Nearly 40 years ago, the original Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP) won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that blocked the extension of Interstate 40 through Overton Park and a large swath of Midtown. Our community owes a great debt to this small group of citizens who fought so doggedly to protect our park and our neighborhoods. But are we honoring their legacy?
It's easy to assume that Overton Park is safe from harm. There are even a few laws to protect our city parks, like Section 12-84-2 of the Memphis Code of Ordinances: "It is unlawful for any person to cut, break or in any way injure or deface any tree, plant, or grass, or pick any flowers, leaves or nuts, wild or cultivated, in any park."
And yet, the Memphis Zoo clear-cut four acres of Overton Park's old-growth forest in early 2008 because our city's Park Services division quietly approved it. When were citizens told about this plan to destroy publicly owned parkland? We had to figure it out for ourselves, early one Saturday morning, when chainsaws and bulldozers arrived to churn a priceless ecosystem into mud.
Last year, a city-funded botanical study found a rich array of more than 330 plant species in Overton Park and defined the forest as "an extremely rare virgin or old-growth forest" that almost certainly began growing when the last ice age retreated 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.
That study concluded: "Overton Park's forest is a unique resource which cannot be replaced. It is invaluable to the city and to the region as an outstanding example of old-growth forest. Because it is within an urban setting, it is even more exceptional. Everything possible should be done to assure that it is protected in perpetuity."
Despite this strong recommendation, our exceptional forest still lacks any legal protection. Memphians know this forest as the "Old Forest" because it has always been there for us — a beautiful remnant of the big woods that once covered the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff — and it's time we stepped up to protect it.
Zoo expansion is just one threat to Overton Park's forest and other public spaces. Too often, our civic leaders treat parkland as if it's disposable. Memphis lags far behind our peer cities in park spending per capita and park acreage per capita, according to the Trust for Public Land. As recently as 2007, Mayor Willie Herenton and several City Council members proposed selling off more than 20 city-owned parks.
In the past two years, the city's engineering staff has proposed two different ways to repurpose Overton Park's Greensward for storm-water detention. Last year, Mayor A C Wharton and several City Council members proposed closing our city's oldest golf course because it's not a money-maker. The Memphis Zoo turns half of the Greensward into a private parking lot about 20 times a year.
Right now, the city is reviewing plans to convert part of the southeastern corner of Overton Park into an overflow parking lot for the Memphis Zoo. This space is occupied by city facilities — greenhouses, machine shops, storage buildings, offices, and a fuel station — which would need to be torn down and rebuilt elsewhere at great expense.
Maybe it's a good idea to relocate these facilities and redevelop the area as free public parkland. But does it make sense to spend our tax dollars to convert this land to a parking lot? Will citizens have any part in this decision? Going by the city's track record, we're likely to find out when the bulldozers arrive.
This woeful track record is why we are asking the city of Memphis to endorse the legislative designation of the Old Forest State Natural Area, which would protect Overton Park's 150-acre forest for citizens to enjoy forever. We also support a strong conservation easement to protect the cultural and historical integrity of all 342 acres of Overton Park. And we want all of this to happen with plenty of public input, communication, and transparency.
We are joined in this effort by Clean Memphis, Greater Memphis Greenline, Livable Memphis, Memphis Heritage, Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, Project Green Fork, Sierra Club, Skatelife Memphis, and many individual citizens.
We hope you'll join us, too.
Naomi Van Tol is president of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park. For more information, visit overtonparkforever.org.