Yesterday my husband and daughter headed over to the Memphis Zoo to enjoy the nice weather. They were climbing the amphitheater ramp at the Northwest Passage exhibit when they looked to the west and saw a big muddy mess. The Zoo had just finished clearing and grubbing an acre of forest understory.
If you're not familiar with the term "clearing and grubbing," it means you demolish the shrubs and small trees that make up the understory of a forest, scrape everything down to bare dirt, then cart away all the tree stumps and other organic matter. The biggest trees are left in place; most will have damaged root systems as a result of the scraping and compaction of soil that was previously well-aerated loam.
Do you remember last summer when the Zoo was "just cleanin' things up" along the perimeter of their 17-acre Green Zone? In zoological terms, this level of clearing and grubbing equates to the near-total destruction of wildlife habitat within the impacted area.
Here are the first few paragraphs, verbatim, of the official "Philosophy and Vision" of the Memphis Zoo's conservation department:
OUR VALUESWhoopee! Yay for the Memphis Zoo! All flora and fauna have value! Any harm to functional ecosystems is unacceptable!
The Memphis Zoo staff share the following common values:
The biodiversity of ALL flora and fauna have value and as a zoological and botanical garden we have a responsibility to support their preservation
The destruction, degradation or loss of functional ecosystems and the species that occupy them is unacceptable
But actions speak louder than words, don't they, Memphis Zoo? You obviously felt no responsibility to support the preservation of the hundreds of defenseless plant and animal species that you secretly bulldozed last week.
Is it possible that your noble philosophy and idealistic values don't apply to any of the flora and fauna that depend on the functional ecosystem in your own backyard? Is it possible that you feel no accountability to the citizens who own the parkland you are privileged to occupy?
Here's the text of the letter we sent to Memphis Park Services today
Director, Park Services
City of Memphis
2599 Avery Ave.
Memphis, TN 38112
Dear Director Buchanan:
My husband took our daughter to the Memphis Zoo yesterday. He noticed that the Zoo has recently cleared and grubbed the understory of approximately one acre of old growth forest located west of the Northwest Passage exhibit and north of the bus lane.
As you may recall, last summer the Zoo cleared and grubbed a 30-foot-wide swath along the perimeter of the 17-acre section of fenced old growth forest south of the bus lane. This work removed thousands of plants and tree seedlings, degraded the integrity of the forest, and served no apparent purpose.
Understory species make up the vast majority of all plant species that live in the old growth forest of Overton Park. One acre of forest understory holds hundreds of species and thousands of individual plants, including the canopy tree seedlings that are vital for natural forest reproduction.
A forest with no understory is no longer a "forest" in any real sense of the word—it is merely a collection of trees.
Memphis Zoo researchers made the news this year for their ongoing studies of the copperhead snakes and rare purse-web spiders that live in the Old Forest understory. But meanwhile, Zoo management is rapidly destroying the habitat that sustains these creatures and hundreds of other animal species.
If the leaders of the Memphis Zoo continue clearing and grubbing the understory of our unique and irreplaceable Old Forest, they will effectively kill the 17 acres of publicly owned forest that remains inside their fence. We feel that the Zoo is demonstrating a callous disregard for the immense ecological and historical value this forest has to our community.
If this clearing and grubbing is being done with the permission of Park Services, we ask that you stop allowing such destructive activities. If you were not aware of this clearing and grubbing, we ask that you take immediate steps to protect the remaining understory of the Old Forest.
Thank you for your time and attention to this matter. We look forward to your response.
Naomi Van Tol
President, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park
(Copies to Councilman Jim Strickland, Mayor Willie Herenton, and Congressman Steve Cohen)