Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Old Forest Furor

Group upset zoo took out 139 trees to build Teton Trek
Wednesday, March 5, 2008 - Commercial Appeal

By Cindy Wolff

A group of citizens has an answer for the graffiti scrawled on a construction screen in Overton Park.

Who will speak for the trees?

They will.

They are upset that the Memphis Zoo uprooted 139 trees to build the $13.5 million Teton Trek. They are mad that no one asked for their input or whether they wanted to trade a natural, local habitat for a manmade one that showcases an ecosystem that exists 1,500 miles away in Wyoming.

They wonder why public input wasn't invited like it is for development of Shelby Farms.

The new exhibit, scheduled to open in March 2009, will include Grizzly bears, elk and gray wolves -- animals indigenous to the Grand Teton National Park, sometimes called "America's Serengeti."

It's part of a 25-year, $96 million overhaul of the zoo that freed cats from steel cages, let monkeys swing from trees and Jamaican fruit bats dangle upside down in a faux cave, oblivious to visitors who've never seen a bat that close.

Zoo president Chuck Brady is surprised park advocates weren't aware of the expansion. It's been on the master plan since 1988. A $10 million donation by FedEx Founder Fred Smith and his wife, Diane, was announced in 2006 as part of a fund-raising campaign.

A sign outside the Northwest Passage says "future home of Teton Trek."

"We weren't trying to surprise anyone," Brady said. "We haven't varied from that plan at all."

Forest advocates said they didn't realize the magnitude of the project and the amount of trees taken, said Glenn Cox, president of Park Friends Inc.

"This land is precious, it's invaluable," said Don Richardson, a forest advocate and member of Park Friends, who leads tours twice a month through the Old Forest. "They are treating this like some industrial warehouse site, but they are ignoring their sacred duty to the forest."

The Old Forest is generally about 140 acres within the 347-acre Overton Park undisturbed for more than a thousand years. It survived a decadelong assault that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to build Interstate 40 through the forest.

The zoo's plan submitted to the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development was categorized as "office/industrial," which allowed the zoo to remove 90 percent of the trees on the interior of the site and 18 percent in the perimeter, said Burk Renner with construction code enforcement.

One-third of the trees removed were 6 inches or less in diameter, said Brady. Four of the largest trees remain. Yellow ribbons circle 78 remaining trees on the 31/2 -acre site. The zoo will plant 574 trees in the exhibit.

Teton Trek is part of a plan to create regional exhibits such as China and Northwest Passage, exhibits that have lifted the zoo to national recognition as one of the best.

The master plan includes another part of the forest -- 17.5 acres the zoo wants to develop as a low-impact forest area. The zoo erected a black chainlink fence along the perimeter of the property.

Cox said the zoo doesn't seem to be concerned that what they do on that side of the fence impacts the other side.

"Animals and birds are pushed out of their habitat," Cox said. "... We are going to be proactive in making sure this area is preserved."

Citizens who aren't members of Park Friends formed a group to fight further encroachment on old-growth areas, said Amy Stewart-Banbury, who hikes the forest with her family. She and others will be there Saturday at 10 a.m. at Richardson's Old Forest tour near Rainbow Lake to ask people to join.