Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Who'll speak for trees?

Zoo's plan to expand into old-growth forest draws flak

Wednesday, August 6, 2008 - Commercial Appeal

By Linda A. Moore

The battle for what's best for the old-growth forest at Overton Park moved to City Hall on Tuesday as a representative from a citizen's advocacy group made a pitch for more oversight.

Work continues on Teton Trek, the Memphis Zoo's next exhibit that is being built in a section of old-growth forest in Overton Park. The zoo's decision to expand into the forest has been criticized by several groups, including Citizens to Preserve Overton Park.

Naomi Van Tol, co-founder of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park gave a presentation to the parks committee of the Memphis City Council, asking for the return of 17 acres of forest now set aside for the Memphis Zoo's Chickasaw Bluffs exhibit, a boardwalk through the forest.

Her group also wants more public input on zoo projects, an update of its 20-year-old master plan and some form of legal preservation of the remaining 150 acres of old forest at the park.

"We believe that up to this point nobody has been speaking for the forest," Van Tol said.

Meanwhile, Chuck Brady, the zoo's CEO, defended the zoo's expansion plans and how it has followed the master plan.

Brady contends the zoo's operation is open and transparent. "Every project we have ever done has gotten city approval," he said.

Chickasaw Bluffs will incorporate boardwalks through the 17 acres of forest, making the forest itself the exhibit.

Van Tol said they would rather see that kind of exhibit done by park services, making it free for everyone. Her group hosts twice monthly hikes on Saturdays in the old-growth forest.

But Brady said with 850,000 to 1 million visitors a year, the number-one reason people come to Overton Park is the zoo, and the Chickasaw Bluffs exhibit will bring those people into the forest. The zoo soon will begin the next 10-year master plan, which will include updating old exhibits, he said.

However, Cindy Buchanan, director of park services, advised the new master plan will cost $100,000 to $200,000 and should wait until projects from the current plan are finished.

While some committee members thought there should be citizen input into zoo plans, others expressed confidence in how the zoo is being expanded.

"I don't want any group ever coming and expressing the sentiments that they felt they've been left out of city business," said Councilwoman Wanda Halbert.

Councilwoman Barbara Swearengen Ware called what the zoo is doing progress.

"If it doesn't expand and add new amenities, you might as well have the interstate," she said.