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New Growth

A revived Citizens to Preserve Overton Park fights for 17 acres of old-growth forest.

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The first time Citizens to Preserve Overton Park dug its heels into the Midtown park, it beat back an expressway, changing the face of Memphis.

This time around, the group is fighting to preserve the same area of old-growth forest, but the threat is much closer to home.

Originally founded in 1957, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park was revived several months ago when several park-users noticed that four acres of forest near the Memphis Zoo had been felled.

"We were shocked by the clear-cut the zoo did for its Teton Trek exhibit," says Naomi Van Tol, one of the organization's new leaders. "We didn't want to see it happen again."

Van Tol lives half a mile from the park and takes her 2-year-old daughter there two or three times a week to play on the playground or go to the zoo.

"I went to the zoo with my toddler and saw bulldozers and backhoes cutting down trees," Van Tol says. "For about three weeks prior to seeing that, the Northwest Passage had been closed off, so I hadn't been to that corner of the zoo. ... By the time it reopened, most of the trees were on the ground."

The zoo says it did not clear-cut the area but protected trees that could be included in construction plans. But the construction came as a surprise to Park Friends, an advocacy group that considers Overton Park its primary focus and includes a representative of the zoo on its board.

In a statement on its website, Park Friends says it became aware of "an extreme level of tree clearing" only after the damage was done: "Because of the impact of the tree cutting on the contiguous forest and the Zoo's disregard for the environment outside their boundaries, Park Friends is compelled to voice our concern and disappointment that an organization with such a connection to the environment would disregard the very tenets we assume it espouses."

More concerning to Citizens, the zoo controls an additional 17 acres of undeveloped old-growth forest. The area has been behind a chain-link fence for about a decade and is land the zoo plans to one day use for its expansion.

"This was something that obviously was beneath a lot of people's radar," Van Tol says. "Somebody needed to bird-dog the zoo and keep an eye on this."

Van Tol and a few others decided the best idea would be to revive Citizens to Preserve Overton Park. So far, about 60 people have signed up to be members.

On a recent Saturday, about 15 people met for one of the group's monthly hikes on Overton Park's old-forest trail. It was a beautiful morning and once on the lush trail — a onetime bridle path — the forest was cool and inviting.

Van Tol, the hike leader, pointed out different varieties of plants, including poison ivy, grape vines, stinging nettle (don't let it touch your bare legs), and baby oaks "waiting for their chance" to grow into trees should a spot in the forest canopy open up.

At one point, the hikers climbed over a tree fallen across the dirt trail; at another, they ducked underneath one.

Near East Parkway, a siren wailed in the distance, but for the most part it was calm and quiet.

"You feel like you're in the middle of nowhere, but you're in a really small forest," Van Tol says. "When humans first came here, this is what they saw. ... This is a link to the natural system."

After the hike, Van Tol led participants past the fenced 17 acres and to where the Teton Trek exhibit is being constructed.

Roy Barnes began making maps of Overton Park for the group and recently joined the board. He's now waiting for updated Google Earth images of the park so he can contrast before and after shots of the Teton Trek area.

"People won't be able to hide — it will be obvious what's happened," he says. "If the fence means we own it, we control it, now they've shown the danger of what that power is."

The group hopes to convince the zoo to take down the fence, let park users go there, and not develop it.

"The four acres is gone; we can't bring that back," Van Tol says. "We think the zoo has plenty of space to improve and expand within its current boundaries. They don't need to keep moving outward. It's a very suburban model."

Citizens to Preserve Overton Park will host a public meeting Thursday, June 5th, at Rhodes' Blount Auditorium from 7 to 8 p.m. for interested parties.

"We're paying tribute to the people who worked so hard to protect what we have today," Van Tol says. "We're finishing their work."

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