Overton Park Conservancy grows the next generation of conservationists

The 342-acres of Overton Park are home to a greensward, playgrounds, a dog park and an Old Forest State Natural Area, plus partner organizations like Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis College of Art, Memphis Zoo, and the Levitt Shell. The Overton Park Conservancy is behind the vision, guiding the public park -- with community help.
Overton Park Conservancy is responsible for the management of all public areas in Overton Park. The organization was founded in January 2012 with a vision to cultivate a beautiful, safe and welcoming park that draws the diverse community together.
Tina Sullivan, Executive Director of Overton Park Conservancy, has an expanded view of that goal. “Personally, I want to help create a park that Memphians fall in love with and feel proud of — and want to protect and improve for future generations,” she said.
Sullivan says the most unique feature in Overton Park is the Old Forest State Natural Area. That designation became a reality in 2011 and provides protection in perpetuity for the Old Forest growth.
“It’s a very old forest and a wild refuge from the urban areas surrounding it,” explained Sullivan. “There are several things we're focusing on in the Old Forest. First, we want to make sure the forest is ecologically healthy. We then want to share its beauty and its educational value with the community and invite them to explore its hidden wonders. Lastly, we want to plan now for the long-term care of the forest, so that future generations may also benefit from this treasure.”
According to Sullivan, all of these strategies rely heavily on building partnerships with the surrounding community. In order to craft a management plan that brings the forest back to a healthy equilibrium and ensures its long-term survival, the conservancy needs to gather copious amounts of data about what is happening there now, and why. And that plan is already in motion.
In 2014, the conservancy partnered with Rhodes College to create an Urban Forestry Fellowship.
“We have students working under the leadership of our Operations Director Eric Bridges, an experienced forester and the current president of the West TN Urban Forestry Council,” said Sullivan. “These students are identifying the size and age of our largest and oldest trees, and looking for answers to questions about regeneration rates, threats, invasive species, etc. This information will allow us to create a plan for managing threats and promoting healthy growth of the trees that make this forest so special.”
 Emily Cerrito, Rhodes Urban Forestry Fellow (left), and Eric Bridges, Overton Park Conservancy Operations Director, present research findings in the Old Forest to a group
The Urban Forestry Fellows are now presenting their findings at conferences, and leading tours of their research areas in the forest.
Many people may not know that the conservancy offers an online form to encourage feedback from park visitors. Available at their website, anybody can be an extra set of eyes and ears. Called “Team Overton Park,” visitors are asked to glean information throughout the park to give the conservancy a means to expand the reach of their staff (five full-time employees and one part-time worker). Whether it is a fallen tree or a safety issue, park visitors bring into focus areas that need improvement and provide critical information for managing the park.
“We know that the Old Forest presents rich educational opportunities, and teaching our future leaders about the importance of this place will help us grow the next generation of conservationists,” said Sullivan. “We need to make sure that information about the forest is freely accessible and easy to find. As this collective knowledge base continues to grow, we've noticed more people feel safe and comfortable navigating the trails in the Old Forest, and this increase in visitors, in turn, makes the forest feel safer and more welcoming. It's a virtuous circle.”
High Ground's coverage of community sustainability efforts is made possible by Memphis Light, Gas and Water.
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Read more articles by Emily Adams Keplinger.