Friday, August 8, 2008

Zoo's plans bear scrutiny

Friday, August 8, 2008 - Commercial Appeal
There is some merit to a new woodland exhibit plan, but input from park users would be helpful

The Memphis Zoo took a public relations punch when it felled 139 trees a few months ago to make way for the new $13.5 million Teton Trek exhibit on the zoo's eastern edge.

There's no question it's considered one of the top zoos in the country. TripAdvisor, a Web site that features travelers' advice, confirmed that this week.

But destroying trees that were believed to be part of Overton Park's fabled Old Forest made zoo officials look secretive, presumptuous and environmentally uncaring, even if the exhibit has been part of a master plan.

Now the zoo is planning to build a woodlands exhibit named after the Chickasaw Bluffs through the 17 acres of fenced-off forest east of Rainbow Lake.

The area was fenced years ago, with city government permission, and has been held in reserve.

The plan has some merit, but here's a chance to repair some of the damage from Teton Trek: Find out what the public wants done with that land.

The zoo could help dispel the notion that it doesn't care about Overton Park and its natural environment by seeking public comment on whether to develop its planned new forest exhibit or tear down the fence and let the public in.

That 17 acres could be used to expand the amount of forest that can be accessed by pedestrians by way of a system of winding trails, one of Overton Park's most popular amenities.

On the other hand, a valid argument can be made for the zoo's plan to build boardwalks through the 17 acres and make the area accessible from the zoo.

The sad fact is that some people are not comfortable walking the trails of Overton Park, especially when they're alone.

The park at most hours of the day has a fair amount of foot and bicycle traffic, but especially on the interior trails it's easy to find yourself isolated.

For these individuals, the construction of a boardwalk inside the fence and accessible from the zoo would offer a chance to enjoy a section of the park they've been too afraid to venture into before.

Either way, the zoo can make new friends by leading an open and candid discussion of its future, using its 20-year-old master plan as a foundation but showing a willingness to alter it if that's what the public wants.

A little transparency goes a long way.


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