Naomi Van Tol thinks the Memphis Zoo is sending a clear message: Habitat conservation is more important in places like China than it is in its own backyard.
As part of the zoo's master plan, it recently bulldozed a four-acre section of the Old Forest Arboretum in Overton Park to add a new Teton Trek exhibit featuring the landscape and wildlife of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
Van Tol points out that the zoo has destroyed natural habitat so it can replace it with fake habitat.
"This hypocritical and needless waste of public parkland is an insult to the citizens of Memphis," she says.
In the late '80s, the Memphis Park Commission gave the zoo that land, including the area behind Rainbow Lake, to be used for expansion and development.
Don Richardson, a member of Park Friends who has done the only tree inventory of the Old Forest and who has led hikes through the area for the past 10 years, says that the zoo has underestimated public sentiment about the forest.
"The zoo was an important steward of a priceless natural resource," Richardson says, "and they bungled it."
The Old Forest contains some of the last untouched landscape in the Memphis area. It contains approximately 70 tree species.
Zoo spokesperson Brian Carter says the area was deemed qualified for development. The city/county office of planning and development approved the plan, as did arborists the zoo consulted.
"We did all we could to save trees in that area," Carter says. According to him, the zoo removed 139 trees, a third of which were saplings, and 78 trees were preserved.
Carter says the zoo also plans to plant 574 trees in that area during development of the Teton Trek.
Park-services director Cynthia Buchanan says the city agreed that the zoo could construct an exhibit in that area, because it was neither a critical part of the forest nor was it pristine.
"In any park, you have to balance the needs of the users and uses versus leaving it in its natural state," Buchanan says. "We tried to preserve the best parts of the forest while maintaining an outstanding zoo."
Concerned citizens say there was no public input into the zoo's plan, but Carter says the zoo's master plan has always been a public document and open to comment. The master plan can now be viewed on the zoo's website.
The zoo has developed 43 of its available 76 acres of land. Carter says the zoo is working on a new master plan, which will include renovating old exhibit space. Unofficial plans include a minimal-impact walking trail through the zoo's portion of the Old Forest.
Richardson says he hopes that the public holds the zoo accountable and reminds them of their conservation ethic.
"I'd like to think that at some point we don't have to keep fighting for the forest," he says.