Why should we create the Old Forest State Natural Area at Overton Park?
Overton Park covers 342 acres of public parkland that is owned by the citizens of Memphis. When Overton Park was created in 1901, it had 200 acres of old growth forest. We've since lost 50 acres of that forest. In the past five years alone, our city officials have allowed the destruction of eight acres of this 10,000-year old ecosystem for new exhibits at the Memphis Zoo.
Overton Park's old growth forest is a priceless and irreplaceable natural resource, but it is not protected by any law. State Natural Area (SNA) designation by the Tennessee legislature would give this forest the permanent legal protection that it currently lacks.
What is a State Natural Area, exactly?
"Purpose: The general assembly finds that in the countryside of Tennessee there are areas possessing scenic, scientific, including biological, geological and/or recreational values, and which are in prospect and peril of being destroyed or substantially diminished by actions such as dumping of refuse, commercialization, construction, changing of population densities or similar actions, there being either no regulations by the state or by local governments or regulations which are inadequate or so poorly enforced as not to yield adequate protection to such areas. It is the intention of the general assembly to provide protection for such areas." (Natural Areas Preservation Act of 1971, Tennessee Code Annotated §11-14-101 et seq.)
What are some examples of Tennessee State Natural Areas?
There are currently 80 SNAs in Tennessee [official map]. They range in size from just a few acres to 18,000 acres, and include many well-known parks such as Fall Creek Falls, Cedars of Lebanon, Frozen Head, and Savage Gulf.
In west Tennessee, these protected lands include the Lucius Burch State Natural Area at Shelby Farms, the William B. Clark State Natural Area, Riverwoods State Natural Area, the Ghost River State Natural Area, Reelfoot Lake, Sunk Lake, Big Cypress Tree State Natural Area and 11,000 acres of Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park.
Where would the Old Forest State Natural Area be located?
This map shows the approximate boundary of our proposed Old Forest State Natural Area. It would include all of the remaining old growth forest, which totals about 150 acres.
How would this change the way Overton Park's forest is managed?
If we create the Old Forest State Natural Area, it would be managed jointly by the City of Memphis and the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation (TDEC). Citizens would have the legal right to demand enforcement from TDEC if anyone tried to destroy or degrade the Old Forest.
TDEC has the legal right to stop destructive activity and issue fines for violations in SNAs. Designation under this law would also give Overton Park's old growth forest the positive public recognition that this unique natural resource deserves.
I've heard some SNAs ban biking and running. Will that happen here?
The Lucius Burch State Natural Area at Shelby Farms does ban biking and running, because Shelby County's current management plan specifies those bans. Management plans are developed jointly by the landowner and TDEC, with public input, and can be more restrictive than the law requires.
Our group strongly supports all of the recreational activities that are currently allowed in the Old Forest -- walking, running, biking, dog-walking, photography, bird-watching, et cetera. The SNA law and regulations do not prohibit or restrict any of these activities.
Most SNAs allow multiple public uses. For example, the 11,000-acre SNA at Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park allows running, biking, hunting, fishing, boating, and many other activities. The Meeman-Shelby SNA was designated in 2002 and there have been no changes in how the park is managed or used by the public.
We have no reason to think that the City of Memphis would want to restrict any of the current public uses at Overton Park. The management plan for the Old Forest State Natural Area would be developed in an open public process with citizen input.
Why can't we just protect the Old Forest with a conservation easement?
The City of Memphis and the leaders of the Memphis Zoo have proposed a private conservation easement to protect the Old Forest. They have cited Shelby Farms as their desired model. Shelby Farms is protected from inappropriate development by a private conservation easement that is exclusively enforced by a Nashville nonprofit, in exchange for a large yearly fee paid by Shelby County. Citizens have no legal right to demand enforcement of this private contract.
Most of the forested area inside Shelby Farms, along the Wolf River, was designated as the 728-acre Lucius Burch State Natural Area in 1988. It is also protected by the conservation easement that covers all of Shelby Farms. This particular conservation easement has a term limit of 50 years, at which time the contract may be renewed or not, but the SNA designation is perpetual.
Our group supports the idea of a conservation easement to protect all 342 acres of Overton Park. However, it is our position that a private conservation easement alone cannot give sufficient protection to the Old Forest. We have researched both options extensively and have consulted with attorneys who are familiar with the applicable laws.
We strongly believe that SNA designation is the simplest, cheapest, strongest, and most publicly transparent method of legal protection for the Old Forest.
How much would it cost the City of Memphis?
Nothing. The City of Memphis has stated that SNA designation would cost millions of dollars, but this is not the case. For example, earlier this year a new SNA was created adjacent to Warner Park in Nashville to protect an old growth forest known as the Hill Tract. The fiscal note for this legislative bill was zero dollars. This new SNA will be developed with public hiking trails by the City of Nashville parks department. The Old Forest already has well-established hiking trails.
At all of the other SNAs in our region, TDEC pays for boundary signs and assists in surveying the property as needed. TDEC often pays for kiosks and trail markers, including staff time for installation, and TDEC staff coordinate public activities such as hikes and cleanups. The City would not be legally required to do anything new at Overton Park, aside from putting an end to the bulldozing of the Old Forest.
Would this harm the Memphis Zoo?
The creation of the Old Forest State Natural Area would not harm the Memphis Zoo in any way. It would not prevent the zoo's proposed construction of a low-impact boardwalk in the 17 fenced-off acres of Old Forest; the zoo would simply need to consult with the City of Memphis and TDEC before construction. A number of SNAs in our region have elevated boardwalk trails, including the Ghost River and William B. Clark SNAs on the upper Wolf River.
What types of development are permitted in SNAs by law?
"T.C.A. §11-14-106. Development permitted. -- The following development shall be permitted in the two (2) classes of areas:
- (A) Class I areas may be developed with foot trails, foot bridges, overlooks, primitive campgrounds and small picnic areas with associated sanitary facilities.
(B) Class II areas may be developed with foot trails, foot bridges, overlooks and primitive campgrounds; and
- Either class may be developed with such facilities as may be reasonably necessary for the dissemination of educational material and for the safe and proper management and protection of the area; provided, that no such facility shall be constructed or sited in such a manner as to be inconsistent with the preservation of the natural or scientific values in a Class II area or as an intrusion upon the scenic and recreational values in a Class I area."
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