Friday, August 1, 2008

Grassroots Group Fights Zoo Expansion

Grassroots Group Fights Zoo Expansion
Friday, August 1, 2008 - The Daily News

By Andy Meek

It’s been a little more than two months since they had a private meeting with top brass from the Memphis Zoo to talk about the fate of Overton Park’s old-growth forest. Next week, representatives from Citizens to Preserve Overton Park will take their message into another important venue.

The supporters of the grassroots band of park activists will give an overview of their preservation fight to the Memphis City Council during its parks committee meeting Tuesday. The group was asked to speak at the request of council member Jim Strickland, who has been working behind the scenes to give the group a helping hand in its park preservation effort.

Meanwhile, anyone who wants to see first hand the subject of the group’s effort can gather Saturday at the end of Old Forest Lane, next to the Rainbow Lake parking lot, for one of the regular monthly nature hikes through the park hosted by Naomi Van Tol. She’s one of three mothers who incorporated CPOP in March. Saturday’s hike will take place from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

Irony at hand?

CPOP’s focus is on 17 acres of Overton Park’s old-growth forest, a fenced-off slice of the park the Memphis Zoo plans eventually to turn into a feature called Chickasaw Bluffs. That project is described on the zoo’s Web site and by zoo officials as a future “low-impact forest trail.”

Van Tol bristles at the irony of possibly clearing forest acreage to build a forest trail.

“What we plan to ask the City Council to consider is long-term legal protection for the old forest,” she said. “This isn’t just about the zoo. Parks always seem to be cheap land when people want to build things. And very often people consider forests to be a kind of wasteland, and that’s the perception we’re really working to change.”

In a letter to Chuck Brady, president and CEO of the Memphis Zoo, Van Tol explained some of the inspiration behind her group’s opposition to the zoo’s planned future use of the 17 acres on its south side that now is fenced off. Zoo spokesman Brian Carter said the area is the site of a future “minimal-impact forest trail area.”

“We believe that the Zoo’s (earlier) decision to clear cut 4 acres of publicly owned old-growth forest to make way for the Teton Trek exhibit was a betrayal of the public trust,” Van Tol wrote.

“Most of our board members have young children and are frequent Zoo visitors. Over the past four months, our experiences at the Zoo and Overton Park have been disrupted by the noise of chainsaws and bulldozers and by the sad knowledge that an irreplaceable ancient forest is being buried under concrete.”

Path through the trees

In written correspondence with the group, Brady said the Chickasaw Bluffs project will consist of a “simple, raised boardwalk” that will guide zoo visitors through the 17 acres of old-growth forest. That letter to CPOP, dated July 2, came in the wake of the group’s meeting with zoo officials in May to air some of its members’ concerns. Strickland was among those in attendance at that meeting.

“The Zoo will partner with forestry experts to provide a safe path through the forest while maintaining its delicate ecosystem,” Brady wrote to CPOP. “The trail will feature interpretive graphics to educate guests on the forest, and zoo staff, volunteers and docents will provide classes and other educational opportunities in the exhibit.”

Van Tol said CPOP was told in May that the exhibit would not be built for about 10 years. But the group found out recently that the timetable apparently has been sped up. The exhibit already is in the preliminary design phase, Brady said.

The bottom line for Van Tol and the rest of CPOP is that the 17 acres are public land.

“We feel like the public shouldn’t have to pay to go walk through that forest,” she said. “A boardwalk trail is not necessarily a bad thing, but we would rather that be done by (the city’s) park services as part of the forest management as a whole. People love the zoo. People trust the zoo. That 17 acres needs to come back into (Overton) Park. It’s an old-growth forest and a really unique resource.”