Friday, March 19, 2010

We deserve healthy forest, healthy zoo

Friday, March 19, 2010 - The Commercial Appeal
"We deserve healthy forest, healthy zoo"

By Naomi Van Tol

Overton Park is the communal backyard of Midtown Memphis. Its institutions give us art, music and entertainment, and these things are important, but its natural spaces are essential. Ever since Overton Park was created in 1901, its peaceful fields and forest paths have given joy to generations of Memphians.

Despite their immense value to our community, Overton Park's natural spaces lack legal protection. These spaces are often treated as "undeveloped land" when, in fact, they are fully developed as public parkland.

Over the past century, the greatest threat to the forest and open space of Overton Park has been the expansion of the Memphis Zoo. We have lost 50 of the park's original 200 acres of forest. As recently as two years ago, the Memphis Zoo chose to clear-cut four acres of Overton Park's old-growth forest, without public notice, to build the Teton Trek exhibit.

Citizens to Preserve Overton Park does not fault the Memphis Zoo for wanting to grow and improve. But its growth should not come at the expense of an irreplaceable 10,000-year-old forest ecosystem. We think our city deserves to have a healthy zoo and a healthy forest.

That is why we are asking the Memphis Zoo to join us in supporting the Old Forest State Natural Area bill (SB 2415 and HB 2563) that was recently introduced in the Tennessee legislature by two of Memphis' Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Beverly Marrero and Rep. Jeanne Richardson.

If passed, the bill would legally protect the 150-acre old-growth forest of Overton Park from inappropriate development under the provisions of the Natural Areas Preservation Act of 1971.

This bill does not limit any of the public uses -- such as walking, running, biking and bird-watching -- that are currently allowed at Overton Park.

The Memphis Zoo has a fenced expansion area containing 17 acres of old-growth forest that is slated for development as an exhibit called Chickasaw Bluffs. Zoo leaders say this exhibit will be limited to a low-impact boardwalk trail through the forest. This type of sensitive development would be permitted under the Natural Areas Preservation Act.

Under the proposed law, the city of Memphis would work with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to develop a public management plan for the Old Forest State Natural Area. This plan would clearly define how the Old Forest is to be treated in future. The law provides for open citizen participation in the planning process.

Many of our group's leaders and supporters are also members of the Memphis Zoo. We visit the zoo often with our children. We know that many of the zoo's older exhibits are badly in need of renovation or redevelopment.

We believe it is time for zoo leaders to focus on improving the quality of their existing facility and stop expanding into the shrinking public spaces of Overton Park. Building pricey new exhibits while allowing older exhibits to crumble is not a sustainable growth policy.

The Memphis Zoo does an excellent job of fundraising and attracting tourism to our city. But it is also heavily subsidized by Memphis taxpayers and heavily supported by local citizens who buy memberships and attend fundraising events. It is time for the Memphis Zoo to demonstrate a more positive and inclusive attitude toward our community.

Given that the Memphis Zoo's mission emphasizes the vital importance of habitat conservation, we think it's a natural fit for zoo leaders to help protect the rich biodiversity of Overton Park. The Tennessee Ornithological Society has identified more than 160 bird species in the Old Forest, and Memphis Zoo researchers use the forest to study native snake populations and a rare species of purse-web spider.

The city of Memphis recently funded and completed a 12-month botanical survey of the Old Forest that identified more than 330 plant species from 85 families. Many of the forest's larger trees are estimated to far exceed 200 years of age.

This study concluded: "Overton Park's forest is a unique resource which cannot be replaced. It is invaluable to the city and to the region as an outstanding example of old growth forest. Because it is within an urban setting, it is even more exceptional. Everything possible should be done to assure that it is protected in perpetuity."

We hope the Memphis Zoo and the city of Memphis will share our enthusiastic support for the Old Forest State Natural Area bill. Let's work together to save the priceless old-growth forest of Overton Park for future generations to enjoy.

For more information about Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, visit, e-mail or call 278-2396.