There's been a bit of back and forth lately on the CA editorial page about the proposed natural area legislation that's pending with the state. Naomi Van Tol of CPOP wrote a guest column last week arguing that the zoo's self-proclaimed interest in conservation and forestry should lead them to support this bill. Today's response by Chuck Brady, CEO of the zoo, said that the natural area would be too restrictive (control of the park in Nashville instead of Memphis) and that the city should institute a conservation easement instead.
Park Friends had a good discussion about this issue at our latest meeting. Historically the city has done a very bad job of protecting our most important park. "Do we need a new fire station? Let's cut some trees and put it in the park. Do we need a maintenace area/offices/new ADA building? Let's cut some trees and put them in the park? New senior center? Let's cut some trees and put it in the park." (Fortunately, Park Friends battled that one down.) "The zoo needs a new exhibit? Let's cut some trees and put it in the park." It is way past time for the city to step up and institute permanent, legal protection for Overton Park, and if the city isn't willing, Overton Park is precious enough that the state should do it instead.
With the natural area legislation hanging over their heads, the city and the zoo together are proposing a conservation easement instead. Park Friends has strongly suggested that if the city wants to pre-empt this legislation, they should protect more of the park than the proposed legislation does. We think the city should include the priceless Greensward in any easement instead of just covering the Old Forest. The Greensward does not meet the requirements for a state natural area, but it could easily be included in a local easement, and it has been threatened so many times that it, too, deserves protection.
The zoo argues that the natural area legislation is too restrictive for the city park usage that Overton Park gets (biking, jogging, roads through the forest). Many natural areas are quite restrictive, but each legislated area has a specific master plan written that is tailored to its needs. If the legislation goes through, we as citizens need to stay involved in the process and make sure that the master plan reflects our busy urban park, but both Senator Marrero and Representative Richardson, who are sponsoring the bill, have told me that they don't wish to restrict the park in any way, only to protect it for future generations. We also need to make sure that any city-written easement is strong enough to protect the park.
I think legal protection in either form is a wonderful step forward for the park, but Park Friends calls on the city to step up and do more than the natural area could and include the Greensward in any easement plan that they write. It is time to protect both the Old Forest and the Greensward for all Memphians in times to come.