Citizens to Preserve Overton Park
618 S. Cox • Memphis, TN 38104
January 6, 2010
Mayor AC Wharton
City of Memphis
125 N. Main St., Room 700
Memphis, TN 38103
Dear Mayor Wharton:
I am writing on behalf of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP), a nonprofit citizen group founded in March of 2008, to describe our concerns and request your help. As you may know, the original CPOP was founded in the 1950s to fight the proposed extension of Interstate 40 through Overton Park and Midtown Memphis. This group disbanded after achieving its goal with a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision (Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe) in 1971. We hope to further this legacy by obtaining permanent legal protection for Overton Park’s old growth forest.
Overton Park was purchased by the City of Memphis on November 13, 1901, for $110,000. The 342-acre tract was owned by Overton & Ella Lea of Nashville; it was known as “Lea’s Woods.” Overton Lea was a grandson of John Overton, who founded Memphis in 1819 with Andrew Jackson and James Winchester, and for whom the park was later named. The tract’s old growth forest covered 200 acres and it was widely recognized as a civic treasure. In a 1910 speech the park’s designer, renowned landscape architect George E. Kessler, said:
“In Overton Park you have saved the other chief characteristics of this region by preserving in the forest conditions of the virgin forest upon that property. Nowhere in the United States, except in the Pacific Northwest, will you find tree growth as luxuriant as in the Western Tennessee and Eastern Arkansas forests, and in the two hundred acres of virgin forest in Overton Park you have a property which, as a heritage to the public for the enjoyment of nature, equals in value the cost of the entire [Memphis] park system to the present time.”
The old growth forest of Overton Park – known to generations of Memphians as the “Old Forest” – has been reduced to less than 150 acres today, but it remains a high-quality ecosystem. It contains more than 330 plant species from 85 families, including 60 species of native trees. Many of its larger trees are estimated to exceed 200 years of age; meaning that they are older than the City of Memphis. The forest is an island of rich wildlife habitat in a heavily urbanized area. The Tennessee Ornithological Society has identified more than 160 bird species that use the Old Forest, including a diverse array of owls, woodpeckers, hawks, and songbirds.
Despite its immense value as a natural and cultural resource, the Old Forest lacks any meaningful legal protection. Overton Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and is included in the City’s Overton Park Historic District. However, these designations do not protect natural areas from being developed. There have been many threats to Overton Park’s integrity over the past century, but in recent years the greatest threat to its forest and open space has been the outward expansion of the Memphis Zoo.
In 1988, a 20-year master plan for Overton Park was created at the behest of the now-defunct Memphis Park Commission. Under this plan the footprint of the Memphis Zoo was doubled from 36 to 70 acres. Thirty-four acres of Overton Park were fenced and closed to public use; at the time, approximately 25 acres of this fenced area was comprised of intact old growth forest. On December 30, 1994, the nonprofit Memphis Zoological Society was given legal authority to manage the 70-acre facility in a public-private partnership with the City of Memphis (see Contract #N10713, enclosed).
In 2005, the Memphis Zoo clearcut several acres of old growth forest inside the 34-acre expansion area in order to build the Northwest Passage exhibit. In February of 2008, the Memphis Zoo clearcut four acres of forest in order to build the Teton Trek exhibit. In May of 2009, the Memphis Zoo cleared and scraped two acres of forest understory, replacing thousands of native plants with mulch and sod, in order to create a picnic area. This permanent destruction and conversion of approximately eight acres of publicly owned old growth forest was done without any notice to citizens.
In the summer of 2008, the City of Memphis Park Services Division hired a botanist to perform the first comprehensive survey of the plant communities of the Old Forest. That survey was conducted over a 12-month period and is now complete. However, the Memphis Zoo refused to allow the botanist access to the 17 acres of surviving forest inside the fenced expansion area. A Memphis Zoo spokesperson told our group that the Zoo was conducting an in-house botanical survey, but, when asked for details, said the survey only included trees and non-native species. Those two categories represent less than 30% of the total plant species known to occur in the Old Forest.
Currently the Memphis Zoo plans to develop the 17 acres into a new exhibit, called Chickasaw Bluffs, which would include an elevated boardwalk. The Zoo’s website says this new exhibit is intended to “educate our community of the forest's history and awe-inspiring beauty” (www.memphiszoo.org/chickasawbluffs). Given that the Zoo’s leaders chose to destroy eight adjoining acres of forest in the past five years, and recently would not permit a City-funded botanist to catalog the forest inside their fence, it is unclear how they are qualified to educate our community on this topic.
Leaders of the Memphis Zoo have stated that an elevated boardwalk is needed to “make the forest accessible to the public.” However, the only part of Overton Park’s forest that is not freely accessible to the public is the 17 acres inside the Zoo’s expansion area. By erecting a fence around public parkland and requiring a typical family of four to pay $45 to enter, the Memphis Zoo made that parkland inaccessible for many Memphians. A boardwalk will not improve the current situation unless it is free to the public.
In contrast, Overton Park’s unfenced forest contains an extensive network of public recreational paths (paved, gravel, and dirt) that are enjoyed by hundreds of people every day. Many of these paths have been in continuous public use for more than a century. We believe that Overton Park’s old growth forest is a community treasure that should be open to everyone. Therefore, it is our position that the 17 acres should be removed from the Memphis Zoo’s control and restored to the public realm. We recently gathered 600 signatures in support of this position.
We do not fault the leaders of the Memphis Zoo for wanting to grow and improve, and many of our group’s leaders and supporters are also members of the Memphis Zoo. We simply believe it would be wiser to focus on improving the quality of the existing facility rather than continue to expand into the shrinking public spaces of Overton Park. It is apparent to any Memphis Zoo visitor that a large number of older exhibits are badly in need of renovation or redevelopment. Building expensive new exhibits while allowing older exhibits to crumble is not a sustainable growth policy.
Our group has tried to discuss our concerns with the leaders of the Memphis Zoo. We were granted one meeting with CEO/President Chuck Brady, in May of 2008, but our subsequent requests to meet with Zoo representatives have been denied.
If the Memphis Zoo is permitted to move forward with the proposed Chickasaw Bluffs exhibit, we ask the City of Memphis to mandate the preservation of the forest’s ecological integrity during and after construction. We also ask the City to support the permanent preservation of the Old Forest of Overton Park by endorsing its legislative designation as a Tennessee State Natural Area. The Lucius E. Burch Jr. State Natural Area at Shelby Farms is an excellent local example of this method of preserving natural resources so they may be enjoyed by future generations.
Thank you for your time and consideration of our requests. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you require more information, or if you would like to join our group for a nature walk in the Old Forest at any time.
Naomi Van Tol
President, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park
901-278-2396 / firstname.lastname@example.org / www.overtonparkforever.org
cc: Memphis City Council
enc: Supporting petition with 600 signatures; City Contract #N10713