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Forest for the Trees

City and activist groups look at different ways to protect Midtown's old-growth forest.

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The old-growth forest in Overton Park has been around for thousands of years. Now activist groups and the city are trying to protect it for the future.

"Over the years, we've been gradually losing the old-growth forest to Overton Park, and we feel like we need some sort of legal protection," says Naomi Van Tol, one of the founders of the most recent incarnation of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP).

State representative Jeanne Richardson and state senator Beverly Marrero recently sponsored a bill to designate the old-growth forest a state natural area.

The designation is for areas too small to be a state park but possessing a unique natural feature in need of preservation.

"We feel like a state natural area would elevate it in a number of ways: It would get it on state tourism maps. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) would provide signage," Van Tol says. "We think it's a win-win."

But controversy seems to grow around Overton Park like leaves on trees.

In a fiscal note it attached to the bill, the city said the state natural area would cost Memphians at least $31 million, the majority of it to build underground flood-water storage.

The city also said that the designation would result in a loss of recreation facilities and mean changes to the Memphis Zoo's upcoming Chickasaw Bluff Trail exhibit.

In some Tennessee state natural areas, the uses are quite restricted. In others, people are allowed to jog, bike, or even hunt.

"None of the uses would change at all," Van Tol says of the forest. "The landowner works with TDEC to develop a management plan."

In a letter to the city, the advocacy group also noted that there is nothing in the Natural Areas Preservation Act stipulates underground floodwater storage.

Currently, the plan to minimize nearby flooding of Lick Creek is to build a small berm in what's known as the park's greensward, a grassy meadow near Rainbow Lake. The two- to four-foot berm would protect the zoo parking lot from flooding, but because the greensward does not meet state natural area guidelines, it would not be included in the designation.

"They took the worst case scenario," Richardson says of the city's cost estimate. "The city has to figure out the Lick Creek thing, regardless."

In a letter last week, Memphis CAO George Little said he was asking the city's parks division to re-assess the costs.

But the city also is looking at another alternative.

"The city of Memphis understands and agrees that there is a need to protect the Overton Park forest and its indigenous life forms," says a statement to the Flyer from the city's parks division. "The city, in conjunction with the zoo, has been working with Overton Park Friends and CPOP to protect the 142 acres of the forest through a conservation easement. The city feels that this approach is actually a superior strategy to keeping the forest intact."

A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement between a landowner, in this case, the city, and a land trust that limits the uses of the land. It would have many of the same protections of the natural area.

CPOP argues that the state natural area designation would be simpler and cost less.

"With the conservation easement, you have to pay someone a yearly fee to administer it," Van Tol says.

CPOP was formed in response to the Memphis Zoo clear-cutting 4 acres of the forest two years ago. Park Friends was formed in response to a 1992 plan to pave over the greensward to give the zoo more parking.

Park Friends president Martha Kelly says her group likes the conservation easement because it could also protect Overton Park's greensward.

"If the city would include the greensward in the conservation easement, that would protect more area and be better for the whole park," she says.

In fact, she thinks protecting the greensward is the city's best argument for an easement over a state natural area.

"The greensward is perpetually threatened by development. It's a big open space that the city owns, so any time they need something, they look to the greensward. It would be nice to say this is going to be a meadow for future generations," Kelly says.

However, the current draft of the proposed easement does not include the greensward. If the city is not going to include it, Park Friends still thinks the forest needs to be protected in some way.

"We need a fire station, we say, let's cut down some trees. We need a maintenance area, let's cut down some trees. The zoo needs a new exhibit, let's cut down some trees," Kelly says. "We have a bad history with that."

Van Tol agrees.

"We don't want to see Overton Park always be in one crisis or another," Van Tol says. "We need something where everyone knows it's protected, and we don't have to worry about it."

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