Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Let's bury the chainsaw

Last Friday we asked the Memphis Zoo to join us in supporting the Old Forest State Natural Area legislation. Today we have our answer from the Zoo's CEO/President Chuck Brady: Hell, no! I'm paraphrasing, but that's the gist of it.

It's great that the Memphis Zoo has finally decided to support some type of legal protection for the Old Forest. We're making progress!

It's not great that Mr. Brady keeps refusing to meet and talk with us. If he had talked with us first, maybe his editorial wouldn't have so many factual errors.

1. Mr. Brady says we are trying to restrict the public from using Overton Park. We do not propose any restrictions on any of the public recreational activities that are permitted at Overton Park today.

The Natural Areas Preservation Act and its associated regulations do not require any restrictions on normal park activities such as running, biking, dog-walking, et cetera. Public activities could be restricted if the landowner chose to do so. But this is already the case at Overton Park. For example, a few years ago the City of Memphis decided to close the park to public use at night.

I happened to be working at Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park as a ranger/naturalist when 11,000 acres of that park became a State Natural Area in 2002. There was no significant change in the management or public use of the park. Recreational activities that are allowed in the Meeman-Shelby SNA include hiking, running, biking, hunting and fishing. Obviously this law is flexible and allows for a wide range of public uses.

2. Mr. Brady says that SNA designation would prohibit park maintenance. If by "maintenance" he means "bulldozing" then, yes, this is true. But this legislation would not change anything else about the way the Old Forest is currently maintained. Again, the City of Memphis could choose to restrict such activities in their management plan, but we see no reason why they would want to.

3. Mr. Brady says that Overton Park would be "controlled by the Nashville-based Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation." In reality, this would be a cooperative partnership between TDEC and the City of Memphis. This partnership would only "control" the Old Forest; it would have no effect on any other part of Overton Park.

4. Mr. Brady suggests that CPOP views the Old Forest as an "exclusive area" that should be sealed in a bubble for our personal use. This is the opposite of everything our group stands for, as Mr. Brady would know if he had ever accepted our invitation to hike the Old Forest trails together.

5. Mr. Brady says the Old Forest State Natural Area would "effectively quarantine Overton Park's forest." It is laughably ironic that Mr. Brady would accuse us of wanting to quarantine the forest from the public, given his own devotion to barbed-wire fences. The publicly-owned forest inside the Zoo's fence has been completely closed to public access for 20 years.

Even if the Zoo restores some degree of access by building the Chickasaw Bluffs boardwalk, the public will still be required to pay admission. Meanwhile, the rest of the Old Forest is free and open to the public 365 days a year.

While we're on the topic of Chickasaw Bluffs, it's worth noting that the Zoo is advertising this proposed boardwalk using images of a 1,600-foot boardwalk that was built by the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee at the William B. Clark State Natural Area in 2001. A similar boardwalk was built by TDEC at the Ghost River State Natural Area in 2003. Clearly, boardwalks are compatible with SNA protection.

6. Mr. Brady lauds Shelby Farms as a shining example of how parkland should be protected, saying: "The governance of Shelby Farms is under a conservation easement, and this solution would allow Overton Park the same freedoms from which Shelby Farms benefits." He fails to mention that the forested portion of Shelby Farms has been a State Natural Area since 1988.

If we followed the Shelby Farms model, as Mr. Brady suggests, we would create a State Natural Area to protect the forest and we would protect the entire park with a conservation easement overlay.

Shelby Farms pays a substantial yearly fee to the Land Trust for Tennessee to administer their conservation easement. Shelby Farms is a sprawling area with a disparate array of land uses, including private commercial ventures. The Old Forest is just not that complicated. Our tax dollars pay for Memphis Park Services and TDEC's Natural Heritage program. In this case, is it really necessary to pay a private group to do what our public officials are already being paid to do?

CPOP is not opposed to the idea of a conservation easement at Overton Park -- we just don't think it's the best solution. Our considered opinion is that State Natural Area designation is the cheapest, smartest, most effective, and most publicly transparent method of protecting the Old Forest from chainsaws and bulldozers.

We look forward to continued discussion of these topics with the City of Memphis and anyone else who is willing to sit down and talk with us.