exhibit called Teton Trek.

Chainsaws and backhoes toppled 200-year-old oak trees that were alive before the city of Memphis was founded. Bulldozers removed the giant stumps and scraped away the soil that had nourished generations of plants and animals. In less than two weeks, a thriving ecosystem was transformed into a lifeless dust bowl.

I was shocked by this harsh treatment of public parkland, as were many of my friends and neighbors. We complained to the Memphis Zoo and were told: "It's been in our master plan for 20 years."

When we asked to see the master plan we were given a drawing that shows, in addition to the Teton Trek site, another 17-acre expansion area south of Teton Trek and east of Rainbow Lake. This public parkland is currently fenced and closed to public use.

Our concern over the fate of these 17 acres of forest prompted us to reincorporate a historic group, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP). We met with the zoo's president, Charles Brady, who assured us that the 17-acre forest is slated for a low-impact exhibit called Chickasaw Bluffs that is expected to be constructed 10 years from now. We asked for more detail and were told that the Memphis Zoo has no written master plan.

Without a written plan, how can we trust that this section of the Old Forest won't suffer the same fate as the neighboring 4 acres?

Let's be crystal clear: CPOP supports the Memphis Zoo. We believe it is an important civic amenity that should keep improving and growing. But we also believe the zoo must learn to grow where it's planted.

It's time for the Memphis Zoo to stop sprawling outward and start renovating and replacing the older infrastructure that has been neglected in favor of shiny new expansions. It's time for all of us to remember and honor our history.

The original Citizens to Preserve Overton Park group arose in 1957 in response to a government plan to extend Interstate 40 through the heart of our city. The leaders of CPOP -- famously derided in the media as "little old ladies in tennis shoes" -- waged war against the highway.

By 1970, it appeared that CPOP had lost the war. The I-40 corridor through Midtown had been condemned and cleared of homes and businesses. CPOP had been defeated twice in the courts. Faced with this harsh reality, most people would have given up.

But those "little old ladies" and their young lawyers pressed on to the U.S. Supreme Court, and finally won a well-deserved victory for our community in 1971.

The court's ruling in Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe protected the integrity of Overton Park and created a brighter future for the Midtown neighborhoods that had been ripped apart by the I-40 corridor.

It was also a victory on a national level. As the court stated: "The growing public concern about the quality of our natural environment has prompted Congress in recent years to enact legislation designed to curb the accelerating destruction of our country's natural beauty."

Justice Thurgood Marshall concluded that one of these new laws, known as Section 4(f), was "a plain and explicit bar to the use of federal funds for construction of highways through parks -- only the most unusual situations are exempted." This ruling has saved untold acres of public parkland from an asphalt grave, including 26 acres of Overton Park's forest.

But the 1971 ruling can't save what remains of our forest from the Memphis Zoo. And if it is lost, it will be lost forever; this forest cannot be replaced simply by planting more trees.

Memphis' civic leaders were thinking of the future when they purchased the 342-acre tract known as Lea's Woods and created Overton Park in 1901. They wisely chose to preserve the tract's 175 acres of old-growth forest, a remnant of the once-vast upland forests of the Chickasaw Bluffs that for centuries had sheltered and fed red wolves, mountain lions, woodland bison, elk, passenger pigeons, ivory-billed woodpeckers and the earliest human inhabitants of our region.

The landscape architect who designed Overton Park, George Kessler, wrote: "The healthful effect upon mind and body of rural surroundings and of beautiful, natural scenery is evident. To provide these for people living in crowded cities is an imperative necessity."

A leader of the original CPOP, Anona Stoner, described the group's goal as "keeping Overton Park a green space, a quiet place, a naturally wooded place where city residents, students, and regional visitors can have respite, if they so desire, from traffic."

Today, Overton Park remains more than just a park: It is a reminder of our natural heritage and a symbol of hope. Overton Park is common ground in a city that desperately needs more common ground.

It's for good reason that generations of Memphians know this old forest simply as the Old Forest. That forest is our oldest living ancestor. And who will protect it, if we do not?

Naomi Van Tol of Midtown is a co-founder of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park. She frequently visits the Memphis Zoo and the Old Forest with her husband and young daughter.