Today's Commercial Appeal has a front-page story about our efforts to protect the Old Forest of Overton Park. Mayor AC Wharton's staff previously told us that he was still considering whether to support the Old Forest State Natural Area this year. It looks like he's decided to oppose it.
Our City CAO, George Little, suggests that a conservation easement would be "less burdensome" because it would not place "too many restrictions on park operations."
In the past three years alone, the City's routine "park operations" at Overton Park have included activities such as: clearcutting four acres of old growth forest, using the Greensward as a private parking lot, and destroying large swaths of forest understory on several different occasions. And the City still plans to build a stormwater detention structure in the Greensward.
The two draft conservation easements that we have received from the City did not offer any meaningful protection for the Old Forest. The City told us that both of those documents were written by the Memphis Zoo's CAO, Jim Jalenak, with assistance from Park Friends Inc.
CPOP was not asked to join the Memphis Zoo and PFI in drafting the Overton Park conservation easement. Our public comments on the first draft have been ignored completely for the past eight months. On Thursday, the City told us that CPOP's comments will only be considered after the third draft is written.
Mr. Little also says: "We don't think people in Nashville, no matter how well intentioned, should be telling us how to manage the park." But the City just told us that the Nashville-based Land Trust for Tennessee is in charge of writing the third draft of the Overton Park conservation easement. Clearly, it's okay for some people in Nashville to tell us how to manage our park.
The Land Trust for Tennessee is a worthy and well-respected land management group, but so is the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation. Why is the private group being portrayed as trustworthy while the public group is not?
We have said, clearly and repeatedly, that we support the Memphis Zoo's proposal to "follow the Shelby Farms model" of park protection. At Shelby Farms, the forest along the Wolf River became the Lucius Burch State Natural Area in 1988, and the entire park was recently protected by a private conservation easement. These two methods of legal protection are complementary, not mutually exclusive.
Here's another great example from this year: In January, the state legislature passed a bill to create the Hill Forest State Natural Area in Nashville. In August, this new State Natural Area was further protected by a private conservation easement held by the Land Trust for Tennessee. This land is now being given to the City of Nashville and added to the Warner Parks system.
We think this is a perfect model for protecting the Old Forest and the other public spaces of Overton Park. It's obvious that the City of Nashville does not think State Natural Area designation poses any threat to their ability to manage their own parkland. Why should this be any different for the City of Memphis?
We hope the third draft of the City's conservation easement will offer real protection for Overton Park's public spaces and the ecological integrity of the Old Forest, and we strongly believe that the Old Forest State Natural Area is necessary.
How can you help? Contact Mayor Wharton by email or by phone at 901-576-6000. Tell him you stand with CPOP in support of the Old Forest State Natural Area and meaningful legal protection for all of Overton Park. You can also write a letter to the editor to help advocate for the highest level of protection for Overton Park.