Walking through the shaded canopy of the old-growth forest in Overton Park, retired forestry consultant Pepper Marcus points to a huge tree.
"That is one of the biggest wild cherry trees you'll ever see in your life. It's probably been here 500 to 700 years," he says, admiring its grandeur. "There are very few cherry trees of that size anymore. They've all been cut for furniture."
Eighteen years ago, Marcus led a fight to stop the Memphis City Zoo from developing land in the old-growth forest.
The zoo wanted to create a 20-foot-wide pathway through 17 of Overton Park's 200 acres of virgin, thousands-of-years-old forest. The zoo also considered releasing deer and other animals into the exhibit.
"It became a big debate," Marcus says. "We even took City Council people to the park and showed them the trees and the forest. We did a forestry study, and we countered all of the stuff that was done by the Park Commission and the zoo to support their case."
Marcus argued that foot traffic and manmade pathways could kill rare, endangered plant and animal species in the old-growth forest and eventually the zoo scrapped the plan.
Now Marcus and others find themselves fighting an eerily similar battle.
In a controversial move earlier this year, the zoo bulldozed four acres of old-growth forest under its control to make way for its new Teton Trek exhibit, featuring the landscape and wildlife of Greater Yellowstone Park.
Many local forest advocates were outraged at the zoo's actions, and in response, grassroots advocacy group Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP) reformed to stop further development in the zoo's fenced area of the forest.
The group, which currently boasts 300 members, recently asked the City Council to restore 17 acres of Overton Park's old-growth forest, currently controlled by the zoo and separated from the rest of the forest by a chain-link fence, to free and open public use. They also asked the council to update the zoo's 1994 management contract with the now-defunct Park Commission; update the 1988 Overton Park master plan; and create long-term legal protection for the old-growth forest, such as a conservation easement or a state natural area designation.
"I think we've lost sight of the value of the forest," says Naomi Van Tol, one of CPOP's new leaders. "The zoo is the latest threat to the old forest, but there were other threats in the past and there will be other threats in the future."
Flyer reporters recently walked through the area that will become Teton Trek with zoo spokesperson Brian Carter. The exhibit will include a geyser, a large log cabin called the Great Lodge — a tribute to Yellowstone's Old Faithful Lodge — a place where zoo patrons can watch bears fish, a waterfall, as well as elk and timber wolves. Carter explained the exhibit will be like "a hike through Yellowstone."
"It's a little unlike anything we've done before," he says. "The entire time you're in the exhibit you have this open field of all the animals."
In February, the zoo removed 139 trees from the Teton Trek construction site and saved 78 trees. They also plan to include 574 new plants and trees in the area.
Despite that, the zoo has encountered criticism for the deforestation and not being open enough about its plans for the future. In the spring, someone spray painted "4 acres, 10,000 years in the making, gone 4ever" on the fence outside Teton Trek. In July, a group of college students protested at the zoo, handing out flyers that asked, "How much zoo can we afford?"
CPOP originally formed in 1957, when the federal government attempted to build Interstate 40 through Overton Park. The group spent 14 years fighting the interstate, and in 1971, with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, finally claimed victory.
Under its current incarnation, Van Tol says, "[We are] paying tribute to the people who worked so hard to protect what we have today."
Van Tol takes her 2-year-old daughter to the zoo and to the park regularly.
"I want to expose her to the entertainment of the zoo and the old beauty of the old forest," Van Tol says. "It's all we have left [of] the Chickasaw Bluffs. When the first humans came here, that's what they saw — ivory-billed woodpeckers, passenger pigeons. Humans are never going to see that again."
Since the four acres for Teton Trek was cleared, CPOP's focus is on urging the zoo to take down the fence surrounding the 17 acres of old-growth forest slated to be used for the Chickasaw Bluffs exhibit. Since the group felt that what happened in the Teton area was done without public input, they are concerned about the fate of the other 17 acres of old-growth forest the zoo controls.
Van Tol's view is that the zoo already has acres of outdated infrastructure and exhibits, and that they should improve and expand within their current footprint.
"When you look at these older exhibits, some of them really need help. We encourage them to focus on their core," Van Tol says. "And [the forest] is such an amazing symbol of our natural history as a city. It's something that should not be closed off."
Zoo representatives have been quick to maintain that the zoo is not expanding.
"We've had people ask us, 'Is the zoo taking up more parkland?' and we're like, 'no, no, just that 17 acres that had always been there,'" says Carter.
In 1986, planners and landscape architects Ritchie Smith Associates were hired to prepare a master plan for Overton Park. At the time, the park had about 10 vehicular entrances and routine gridlock.
"You had a lot of cut-through traffic," Smith says. "People would cut through the park to save half a minute."
Much of the park was also in a state of disrepair. At the same time, the Zoo, the Memphis Brooks Museum, and the Memphis College of Art wanted to expand.
The zoo was thinking of enlarging its parking lot into the greensward, the large swathe of meadow near Rainbow Lake. They also wanted their main entrance to be where veteran's plaza is now, which would bring all zoo traffic through the heart of the park.
"The biggest challenge was the zoo expansion, because they were on about 36 acres and they actually were looking at a very significant expansion that would approach 100 acres total," Smith says. "We convinced [former Memphis Parks director] Allie Prescott that the zoo should not expand in a vacuum, that they needed to be coordinated with the greater park effort."
As part of the process, Smith and his associate Lissa Thompson estimate they held roughly 100 meetings with community members.
The landscape architects convinced zoo administrators that having their main entrance through the greensward would ruin the park and make getting to the zoo nearly impossible.
"There was a lot of give and take with these institutions," Smith says. "The greensward is where people gravitate and there was a sense that the zoo was edging too far into the greensward."
When negotiations ended, the zoo doubled in size to 75 acres. It didn't get the Rainbow Lake area — one of its early plans included a café near the lake — but it did get 16.5 acres of forest to the east, dubbed phase II, and 17.5 acres of forest to the southeast, dubbed phase III.
"We discussed that if they ever expanded to the phase III area, they should revise their plans for an exhibit that would be compatible with the old-growth forest," Smith says. "The early plans called for a savanna exhibit and you don't have to be an ecologist to know that you'll be cutting down trees, so we didn't like that."
According to zoo officials, the 17 acres known as phase III will eventually be home to Chickasaw Bluffs, an exhibit with a low-impact boardwalk snaking through the forest.
"We're looking at doing construction ... where you don't bulldoze paths beside your boardwalk to build it," says the zoo's Carter. "You build it progressively, so as you lay a board down, you lay another one down in front of you."
Each year, roughly a million people visit the Memphis Zoo. In addition, last week travel site TripAdvisor rated the Memphis institution as the top zoo in the country.
Adult tickets — for people ages 12 to 59 — are $13 each. Tickets for children ages 2 to 11 cost $8.
Zoo president Chuck Brady contends that the zoo offers the best opportunity for the broader Memphis community to experience the old-growth forest in Overton Park.
About 100,000 students visit the zoo each year on school trips, most at a drastically reduced admission fee. Brady says the Chickasaw Bluffs exhibit will give kids from some of the poorest parts of town a chance to learn about the forest.
"It's a broad section of the community who have access to the zoo: wealthy, poor, young, old," Brady says. "If we're to show these people the forest, then it has to be through a visit to the zoo. There's 160 acres of parkland that is only walk-in access, but those people will never see it. Our 17 acres is for the entire community.
"If you took down the fence, you'd have less access by the broad community and more neighborhood access."
Brady came to the zoo in 1979 as its curator of mammals. He succeeded Roger Knox as president in 2003.
In 1989, the city and Memphis Zoo, Inc., formed a public/private partnership where MZI would be the zoo's fund-raiser and the Memphis Park Commission would run zoo operations. In 1994, the day-to-day management of the zoo was contracted out by the Park Commission to the Memphis Zoological Society.
Under that contract, the city pays the nonprofit Memphis Zoological Society $100,000 a month, or $1.2 million a year, to manage the zoo. Any zoo property — land, buildings, exhibits — is considered a city asset.
The zoo's total operating budget is about $12.5 million each year, however, meaning that most of the funds used to operate the zoo come from admission fees, fund-raisers, and donations.
For Teton Trek, FedEx founder Fred Smith and his wife Diane gave the zoo $10 million, the largest gift from any single private donor, a fact that seemed to make the idea more palatable to council members, despite after-the-fact arguments against the clear-cutting by CPOP and others.
"It was a hundred percent privately funded. This exhibit is open [land] ... so we can't have big trees in this exhibit. I think if we take into consideration that we're getting a $16 million private investment and it's an out West scene," says council member Reid Hedgepeth, "I don't know how you can do that without clear-cutting."
Before work on Teton Trek began, the zoo met with Overton Park advocacy group Park Friends and showed them plans for the exhibit.
"Although we failed to get everybody to know what we were doing at Teton Trek, many, many people did know," Brady says. "We did get the word out."
The zoo's 2006 summer newsletter, Exzooberance, featured a story on Teton Trek, reporting that construction was to begin in May 2007 and the exhibit would be finished in spring 2009.
In light of the Teton Trek criticism, however, zoo officials have pledged to be more open about zoo happenings and put more information on the zoo's website.
Brady says that the 80 trees saved in the Teton Trek exhibit were saved "at a pretty significant cost" to the zoo, though he didn't have an exact dollar amount.
"We had an arborist, and still have him, in order to keep the trees alive, not only during the construction process, but after the construction process," Brady says.
As for the trees felled to make way for Teton Trek, Brady is not sure whether they were sold for lumber or scrapped.
"The contractor has control of that, but it was my understanding that they weren't of value to be sold," Brady says. He adds that some of the trees will probably be placed into the wolf or grizzly bear exhibits to create the effect of fallen logs.
When it comes to the old-growth forest, members of CPOP and Park Friends both want some sort of binding, legal protection for the forest. There is concern that once the zoo establishes a footprint on the 17 acres for one of their exhibits, it could easily decide to use that land for something else in the future.
Brady says the zoo has no intention of changing its plans.
"If we were to do that — which we won't because we've said from the beginning that we were going to develop the forest into a low-impact trail — it would be broadly disseminated to the community," he says. "And I'm sure the community would scream and rightly so."
When asked about CPOP's request to remove the fence around the zoo's phase III area, Brady says it's not doable.
"All zoos have to be protected by fenced barriers," he says. "The United States Department of Agriculture regulates us and one of their requirements is a secure perimeter."
Brady also casts doubt on protecting the area with a conservation easement.
"We don't own the land. We're a management authority for the city," Brady says. "It would be like promising somebody else's land into a conservation easement."
Brady does say, however, that he would be willing to write a letter to the city, formalizing the zoo's intent to keep the land as a low-impact boardwalk and "preserve the ecology of the forest forever."
Even though the exhibit will be low impact, Brady thinks Chickasaw Bluffs will be appealing to zoo visitors.
"I think it will be a wonderful addition for everyone who is strongly in favor of the forest," he says. "It's a way of showcasing the forest to many, many more visitors while at the same time keeping it pristine."
Though a low-impact boardwalk might not seem very controversial on its own, the sticking point seems to be whether the zoo can be trusted after Teton Trek.
"Obviously, those four acres are gone forever," Van Tol told the City Council's park committee. "I'm not here to cry about the Teton Trek clear-cutting. I'm here because the zoo plans to develop an additional 17 acres.
"If we allow the zoo to develop 17 more acres without public input, government oversight, and no written plan, we have only ourselves to blame if it happens again."
Glenn Cox has been a member of Park Friends since the mid-'90s and its president since 1998. The park advocacy group hosts at least two clean-ups at the park each year and has developed a map of trails through the public parts of the old-growth forest. Most recently, Park Friends installed two information boards.
They plan to survey their 200-plus membership before taking a position on the Chickasaw Bluffs exhibit, but Cox says they were caught off guard with the deforestation at the Teton Trek site.
"We actually met with [the zoo] the month before. They brought schematics and architectural renderings and every one of them showed massive trees," he says. "I think they avoided the issue by simply showing us pictures with lots of tree canopy, so we assumed the majority was staying put."
Once they saw the deforestation at the site, Park Friends met with the zoo again to express their concerns. "They tore down a lot, and they're going to plant three times more than they tore down, but you're not going to get back old-growth trees," Cox says.
Cox thinks the Chickasaw Bluffs boardwalk is probably the best method for the zoo to interact with the old forest. Park Friends has talked to community members who are scared to venture into the old-growth forest as it exists now and welcome the controlled access the zoo will provide.
Park Friends has a good working relationship with Brady and recently added a representative from the zoo to the Park Friends board. But the group doesn't have any formal power over what the zoo can and cannot do.
Last year, the zoo began using part of Overton Park's greensward for its overflow parking. The zoo charges visitors $3 a car for parking.
"Finally, we said, enough's enough, and Melanie White, who's been on the board longer than me, and I went over there and met with Chuck [Brady]," Cox says.
The two groups compromised — the zoo agreed to only park cars up to a certain line on the greensward and to not do it on rainy days.
And when the zoo crossed the imaginary line early this year, Park Friends had to remind them of the agreement.
"So they are back to their word, staying where they belong," Cox says. "It's not what we want. We don't want them parking on the greensward at all, but it's almost a matter of they don't have any choice — where are these people going to go? — and we do recognize that."
If the zoo hadn't agreed to stay off the majority of the greensward, Park Friends' only recourse would have been appealing to the city parks department and the City Council.
In another instance, the zoo constructed a building too close to the border fence. When Park Friends complained that park users didn't want to see the back of a building and that the building was too close to the fence for green cover, the zoo moved the fence outward.
"We said, 'no, you don't have the right to move your fence,' so they went back in and moved the fence back to where it was," Cox says. "That's like you taking the fence on your property and moving it back 10 feet on your neighbor's [yard]. It's not your property."
Cox says the two groups have also had long discussions about a swathe of 15 to 20 feet of underbrush that the zoo has been clearing out along the back fence line. Zoo representatives told them the clearing is because coyotes have been digging under the fence and killing zoo gazelles.
"Part of our issues, with the tearing down of trees for Teton, for example, is you create new boundaries to the forest. When you create new edges to the forest, you change the dynamics of the plant and [animal] life. That's another thing they're not recognizing — their impact, how negatively it can impact the forest outside the fence.
"It's another approach we're trying to take with them, getting them to understand that the fence does not block the ecosystem. It just blocks human traffic."
Park Friends would like to see some binding agreement that secures phase III as old-growth forest in perpetuity. Cox says he doesn't think the zoo will change its plans for the area, but "I don't want to get burned again."
In the long run, the controversy might be good for both the park and the forest.
CPOP hopes council members will consider the group's suggestions.
"We're losing [the forest] acre by acre," Van Tol says. "It's being nibbled away and when you're taking it out of a small forest, it adds up fairly quickly."
Lissa Thompson, who helped draft Overton Park's 1998 master plan, also cautions against overbuilding at the park.
"There is a history of passionate interest in Overton Park," she says. "If you keep expanding, if you keep putting monuments in, it ceases to be open space and it ceases to be the park that people so loved."
The controversy has also brought up the fact that perhaps the old Park Commission was a better system for public involvement. In 2000, the City Council and Mayor Willie Herenton disbanded the Parks Commission and brought city parks in-house.
"The Park Commission used to meet once a month and citizens could come in and say, 'you need to clean up my park.' We don't have that opportunity now," says Scott Banbury, founder of Midtown Logging and Lumber Company. "Where do people go to make a complaint? It's very unfortunate we lost that forum."
In 1990, with money from the Audubon Society and the local Sierra Club, Banbury hired a team of ecologists to do species assessments in the old-growth forest.
"More than 50 [bird species] have their nests and their babies there. There's nowhere else around here where you can see that type of diversity," he says. "Whatever happens with the 17 acres, I hope the rest of the forest will be protected in perpetuity somehow."
Landscape architect Smith would like to see a more immediate change: "Maybe this will shine a light back on the forest," he says. "It would be good for the city to have an urban forester on staff again."
And though it doesn't appear the city is ready to do another master plan for Overton Park, the zoo says it's nearing the end of its current plan and will soon begin work on a new 10-year plan.
"I think in the next couple of months we'll start to see some of this homework that we're doing — the site surveys and other stuff — come to fruition, and we'll have more to communicate," says the zoo's Carter. "I don't think this is the end of the story. We've got a long way before we, or anyone else, comes to any conclusions about the future of that space."