Saturday’s storm event was one of the most significant we’ve seen since Overton Park Conservancy began managing the park in 2012. The winds brought down nearly 150 trees throughout the park, including several large landscape trees in the East Parkway playground area which thankfully did not fall on any structures. The majority of the trees fell inside the Old Forest, particularly in a huge pile between trail markers 18 and 25 on the Old Forest Loop trail.
Cleanup has been happening rapidly, thanks to support from many partners. The City of Memphis has had crews on-site for the last several days, removing the large fallen trees at the playground and on Veterans Plaza Drive, and trimming hanging limbs from trees that were still standing. Volunteers from Park Friends helped to clear limbs and debris from sections of the Old Forest trails, so that most of the trail system could be open to visitors. And as always, our landscaping crews at Echo Systems and arborists at Urban Forestry have been working long days to clean up fallen limbs.
East Parkway Playground now looks largely back to normal (albeit with a few missing trees). But clearing the large pile around trail marker 20 will be a bigger challenge. Some of the trees that came down were massive, and they took out dozens of smaller trees on their way to the ground. We’ll have to decide whether to cut up and move the debris from the trail or reroute the trail around the tree fall, which we’ll do in consultation with our partners at the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation (TDEC), who will be on-site this week.
Because our general policy is to leave plant material to decay in the forest, that’s what we’ll look to do here. But a tree fall of this magnitude means we’ll have to be intentional about where we place the debris so that we don’t block sunlight from reaching the forest floor in this area, which would make it harder for new trees to push up. We’ll likely spread some of the limbs out and group others into piles, which creates prime habitat for birds and small mammals.
Losing this many trees at once can feel devastating, and it is startling to see how quickly a forest can change. But our Director of Operations, Eric Bridges, offers reason for hope. We’ve known for quite a while that the grand tulip poplars that give the Old Forest so much of its character have been having trouble regenerating. But as it happens, tulip poplars tend to do well in large openings like the one created by this storm event. It’s even possible that a similar event 180 or so years ago created the conditions for them to establish so well here.
The tulip poplar’s light, papery seeds are easily blown by the wind. Just one mature poplar will send tens of thousands of seeds to the ground this year, many of which will find their way into this opening. It will provide a valuable test site for Eric to compare to smaller openings created by the loss of 2-3 trees (also known as canopy gaps), and to sites where there are no gaps at all. Watching the progress of trees in these three kinds of locations should provide us with more clues to how our forest is functioning, and how we can help big, beautiful trees like poplars and oaks thrive again.
That’s a long-term process that we’re excited to share with you. But here in this moment, we’re looking at around $10,000 worth of expenses related to this cleanup effort–everything from the landscaping crews to cleaning up the grounds at East Parkway where heavy equipment had to move in to haul debris. It’s a tough way to start the year, but we’re grateful to have a community that steps up for the park. If you’d like to contribute to storm cleanup, just visit www.overtonpark.org/give.