Mary Wilder's June 15th Viewpoint column describes a great success story. Wilder lauds the million dollars recently raised by the Overton Park Conservancy (OPC) and says this money will "end parking on the Greensward forever." The truth is buried a few paragraphs later: "This will result in the loss of some park land on the northern edge of the Greensward ... " This attempt to reinvent reality is very troubling to me and should be to anyone else who cares about preserving public land.
Wilder uses the words "compromise" and "solution" to justify her opinion that it's fine to pave one-quarter of the Greensward and give it to the Memphis Zoo. According to the current "compromise" map on the OPC's website, the northern three acres of the historic Overton Park Greensward would be paved and lost forever. There is no compromise here. This is nothing but a naked land grab by zoo leaders. Amazingly, zoo leaders have conned the public into paying half the cost of destroying our own parkland.
Wilder claims to speak for 19 civic groups known as the Overton Park Alliance. I expect many members of those groups would be shocked to realize they have been used to justify the destruction of one-quarter of the Greensward. How did this happen? Why are these groups so eager to surrender our city's free open space to benefit corporate interests?
I only claim to speak for myself. I have been involved in more than a few land protection campaigns over the past four decades. In 1986, I was one of the founders of Save Shelby Farms Forest and helped write the legislation that created the Lucius Burch State Natural Area. I was one of the first board members of the Wolf River Conservancy (WRC) and helped establish the Ghost River canoe trail in 1989. In 1997, I became the first executive director of the WRC and helped protect thousands of acres of land along the Wolf including the Ghost River State Natural Area.
In 2008, I helped revive the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP) volunteer group that saved Overton Park from being destroyed by Interstate 40 in 1971. I supported the three-year-long CPOP campaign that created the Old Forest State Natural Area with unanimous approval from the Tennessee state legislature in 2010. Those 126 acres remain the only legally protected acres in the 342-acre Overton Park, which is why CPOP began their ongoing "Save the Greensward" campaign in 2014.
All of this is to say that I have witnessed and used a variety of tactics to protect green space for citizens to freely enjoy — including protests, letter-writing campaigns, lobbying for local and state legislation, and outright purchase and donation to state agencies. Before now, I have never seen a group of advocates come to the negotiating table in order to surrender to their aggressor. I have never seen a group of advocates willing to pay a million dollars to partly destroy the resource they ostensibly want to protect.
It is obvious that zoo leaders want as much of Overton Park as they can grab. In 1990, they fenced off more than 20 acres of old growth forest and destroyed four of those acres for the Teton Trek exhibit in 2008. Zoo leaders personally lobbied our city officials and Tennessee legislators to oppose CPOP's campaign to create the Old Forest State Natural Area. And zoo leaders currently control public access to the northern three acres of the Greensward, due to the failure of OPC and city officials to defend this public land.
Those who favor giving up the Greensward to the zoo without a fight are a symptom of a bigger problem. They are part of a long tradition of political behavior in which cowardly but power-hungry people position themselves as leaders, then bow to threats and intimidation, then sandbag and deflate the efforts of others, then reframe the outcome as a necessary compromise and a success.
I believe the zoo can be driven off the Greensward if enough citizens demand it. Where zoo leaders park cars is their problem to solve — it is not the responsibility of citizens to provide funding or sacrifice parkland for a rich corporation that refuses to plan ahead. Zoo leaders claim to run a "world class" facility that is visited by a million people yearly. You cannot tell me those same people are mentally and financially incapable of devising ways to handle their traffic without paving parkland.
The Greensward fight is not over. Battle lines are now clearly drawn between those who think it's fine to pave one-quarter of the Greensward and those who want to save it. I will continue to support CPOP and the citizens who remain committed to saving the entire Greensward, in the belief that it is priceless common ground that should be protected for everyone.
When the protests start again, which side of the zoo's fence will you be on?
Larry J. Smith is a lawyer, environmentalist, and lifelong Memphian.