Saturday, June 28, 2008

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy...

So after three weeks of phone calls and emails to Park Services, I got to look at documents I didn't actually request. After one phone call to Ritchie Smith, I got handed the 1988 Overton Park Master Plan (both map & narrative), an exhaustive history of Overton Park, and a very informative pamphlet from an Overton Park retrospective at the Brooks. Ritchie also took the time to go through the Master Plan with me for about an hour so that I would have a good understanding of the events surrounding its creation.

My big question to Ritchie was, "Exactly how did the Zoo get those 21 acres after all?"

As Ritchie explains it, in the mid 80s the Zoo was looking to expand. (Hence the 1986 Zoo Master Plan.) But the Brooks, the College of Art, and the Shell were all looking to expand too. So the City asked Ritchie to put together a master plan for the entire park.

Clearly, they put a lot of work into it. There was a survey of over 500 people--park users and neighborhood leaders, two traffic studies, a history of the park itself, public meetings, etc.

Looking at the map, there's one prominent feature you should note. (I promise to try and digitize this map and the narrative asap!)

The Zoo expansion areas no longer include Rainbow Lake.

Ritchie noted that Rainbow Lake was a key feature of the Greensward and that it made no sense to give it to the Zoo. Additionally the main traffic pattern of the park, which at that time was a straight shot from Poplar to the Zoo, was causing major congestion. So the Master Plan includes closing off part of the main road, expanding the Greensward, and re-routing Zoo traffic to the west side of the park.

Other key features of the Master Plan were closing off numerous entrances to the park, creating a jogging trail and pedestrian friendly path around the main section of forest, mapping and marking a major loop trail through the forest, expanding parking for the Brooks and the Shell, building a playground and picnic areas near Rainbow Lake and the east Parkway pavilion, etc.

Basically, we can thank the Master Plan for all of the amenities we enjoy in the park everyday.

Okay, so back to the original question. How did the Zoo get control of the 21 acres? The Park Commission board approved the Overton Park Master Plan in 1988. Then in turn, the City Council and the mayor at the time, Dick Hackett, approved it.

Once the Overton Park Master Plan was approved by the powers that be, the Zoo put up its fence. (The Zoo was not happy about losing Rainbow Lake and didn't want to risk losing any more of its desired expansion area.)

So when asked about the clear cutting of 4 acres of old growth forest, Chuck Brady, Brian Carter, and Matt Thompson say, "It's been in the Master Plan for 20 years."

But that's not really true.

Twenty years ago they were granted access to the forest for expansion, yes. But at least as far as this plan goes (the plan that was actually approved by City Council), there are no details about what exactly is going to happen in those areas.

When we told Chuck Brady that we were upset that he cut down 4 acres of old growth forest without telling anyone, he made sure to say that twenty years ago there were plenty of public meetings in which the Zoo made their plans known.

Again, I gotta call bullshit.

The Overton Park Master Plan involved a lot of community input, but no where in the Overton Park Master Plan does it detail what will happen in the Zoo's expansion areas.

Whatever plans the Zoo made for these areas, they made in private with no input from anyone outside of their chain links, much like they do today.

And that, clear(cut)ly is a problem.

The Overton Park Master Plan and Overton Park: the Evolution of a Park Space both very plainly state the importance of the old forest and detail the community's desire to preserve it. When the Park Commission granted the expansion areas to the Zoo, it was taking a leap of faith.

From the Evolution of a Park Space (1987):

The demands for expansion of the [Memphis Zoo & Aquarium's] facility have now challenged the design community and the Park Commission to seek the necessary facilities with the least disruption to the plan and plantings of its historic park setting. It is hoped that the zoo will meet this challenge with the same inventiveness and sensitivity as it has given its own facility in the previous eighty years.

We can't afford another leap of faith.

Next up...I get my hands on the Ecological Assessment and Management Recommendations for the Overton Park Forest prepared by James M. Guldin in 1987.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Little Miss Sunshine Strikes Again

I talked to Mike Flowers, of Park Services, on the phone Thursday. I'd been trying for several weeks to get a copy of the Overton Park Master Plan from him. He called to say that after talking to his boss, Cindy Buchanan, he wasn't sure if he could give me a copy of the Master Plan. He wasn't clear whether I needed to request a copy through the City's legal department. However, while he and Cindy debated this point, he said that I was welcome to come to his office on Friday and look at his copy that would be waiting for me on his secretary's desk. (He however would be out of town Friday and all of the next week.)

He described the Master Plan as a 30-40 page document with not a lot of content. "You may not even want a copy when you see it," he said.

This afternoon, I went to the Park Commission building and looked through the documents that Mike left for me.

Let's see, what have we here. A Memphis Zoo and Aquarium activity book from 1984 and the Zoo's Master Plan from 1986. (Both the complete plan and a poster sized artist's rendering and summary.)

Wait, didn't I request a copy of the Overton Park Master Plan? This kind of reminded me of the time I went to OPD to see the Zoo's Teton Trek demolition plan and they showed me the landscaping plan instead.

First, I of course looked at the Learning & Activity Book.

It was really neat to see the Zoo's planning process for Cat Country.

It totally made me feel at ease about the upcoming Chickasaw Bluffs Exhibit!

Next up, the artist's rendering of the Zoo's 1986 Master Plan.

I realize that my camera isn't quite as effective as a scanner, but hopefully you can see that in 1986 the Zoo wanted to take over half of the greensward for parking and all of Rainbow Lake (and then some) for its New World Forest Exhibit.

Here's a close up of the area now known as "The 17 acres" or "The Enchanted Forest."

African Savannah? South American Grasslands? Suddenly Chickasaw Bluffs didn't sound so bad. (Sit down Chuck, I'm not joining the dark side.)

I think my favorite part is the Rivers of the World exhibit that includes Rainbow Lake and Lick Creek. I mean, I can't make this shit up!

Apparently the "interpretive/experiential exhibit [that is] delicately woven through the virgin forest" culminates with a huge pavilion and restaurant overlooking the oh-so-majestic Rainbow Lake. Actually, now I'm having Shelby Farms visions... silly as it sounds, it does at least make sense to me that they would want to have some "destination" or "reward" at the end of the Forest Trail. I mean how else are they going to get people to want to walk through all that WILDNESS!?

Especially when it's populated with wild turkeys and beavers!

Remember when Chuck Brady told us that this pathetic cartoon is the Zoo's current Master Plan in its entirety?

Puh-leeze. Based on what I saw from 1986, the Zoo at least has a summary and bare bones budget to implement the plan printed on the back of the original poster. At least. And honestly, it just doesn't make sense that they wouldn't have some accompanying narrative. How dumb do these dudes think we are? (Don't answer that.)

I thanked Mike Flower's nice secretary and made my way out. I called Naomi when I got in my car and she informed me that Ritchie Smith, who worked on the actual Overton Park Master Plan in 1988, said I could come by his office downtown and pick up a copy anytime.

Well, there was no time like the present. Stay tuned...

Saturday Morning's Alright For Hiking

Just a quick reminder that we will hike the Old Forest in the morning, rain or shine.

Meet at 10:00am tomorrow (Saturday, June 28) at the Lick Creek pedestrian bridge, adjacent to the Rainbow Lake parking lot at the east end of Old Forest Lane.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Dude, why do you hate the Zoo so much? The Zoo rocks!

We don't hate the Zoo. In fact, we are all members and frequent the Zoo with our families. We are unhappy about the fact that the Memphis Zoo clearcut four acres of Overton Park's old growth forest in February, when the Zoo began construction on a new exhibit called Teton Trek.

2. But haven’t those plans been in place for over 20 years?

Not really. The last Overton Park master plan was indeed drawn up in 1988, supposedly with public input, but many aspects of that plan have changed in the past 20 years. For example: the Zoo added the China exhibit after securing two pandas, and a planned outdoor amphitheater was nixed after the Shell started being rehabbed.

Our requests for a copy of the Zoo’s master plan have repeatedly been met with the drawing you see below. We have been explicitly told by the CEO/president of the Memphis Zoo, Charles Brady, that there is no written counterpart to this drawing. This drawing does not tell us very much. It certainly doesn't say anything about cutting down four acres of forest.

3. Isn’t the Zoo going to plant more trees than it cut down? Doesn’t that make it all okay?


Planting non-native trees and shrubs as landscaping for a Zoo exhibit is no replacement for the beauty and magnificence of a 10,000 year old forest.

4. Last time I looked, Teton Trek was progressing right along. Why don’t you just accept that what's done is done?

The Memphis Zoo still has 17 acres of old growth forest slated for development behind its fence.

5. You mean the Chickasaw Bluffs boardwalk? What’s wrong with that?

The Memphis Zoo has no written plan for the 17 acres inside its fence. There is currently no public oversight or legal protection for that public parkland. Without those two things, the Zoo cannot guarantee that a simple boardwalk won't morph into another clearcut to make way for another shiny new exhibit.

Those 17 acres of old growth forest are owned by the citizens of Memphis. That parkland is part of the historic Old Forest Overton Park. We believe it should be reunited with the rest of the park, so that the public can enjoy its beauty for free.

6. So you're saying that handicapped people will never get a chance to visit the Old Forest?

Overton Park currently has an extensive network of paved roads through the Old Forest that are closed to vehicle traffic. These trails are open to anyone who wants to visit.

It is our position that any trail enhancement or new trail development in the forest should be overseen by the City of Memphis Park Services division, with community input and support. The Old Forest should be managed as a whole.

7. But what about all of those underprivileged kids who visit the Zoo? How will they ever see the forest?

The Zoo currently offers guided hikes through the trails for a $125 fee. CPOP offers free hikes twice a month and per special request. Park Friends also offers free public activities, has developed a trail map, and is working with Park Services to fund and install informational kiosks to assist Old Forest visitors.

8. So what do you want?

CPOP wants to remove the fence around the 17 acres. (We also want to achieve long-term legal protection for the Old Forest, but we're starting with the fence.)

9. How do you propose to take down the fence?

We met with Memphis Zoo officials in early May and asked them real nicely to take down the fence. They asked us to give them a few months to think it over. While we await their reply, we are building community awareness of the issue. This community awareness will be invaluable should we need to pursue a political route to remove the fence.

10. Isn’t there some law that protects the forest? Isn’t it on the National Register of Historic Places or something?

All of Overton Park -- 342 acres, including the Memphis Zoo -- is listed on the National Register. Unfortunately this fact does not provide any legal protection for the forest.

We are not aware of any existing law that protects the forest, other than the minimal restrictions of the Memphis & Shelby County tree ordinance. The Memphis Zoo's clearcut was approved by the Office of Planning & Development (OPD) and its officials told us the Zoo was in compliance with the tree ordinance.

11. How can our community do a better job of protecting the forest?

A perpetual conservation easement could protect the Old Forest if the City Council passed a resolution to approve this. Likewise, the City Council could pass a resolution to return control of the 17 acres to Park Services and take down the fence.

Because the Old Forest is a unique old growth ecosystem, it may be possible to obtain a State Natural Area designation from the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation (TDEC). This would require the approval of TDEC, the State Legislature, and the Memphis City Council. Such a designation would create a legal obligation to preserve and manage the Old Forest according to TDEC regulations.

12. How can I help CPOP?

We're so glad you asked! Please see the sidebar for a list of suggestions.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Run Through the Forest

Today's guest post is from CPOP supporter Greg Russell. Thanks, Greg!

So I did my usual run through the old forest of Overton Park yesterday afternoon. Despite the heat and humidity, summer is probably my favorite time to run the trails. The lush and often damp vegetation reminds me of time I spent in the rainforests of Peru.

I never tire of running in Overton because each season offers something different: in spring, the woods are filled with the strong smell of honeysuckle. From one day to the next, you can see the forest canopy expanding as leafless trees become filled with vegetation. You begin to see different reptiles in the park as it comes alive after a long winter. As leaves change to golds and reds in autumn and then fall to the forest floor, several paths are filled with these leaves, offering a sort of “golden brick road.” Winter is moody with shortening days, meaning earlier trips to the park. The occasional snow creates a winter wonderland and is filled with sleds carrying folks of all ages.

I used to work in national parks as a ranger. The Grand Tetons, Denali in Alaska and Rocky Mountain National Park are a few of the places I spent time in. It was easy to walk or run into the woods and find solitude and quiet, a place without fences, a place filled with the beauty of nature without any sign of unnatural encroachment. I now find that quiet and solitude within Overton Park.

As a writer, I often come up with story ideas as I run the trails. Overton Park is the perfect setting for contemplative recreation. It offers an oasis of calm in the hustle and bustle of the city. Also as I run the trails, the thought of an ever-shrinking forest due to encroachment by civilization comes to mind, especially as I pass the area that was bulldozed and clear-cut to make room for a new zoo exhibit that already is showing signs of becoming a concrete jungle. It makes me think how important it is that the citizens of Memphis come together and protect our park.

I often come back to a book I once read that extols the value of nature, “Mountains Without Handrails.” Nature is best observed in its most natural state, without boardwalks, without signs of human construction. It is best enjoyed on its own terms. Any visible construction compromises the natural state of the park. The park is accessible to all now, except, unfortunately, for the 17 acres of fenced-in area the zoo is trying to claim.

I lost faith in our Zoo officials because of the reckless abandon they exhibited in destroying old growth forest for their Teton Trek exhibit. I say it is time to stop any further plans by the Memphis Zoo or anyone else to encroach on a jewel that is best enjoyed in its most natural state.

Monday, June 23, 2008


Several sharp-eyed CPOP supporters emailed this morning with links to a story that ran on Eyewitness News and Channel 3 News last night.

My husband and I saw nothing untoward when we walked to the Zoo yesterday, so the media frenzy must have simmered down before we got there.

There's no online video on either station's website, but the Eyewitness News story says that a Memphis Zoo sign was vandalized as a protest against "future projects at the zoo including a forest trail." The Channel 3 story says that "someone upset about new projects at the zoo" spray-painted "Can Brady save the park" near the Zoo's entrance.

[Correction: The Eyewitness News link does include a video, featuring our second-favorite Memphis Zoo spokesmodel, Matt Thompson!]

Without any punctuation or context, we have no idea whether the anonymous spray-painter meant to say "Can Brady! Save the park!" or "Can Brady save the park?" but given the Zoo's reaction it's most likely the former.

Here's the Channel 3 News quote from our favorite Memphis Zoo spokesmodel, Brian Carter: "We can't keep people from defacing public property, but all we can do is continue and doing business as usual."

CPOP applauds the Memphis Zoo for having the courage to denounce the anti-social actions of people who are actually willing to deface public property in pursuit of their own selfish interests. How shocking that anyone would stoop so low...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Drove my Chevy to the... zoo?

My husband and I strolled our bambina over to the Memphis Zoo this morning, as we often do, and were intrigued by this innovative new solution to the Zoo's parking problem:

We decided this was intended to be an exciting promotion for Chevrolet, Official Panda Sponsor. It didn't make us want to buy a Chevy, but it did spark an idea. Since the walkways inside the Memphis Zoo are already traversed by trams, golf carts, and various other species of speedy smelly ATVs, why not add valet parking to the mix?

Over the past year or two, the leaders of the Memphis Zoo have provided ample proof that, for them, parking takes precedence over parkland. Surely we can expand that concept to include the interior grounds of the Zoo?

And why stop there, when we could transform the whole place into a Drive-Thru Zoo? Whoa, I think we're really onto something here!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Walk this way

Despite Saturday's hot and thunderstormy forecast, 20 people showed up for the CPOP nature hike!

I'd be just as happy leading a hike for two people, because I love spending time in the woods, but it's amazing and encouraging to see that so many other people want to share this experience.
I'm particularly impressed by the large contingent of kids on our hikes. As the mama of a two-year-old, I know how a "simple" task like "getting out the door on time" can be a monumental challenge -- and I just have one child!

Kids are wonderful to have on nature hikes because they point out all the amazing little critters that adults walk right past.
Our next hike will be Saturday, June 28, 10:00am to 11:30am. Mark your calendars!

A few questions for the zoo

Letters to the Editor
Tuesday, June 17, 2008 - Commercial Appeal
A few questions for the zoo

There is a specter of gloom over Overton Park. How is it possible that in the 21st century in the middle of America, in one of the last vestiges of old-growth forest, someone or something could deal such a monstrous blow (June 4 article, "Zoo plans treed by protest / Champions of Overton forest oppose expansion")? We need to ask ourselves a few tough questions:

Did we as a city allow things to happen? Is destroying acres of ancient forest still a crime? Did a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from 1971 protecting the "perpetual forest" apply only to the builders of I-40? What is the prison term for 139 counts of unlawful felling of federally protected trees? And if no law was broken, how about a moral contract that we, the citizens and the city had with a formerly dear institution? The Memphis Zoo cannot be trusted with other acreage fenced in for "future expansion."

Your letter writer's (June 8, "The zoo that ate the park") poignant comment about the zoo's "imperial dreams" hit the nail on the head. In your article, the zoo president referred to critics as "those who oppose us." The emperor of the Cha-Ching dynasty is not pleased. Ever notice how China deals with trees and nature and popular dissent when it builds a massive dam? It cuts them down, slashes and burns and silences "those who oppose us."

Some of us numerous skeptics back in 2003 wondered if the zoo or the new power-hungry and unapproachable management had lost its marbles: Why would Memphis, the poor sister next to Atlanta, want to repeat that city's financially disastrous folly of committing to a prohibitively expensive panda-lease program? Beyond the obvious, who benefits in what way from all the frenzied big-budget activity?

Maybe the City Council needs to consider its option to cancel its agreement with the zoological society. The zoo itself is not the enemy. Its hard-working employees are not the enemy. But maybe it needs leadership equally concerned with fauna and flora.

Bernhard Meck

Sunday, June 15, 2008

From Out of Nowhere

You never know what's lurking in the bushes at Overton Park. Warren and I took the boys for a hike on Sunday, like we always do, and just as we were about to turn onto the trails a Channel 3 Jeep pulled into the parking lot, and Stephanie Scurlock jumped out. She called out to us, "Have you heard any bulldozers?"

"Is that a pick-up line?" I asked Warren.

We kindly told her that we hadn't heard any bulldozers in the 30 minutes that we had been on the playground, but that she might wanna check out Mordor, since that was where the bulldozers lived.

Warren gave her directions and she was off.

"Well, I guess we better go see what's going on," I said.

By the time we had walked over to the future site of Teton Trek, Stephanie had her cameraman filming over the fence.

Hmmm... I was curious. We hadn't sent out any press releases and our big meeting was over a week ago. Did I miss something?

Warren had browsed through the Sunday paper (while I prepared his gourmet Father's Day breakfast) and hadn't said anything about the Zoo or the Old Forest. There was a story on the Wolf River Greenway trail... maybe that sparked the interest in the Old Forest...

As we walked toward Stephanie and her cameraman it was very clear that we were now being filmed. As we approached I asked, "What's your angle?"

"There's a group that's really upset about the Zoo cutting down trees," she said.

"Oh really?" I said.

"Yeah, they even have a website," she said.

"Is it Citizens to Preserve Overton Park?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, getting a bit hopeful.

"Hi, I'm Stacey Greenberg," I said.

"I've been trying to call you all morning!" she exclaimed.


Huh. I didn't have my phone on me which was unusual. And actually, it might have been on "beep once" all morning when I was home. I gave her the benefit of the doubt.

"Can I ask you a few questions?" she said.

"Sure," I replied.

And the rest is history.

I learned later that Stephanie Scurlock stopped by Naomi's house that morning and left a card on the door. Naomi called her and left a message but never heard back.

Unfortunately the video didn't make it to Channel 3's website, so we can't share it with you. But it didn't cover any new ground aside from the introduction of a new media spokesmodel (and Brian Carter doppelganger), Matt Thompson, who is the Memphis Zoo's mammal curator.

Zoo Expansion Cuts into Forest Causing Controversy

The Memphis Zoo's expansion plan was the Big Story on Channel 3 News about 20 minutes ago. Stacey ran into the news crew while her family was out walking in the park this morning, so she did an impromptu interview. We'll link to the video when it's available.

If you're a new visitor to our website and want the skinny on CPOP's mission and goals, the best place to begin is our slideshow.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Nothing new under the sun

Back in early May, the CPOP board finally got our chance to go behind the curtain for a big meet-up with the leaders of the Memphis Zoo. We mailed this followup letter to summarize our concerns (no response yet, but we live in hope).

During that meeting the Memphis Zoo's president and CEO, Charles Brady, told us that the fate of our old-growth parkland was decided by public consensus 20 years ago when the Zoo was allowed to expand from 36 acres to 70 acres under the 1988 Overton Park Master Plan.

We still don't have a copy of this plan, because nobody else seems to have a copy either. It's starting to seem like a mythical creature.

But we have unearthed an 18-year-old Commercial Appeal editorial which proves that our 17-acre Enchanted Forest was not, in fact, fenced off without a fight. Click the image to enlarge:

Well, would you look at that.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Go take a hike!

We hike tomorrow, rain or shine! Meet at 10:00am at the Lick Creek pedestrian bridge, which is located at the east end of Old Forest Lane, adjacent to the Rainbow Lake parking lot.

Don't let the heat keep you from attending our summer hikes; just bring a water bottle and remind yourself that it's always at least 10 degrees cooler in the Old Forest. Also keep in mind that lightweight long pants will protect your tender flesh from close encounters with poison ivy and mosquitoes.

If you can't make it tomorrow, we have another hike coming up on Saturday, June 28, at 10:00am. If you want to plan farther ahead, you can always count on a free guided Old Forest hike on the second Saturday of every month at 10:00am.

We are adding extra hikes as we're able, but the Second Saturday Old Forest hikes are a long-standing tradition begun by Don Richardson of the local Sierra Club group. Don is taking a break for the summer but will start leading hikes again in the fall. I'm happy to have a good excuse to visit the Old Forest more often!

Also, I keep forgetting to mention that CPOP is on Facebook. Become a fan and you'll get automatic updates on our hikes and other events. You know, if you wanna...

Thursday, June 12, 2008

You don't know what you've got till it's gone

Stacey and I have tilted at this particular windmill once or twice already, but I ran across this satellite image today and had to share it with y'all. (Ignore that erroneous "golf course" label, of course; you recognize the Greensward with the Doughboy statue at bottom left and Rainbow Lake on the right.)

Take a close look at the size of that "finite level of Zoo parking" that was negotiated by Park Friends Inc. on behalf of everyone who used to be able to toss a Frisbee or walk a dog or have a picnic -- or simply stroll across the Overton Park Greensward without having to breathe exhaust fumes and watch helplessly as our publicly owned parkland is claimed by the Memphis Zoo's ever-expanding grid of parked cars and trucks.

At this rate, the Greensward that was created by our city leaders way back in 1901 will vanish altogether by the time my small daughter is old enough to go fly a kite.

If the dirty reality of the Teton Clearcut hasn't convinced you that the leaders of the Memphis Zoo are playing the citizens of Memphis for chumps, please consider this simple question: How hard would it be to build a parking garage, already?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Doing the electric slide

As promised, here's the slideshow we presented at our meeting last week. I added a few captions so it would make sense without narration. It will play automagically and you can adjust the timing, etc., by mousing over the slideshow. Enjoy!

(Sorry about the clunky width; I'm constrained by our blog template.)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Meeting Recap

For those of you who couldn’t make it to CPOP’s first public meeting at Rhodes last week, here’s a play-by-play. A webbified version of our powerpoint presentation will be posted soon.

A steady stream of park lovers started coming in to Buckman Hall around 6:45pm as Naomi, Amy, Roy, and I feverishly got our kids settled, sign-in sheets properly displayed, the laptop hooked up, and the mood lighting adjusted. I took a few minutes to do an on-camera interview for Channel 5 News.

The dozen or so kids enjoyed healthy snacks, a screening of The Lorax, and a romp on the grounds with a lovely view of the Old Forest to the south...

... while the adults enjoyed a 7-minute powerpoint presentation and 45 minutes of lively discussion.

I’d say the highlights of the evening included Roy’s masterful use of Google Earth images, the sea of hands in the air, my kid running on stage, an impromptu speech by longtime park advocate Pepper Marcus, and the outpouring of support we got from the 75 people in attendance.

There was a lot of discussion about how we arrived where we are today — specifically, how the Memphis Zoo was able to clearcut four acres without any kind of public notice. Many people had questions concerning the Zoo’s structure, funding, and power.

It was great to be able to fill everyone in on all of the information we have gathered since February. There seemed to be a clear consensus among the crowd that the Memphis Zoo has no business cutting (or as the Zoo says, "developing") any more of our irreplaceable Old Forest.

We handed out 200 postcards for our supporters to mail to Memphis City Councilman Jim Strickland, who currently serves as the Zoo Liaison and chairs the Parks Committee. (You can email him and/or let us know if you'd like to distribute postcards to your friends.) We also gave away our remaining "Down with Fence" stickers and most of our "Treehugger" stickers.

After the meeting and all the press surrounding it, our membership list has grown almost threefold. Don't worry, we'll order more stickers!

Speaking of press, Channel 5 News did give us some coverage Thursday evening, which was fantastic. However, they did flub one major detail. I nearly fell on the floor when I heard Joe Birch announce, “The Memphis Zoo has plans to develop the last 17 acres of Old Forest in Overton Park.”

I’m sure our friend Chuck Brady didn’t appreciate that one bit! Which might explain why the segment never made it onto the Channel 5 website...

Anyway, it was a great evening and I am looking forward to the day that the fence comes down and we have a unified Old Forest that is legally protected and open to all. Stay tuned!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Yay for you, Memphis Zoo!

Rosa and I moseyed over to the Memphis Zoo this morning.

After a ride on the carousel and a stroll through Primate Canyon, we lollygagged past the butterflies and realized it was HOT out there. I figured we'd spend ten minutes peeping at waterfowl from the shady refuge of the duck pond pavilion, then head home, but I was inexorably drawn to the "Denizens of the Deep South" exhibit by the alluring scent of fresh paint.

As you may recall, we trashed this exhibit in late April. Rosa is not what I would call a fastidious child but even she couldn't wait to get out of that hellhole:

But it looks like someone finally heard our prayer for relief.





They even cleaned the tank and installed a second alligator:

I couldn't find the tragic suicidal bluegill from our last visit, but I suspect that's why this alligator is smiling -- so everyone's a winner in the end!

Kudos, Zoo.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Let's get lifted again

About a month ago, Susan Jennings emailed us a copy of an eloquent letter that she wrote to Councilman Jim Strickland. Susan sent a similar letter to the Commercial Appeal but since they haven't printed it yet, she graciously gave us permission to post it here.

Dear Jim,

I am a resident of Lea's Woods and have lived in Midtown for 30 years.

For the past 20 of those years, I have walked my dogs through the Old Forest section of Overton Park. During those idyllic hours, I have often been stunned by the peace and beauty of the nature in this oasis between the busy rush of the Parkways and Poplar Avenue. Many times I've thanked God for the birds, trees and sunshine that surround me. I have thought of the native Americans and early settlers of our city who may have walked the same pathways. And I have occasionally lifted up the "little old ladies in tennis shoes" of the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park who fought all the way to the Supreme Court to successfully fight a government proposal to extend I-40 which would have destroyed Overton Park. Without them, Midtown would not exist as we know it today.

Then one day, as I rounded the corner of my regular route, I was stunned by the four acres of brown mud where noble trees once stood and owls once lived. It stopped me dead in my tracks. How could this have happened? I read the newspaper every day -- why had I not heard of this?

I was shocked that the Zoo could think their new exhibit could improve on the natural beauty of the Old Forest, and surprised that these four acres could disappear so quickly and without any public notice. Most of all, I was ashamed of myself for letting down those courageous people who first saved Overton Park.

Now I support the new Citizens to Preserve Overton Park group. I join them in their passion to save the Old Forest, save Midtown and save our city.

I hope you will take their cause to heart also and give them more than lip service. I hope you will take a serious look at what the Zoo is doing to destroy what makes Midtown and Memphis special.

I hope you make me proud that I voted for you.

Susan Jennings

The zoo that ate the park

Letters to the Editor
Sunday, June 8, 2008 - Commercial Appeal
The zoo that ate the park

The Teton Trek development at the Memphis Zoo came as a shock to me when I read about it. There is a tendency toward a complacency that never thinks that someone in business or government will drain the Mississippi River to sell the water, or cut down the parks' trees to sell as firewood, or suck up the atmosphere to ship off somewhere for a profit. Au contraire. They will, and they do.

I am not just shocked at the cutting down of the old-growth trees in Overton Park, but have for years been outraged that the zoo just keeps on growing, and the rest of the park shrinking. The zoo seems to believe that it is the dominant presence in Overton Park, and if it wants to subsume the entire park it can, and will.

I have enjoyed going to the zoo as a child and an adult. However, the zoo has gotten big enough and needs to be stopped from any further expansion; in fact, it should give back all the undeveloped land to the public. In the '60s and '70s a road encircled the lake. The more roads or pathways the better, to create an interesting environment and more choices as to where to walk, run, bike or skate. The loss of that road, now fenced in, lessened the integrity and complexity of the park.

The zoo administration, like any power-hungry bureaucracy, is far more interested in self-aggrandizement than any public need. Who wanted a Teton park there? What will be next? The Rif mountains of Morocco, then a replica of the Wolf River swamps, then the Altamira Cave? It is time the zoo organization was forced to ensure maintenance and events within its immediate developed area, and give up its urban imperial dreams.

Richard Owen

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Breaking news!

A few minutes ago I was surfing the web for info about the Memphis Zoo's future plans (I do this about once a week, now, for obvious reasons) and what to my wondering eyes should appear, but concept drawings of next year's Zambezi River Hippo Camp and -- brace yourselves, people -- a rudimentary written description of the Zoo's development plan for our 17-acre Enchanted Forest!

Obviously the Zoo's leaders were in a real hurry to get this posted before the next news cycle hits 'em where it hurts, so the typos will likely be corrected later, but this is the version I'm looking at right now:

This living exhibit is intended to provide unparelled access for all segments of the community to enjoy the natural plantlife and animal wildlife that resides in one of Memphis' finest parks.

The concept calls for a simple, raised boardwalk that will guide Zoo guests through the forest. This forest land is located on the Zoo's existing campus footprint. Click here to view an image that has this land highlighted in the Zoo's master plan.

There will be no large-scale buildings or animal exhibits constructed in this area. Instead, the Zoo will partner with forestry experts to provide a safe path through the forest while maintaining its delicate ecosystem.
Hey, that sounds pretty nice, doesn't it?

But then you notice the weasel words in that "no large-scale buildings or animal exhibits" clause. And you think, how come I'm being called a guest when I'm required to give my host a fat stack o' cash just to walk in the door?

And you think, as Stacey pointed out seven weeks ago:
. . . really, it doesn’t make much sense for the Memphis Zoo to create a "Chickasaw Bluffs" exhibit when there’s already a good amount of the real Chickasaw Bluffs on display in the park -- for free.
And you remember the Zoo's comments to the Memphis Flyer in January, 2007, about that big new "elephant exhibit near the Northwest Passage" that's supposed to open in 2012.

And maybe you know that forestry experts are almost always "concerned not with trees, but with how trees can serve people."

And you just have to wonder, is this love for real?

Especially when that love is buried so deeply (and inexplicably) in the Membership section of the Memphis Zoo's website that only the all-knowing Google can root it out. You'd think the Zoo would at least mention this Major News Update in their Press Room section, but it's not there yet.

Remember, you heard it first on Channel CPOP!

Update - Sunday, June 15 - The main page of the Memphis Zoo website is now featuring prominent links to the descriptions of future exhibits, so the public can actually find this information. Hooray! But no updates in their Press Room yet.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Let's stay together

A BIG THANK YOU to the 75 lovely people who attended our little shindig last night, to the many CPOP supporters who couldn't make the meeting but sent encouraging emails, to the folks at Rhodes College for providing such a great space, to the helpful Rhodes staff members who made sure everything ran smoothly, and to the intrepid souls who kept a dozen small children occupied while we did our Boring Grownup Stuff in the auditorium.

All of us on the CPOP board deeply appreciate your interest and support. And now we're all humming that tune.

A more detailed report on last night's meeting is coming soon. In the meantime, please write a letter to the Commercial Appeal ( and/or Councilman Jim Strickland ( to voice your support for CPOP and the preservation of the Old Forest. That forest needs you.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

New Growth

A revived Citizens to Preserve Overton Park fights for 17 acres of old-growth forest
Thursday, June 5, 2008 - Memphis Flyer

By Mary Cashiola

The first time Citizens to Preserve Overton Park dug its heels into the Midtown park, it beat back an expressway, changing the face of Memphis.

This time around, the group is fighting to preserve the same area of old-growth forest, but the threat is much closer to home.

Originally founded in 1957, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park was revived several months ago when several park-users noticed that four acres of forest near the Memphis Zoo had been felled.

"We were shocked by the clear-cut the zoo did for its Teton Trek exhibit," says Naomi Van Tol, one of the organization's new leaders. "We didn't want to see it happen again."

Van Tol lives half a mile from the park and takes her 2-year-old daughter there two or three times a week to play on the playground or go to the zoo.

"I went to the zoo with my toddler and saw bulldozers and backhoes cutting down trees," Van Tol says. "For about three weeks prior to seeing that, the Northwest Passage had been closed off, so I hadn't been to that corner of the zoo. ... By the time it reopened, most of the trees were on the ground."

The zoo says it did not clear-cut the area but protected trees that could be included in construction plans. But the construction came as a surprise to Park Friends, an advocacy group that considers Overton Park its primary focus and includes a representative of the zoo on its board.

In a statement on its website, Park Friends says it became aware of "an extreme level of tree clearing" only after the damage was done: "Because of the impact of the tree cutting on the contiguous forest and the Zoo's disregard for the environment outside their boundaries, Park Friends is compelled to voice our concern and disappointment that an organization with such a connection to the environment would disregard the very tenets we assume it espouses."

More concerning to Citizens, the zoo controls an additional 17 acres of undeveloped old-growth forest. The area has been behind a chain-link fence for about a decade and is land the zoo plans to one day use for its expansion.

"This was something that obviously was beneath a lot of people's radar," Van Tol says. "Somebody needed to bird-dog the zoo and keep an eye on this."

Van Tol and a few others decided the best idea would be to revive Citizens to Preserve Overton Park. So far, about 60 people have signed up to be members.

On a recent Saturday, about 15 people met for one of the group's monthly hikes on Overton Park's old-forest trail. It was a beautiful morning and once on the lush trail — a onetime bridle path — the forest was cool and inviting.

Van Tol, the hike leader, pointed out different varieties of plants, including poison ivy, grape vines, stinging nettle (don't let it touch your bare legs), and baby oaks "waiting for their chance" to grow into trees should a spot in the forest canopy open up.

At one point, the hikers climbed over a tree fallen across the dirt trail; at another, they ducked underneath one.

Near East Parkway, a siren wailed in the distance, but for the most part it was calm and quiet.

"You feel like you're in the middle of nowhere, but you're in a really small forest," Van Tol says. "When humans first came here, this is what they saw. ... This is a link to the natural system."

After the hike, Van Tol led participants past the fenced 17 acres and to where the Teton Trek exhibit is being constructed.

Roy Barnes began making maps of Overton Park for the group and recently joined the board. He's now waiting for updated Google Earth images of the park so he can contrast before and after shots of the Teton Trek area.

"People won't be able to hide — it will be obvious what's happened," he says. "If the fence means we own it, we control it, now they've shown the danger of what that power is."

The group hopes to convince the zoo to take down the fence, let park users go there, and not develop it.

"The four acres is gone; we can't bring that back," Van Tol says. "We think the zoo has plenty of space to improve and expand within its current boundaries. They don't need to keep moving outward. It's a very suburban model."

Citizens to Preserve Overton Park will host a public meeting Thursday, June 5th, at Rhodes' Blount Auditorium from 7 to 8 p.m. for interested parties.

"We're paying tribute to the people who worked so hard to protect what we have today," Van Tol says. "We're finishing their work."

Hands off the Old Forest

Letters to the Editor
Thursday, June 5, 2008 - Commercial Appeal
Hands off the Old Forest

Regarding Naomi Van Tol's June 1 Viewpoint column about Overton Park: I like the Memphis Zoo, too, but not at the expense of one of the oldest urban forest parks in the nation.

Zoo expansion into the 17 acres next to Rainbow Lake will threaten what's left of the old-growth forest in Overton Park. If the zoo wants to keep expanding its borders, why doesn't it find a new site out east like everyone else? How would people feel if the Shelby County Corrections Center or the Agricenter expanded further into Shelby Farms Park?

Keith Hoover

Zoo expansion threatens city treasure

Letters to the Editor
Thursday, June 5, 2008 - Commercial Appeal
Zoo expansion threatens city treasure

There are perhaps people living in Memphis today who don't realize why the Memphis Zoo is as nice as it is. At one time, an expressway was planned to cut right through the heart of Overton Park. Dr. Arlo Smith was able to preserve the unique Old Forest ecosystem by fighting long, hard court battles and finally winning, thus enabling a lovely setting for the zoo with citizen support to renovate it.

The Memphis Zoo officers are now seeking to encroach on Overton Park forested land that is one of the country's largest urban forests.

The Citizens to Preserve Overton Park are fighting now to keep this land preserved. We need to communicate to the zoo leadership that new trees cannot compare to the value of old forest trees, botanicals and wildlife. It is time to be creative and efficient by using nonforested areas.

Linda Cowden

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Zoo plans treed by protest

Champions of Overton forest oppose expansion
Wednesday, June 4, 2008 - Commercial Appeal

By Linda Moore

What Memphis Zoo officials call the continuation of its 1988 master plan, protectors of Overton Park's old growth forest call devastating.

On Thursday, the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park will have a public meeting at Rhodes College to introduce its members and objectives to the public.

"We just want to provide a really clear picture for the public of what's going on at Overton Park right now, with the old forest being cut by the Memphis Zoo and where do we go from here," said president Naomi Van Tol.

The group, reborn from one that fought and won the battle to keep Interstate 40 from traveling through the park, has protested the removal of trees in the old growth forest by the zoo to make way for the Teton Trek exhibit, which is scheduled to open next summer.

The group also wants the zoo to remove a fence from the 17 acres of old forest that have been set aside for a low environmental impact exhibit of the forest itself.

"We do not believe the zoo needs to expand in that way," Van Tol said. "We fully support the zoo improving and growing, but we believe there are other ways for them to grow instead of expanding outward and eating up the park."

The forest exhibit has not been funded, zoo officials said, although it was part of the 1988 master plan.

"The zoo's master plan and the zoo's development as an institution has been transparent," said Chuck Brady, zoo president. "We try to listen to all segments of the community, even those who oppose us."


What: Citizens to Preserve Overton Park meeting

When: 7:00-8:00 p.m. Thursday

Where: Blount Auditorium at Buckman Hall, Rhodes College

On the Web: Overton Park Forever

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

What other bloggers are saying...

I'm happy to report that our Saturday hikes are getting people into the woods; sometimes for the first time, sometimes for the first time in a long while.

Check out these blogs to read what other people have to say:

Walt's World
What's a dad to do on a Saturday morning while his wife is at a baby shower? Hike!

C-Dog Mama
Bad weather ruin your camping trip? Take a hike instead!

In the Bluff
Need an excuse to wear those cute, lightweight pants? Hit the trails!

Among the ancient trees

Ten lovely people joined us for Saturday's nature walk. We moseyed along through the Old Forest listening to the multitude of birds singing far above our heads, admiring the technicolor fungi on rotting logs, and trying to get a good look at the skinks that kept hustling out of sight.

Our next hike is scheduled for 10:00am on Saturday, June 14, so mark your calendars.

The woods were green and peaceful, as always, and made for a stark contrast with the Teton Trek construction site. There's really no need to send cameras to Mars; we have the Memphis Zoo's bulldozers to replicate those images right here in our backyard.

But let's close on a more positive note -- the pawpaw trees are fruiting!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Who will protect the Old Forest, Memphis' oldest living ancestor?

Guest Editorial
Sunday, June 1, 2008 - Commercial Appeal
Who will protect the Old Forest, Memphis' oldest living ancestor?

By Naomi Van Tol

Three months ago, the Memphis Zoo cut 4 acres of the Old Forest of Overton Park to make way for a new exhibit called Teton Trek.

Chainsaws and backhoes toppled 200-year-old oak trees that were alive before the city of Memphis was founded. Bulldozers removed the giant stumps and scraped away the soil that had nourished generations of plants and animals. In less than two weeks, a thriving ecosystem was transformed into a lifeless dust bowl.

I was shocked by this harsh treatment of public parkland, as were many of my friends and neighbors. We complained to the Memphis Zoo and were told: "It's been in our master plan for 20 years."

When we asked to see the master plan we were given a drawing that shows, in addition to the Teton Trek site, another 17-acre expansion area south of Teton Trek and east of Rainbow Lake. This public parkland is currently fenced and closed to public use.

Our concern over the fate of these 17 acres of forest prompted us to reincorporate a historic group, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP). We met with the zoo's president, Charles Brady, who assured us that the 17-acre forest is slated for a low-impact exhibit called Chickasaw Bluffs that is expected to be constructed 10 years from now. We asked for more detail and were told that the Memphis Zoo has no written master plan.

Without a written plan, how can we trust that this section of the Old Forest won't suffer the same fate as the neighboring 4 acres?

Let's be crystal clear: CPOP supports the Memphis Zoo. We believe it is an important civic amenity that should keep improving and growing. But we also believe the zoo must learn to grow where it's planted.

It's time for the Memphis Zoo to stop sprawling outward and start renovating and replacing the older infrastructure that has been neglected in favor of shiny new expansions. It's time for all of us to remember and honor our history.

The original Citizens to Preserve Overton Park group arose in 1957 in response to a government plan to extend Interstate 40 through the heart of our city. The leaders of CPOP -- famously derided in the media as "little old ladies in tennis shoes" -- waged war against the highway.

By 1970, it appeared that CPOP had lost the war. The I-40 corridor through Midtown had been condemned and cleared of homes and businesses. CPOP had been defeated twice in the courts. Faced with this harsh reality, most people would have given up.

But those "little old ladies" and their young lawyers pressed on to the U.S. Supreme Court, and finally won a well-deserved victory for our community in 1971.

The court's ruling in Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe protected the integrity of Overton Park and created a brighter future for the Midtown neighborhoods that had been ripped apart by the I-40 corridor.

It was also a victory on a national level. As the court stated: "The growing public concern about the quality of our natural environment has prompted Congress in recent years to enact legislation designed to curb the accelerating destruction of our country's natural beauty."

Justice Thurgood Marshall concluded that one of these new laws, known as Section 4(f), was "a plain and explicit bar to the use of federal funds for construction of highways through parks -- only the most unusual situations are exempted." This ruling has saved untold acres of public parkland from an asphalt grave, including 26 acres of Overton Park's forest.

But the 1971 ruling can't save what remains of our forest from the Memphis Zoo. And if it is lost, it will be lost forever; this forest cannot be replaced simply by planting more trees.

Memphis' civic leaders were thinking of the future when they purchased the 342-acre tract known as Lea's Woods and created Overton Park in 1901. They wisely chose to preserve the tract's 175 acres of old-growth forest, a remnant of the once-vast upland forests of the Chickasaw Bluffs that for centuries had sheltered and fed red wolves, mountain lions, woodland bison, elk, passenger pigeons, ivory-billed woodpeckers and the earliest human inhabitants of our region.

The landscape architect who designed Overton Park, George Kessler, wrote: "The healthful effect upon mind and body of rural surroundings and of beautiful, natural scenery is evident. To provide these for people living in crowded cities is an imperative necessity."

A leader of the original CPOP, Anona Stoner, described the group's goal as "keeping Overton Park a green space, a quiet place, a naturally wooded place where city residents, students, and regional visitors can have respite, if they so desire, from traffic."

Today, Overton Park remains more than just a park: It is a reminder of our natural heritage and a symbol of hope. Overton Park is common ground in a city that desperately needs more common ground.

It's for good reason that generations of Memphians know this old forest simply as the Old Forest. That forest is our oldest living ancestor. And who will protect it, if we do not?

Naomi Van Tol of Midtown is a co-founder of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park. She frequently visits the Memphis Zoo and the Old Forest with her husband and young daughter.