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CPOP offers free, guided nature hikes on the second Saturday and last Sunday of each month. Visit www.overtonparkforever.org for more details.

Saving green

U of M alumni work to save an ancient forest that predates the founding of our nation and is as close to most Mid-Southerners as their own backyard.

By Greg Russell

Stacey Greenberg and Jimmy Ogle are trying to make as big of an impression as possible while leaving the smallest of footprints behind.

The two University of Memphis alumni are part of a grassroots effort to save a rare, virgin forest found in Memphis that is as old as the city itself.

Greenberg and Ogle are board members of the revived Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP) group that made national headlines in the early 1970s when it took on — and ultimately won — a battle with the federal government that reached the Supreme Court over a planned Interstate 40 route through the Midtown park. The group includes many alumni of the U of M and prominent Memphians.

With the old growth area of Overton Park facing new encroachment, the two U of M alums joined CPOP president Naomi Van Tol to make sure citizens of Memphis retain something rare and special.

“It is an old growth forest that has been here 10,000 years,” says Greenberg (BMS ’99). “You can’t find that anywhere else in the area. To be able to go to a 10,000-year-old forest in the middle of the city is something really special.”

Botanist Dr. Thomas Heineke, who was hired by the city to study the Overton Park forest, agrees in his assessment of the park:

“Overton Park is a unique resource which cannot be replaced. It is invaluable to the city and to the region as an outstanding example of old growth forest. Because it is within an urban setting, it is even more exceptional. Everything possible should be done to assure that it is protected in perpetuity.”

Ogle (BSEd ’80), a mainstay of Tiger home basketball games as sideline clock operator, adds, “The important thing is the undisturbed nature of the area over a long period, a lot longer than this nation has been here, right in the middle of the city.”

The CPOP group was revived two years ago after four acres of the old growth forest was clear-cut to make room for a new Memphis Zoo exhibit. Perhaps the exhibit could have been planned better, CPOP members say, to save more of the old forest.

“We are not trying to stop the zoo from improving itself. We are trying to stop any further development in the forest,” says Greenberg, noting that the zoo has 17 acres of old growth forest fenced off for a new exhibit set to open in several years.

Greenberg and Ogle both say the zoo clear-cut the four acres were clear-cut two years ago with no recent input from citizens. Ogle, a former Park Commission deputy director, says the zoo continues to decline to meet with the group.

An early map of the Evergreen subdivision, which included Overton Park. Photo by Lindsey Lissau.
An early map of the Evergreen subdivision, which included Overton Park. Photo by Lindsey Lissau.

CPOP has worked with state legislators Beverly Marrero and Jeanne Richardson to legally protect the park. The lawmakers introduced the Old Forest Natural Area bill (Senate Bill 2415 and House Bill 2563) that Van Tol says would legally protect the 150-acre old growth forest of Overton Park from inappropriate development under the Natural Areas Preservation Act of 1971.

The bill would not limit nor restrict any public use of the park, such as biking, running or bird watching. A low-impact boardwalk, which the zoo has proposed for the fenced-off 17 acres, would be permitted. It would prohibit any further bulldozing of the park, and protect it in its entirety — something that is important for the whole forest to survive, the Sierra Club says.

“It recognizes the forest for its value and it develops a management plan. It is not restrictive at all: it won’t keep people out of there,” Ogle says. “It will prevent anyone coming in and bulldozing trees.”

Heineke’s August 2009 report of the Overton Park forest reported that there are 332 flowering plant species from 85 plant families in the park, including goldenseal and oceanblue phacelia, both listed on the Tennessee Natural Heritage Program Rare Plant List. He estimates many of the larger trees are 200 years or older.

Besides the abundance of plants and trees, hawks, owls and hundreds of other species call the old forest home. Thousands of Memphians use the trails in the old forest and open areas of the park each day.

As for the fenced area, Ogle and Greenberg both say a low impact boardwalk would be OK as long as the forest, including its under-story, is left intact. Ogle says that renderings of the planned boardwalk don’t include the under-story, which is valuable to the overall health of a forest.

Even with the boardwalk, both want the fence to come down.

Ogle and Greenberg near the park's Lick Creek.
Ogle and Greenberg near the park's
Lick Creek.
“We don’t think anyone should have to pay admission to go to the forest,” says Greenberg. “This is all publicly owned land. I don’t care if I am 80, I am going to keep fighting to get that fence down.”

The history of Overton Park, which dates to 1901, is noteworthy in itself, says Ogle. “One of the most famous landscape architects in the history of this country, George Kessler, designed this park and Overton’s Greensward, which is the only ‘open play’ field in Memphis to have its own name. Its pedigree is Central Park in New York. The golf course is the second oldest municipal golf course in the country. Brooks Museum came in 1916, the golf house in 1926, Overton Park Shell in 1936.”

Ogle also points out that Overton’s old forest is an ever-changing landscape, a sort of rotating exhibit in itself.

“If you come for a hike, you should come in all four seasons. The forest changes in some way every two or three weeks.”

He believes the zoo should concentrate on exhibits that don’t encroach on the old growth forest.

“The zoo could go back in and redo some older buildings that need to be redone now instead of coming out into the forest.”

Ogle ended with what he says he hopes all will understand: “We are very pro forest, we are very pro zoo.”

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