The Edmond Sun

December 29, 2012

Opposition mounts to changes at Martin Nature Park

Reconstruction would revamp park, increase disabled access

Patty Miller
The Edmond Sun

EDMOND — EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was modified Dec. 31, 2012, to remove a reference to any public funding source. Wildnerness Matters Executive Director Jack McMahan said his organization will be seeking private funding for the proposed park renovation. The Edmond Sun regrets the error and any inconvenience to our readers.

Adding new trails and structures at Martin Park Nature Center could have serious consequences for the area’s wildlife, trees and rare plants, according to The Friends of Martin Nature Park, a civic group that supports the Martin Park Nature Center.

A proposal made by the Wilderness Matters Inc. group would mean a $1.2 million to $2 million project to improve access for the disabled at the park.

“Everyone supports increased accessibility,” Friends spokeswoman Janna Gau said. “Accessibility isn’t the issue. The issue is the unintended consequences of this particular proposal. A major problem is the building of a new trail into an area of the park that has been designated as a wildlife sanctuary since 1978.

“The proposal seeks to change that designation, which will create irreversible and detrimental effects to the park and its use as an educational facility. Their proposal impacts the entire park property.”

The Friends of Martin Park Nature Center recently asked the OKC City Council to postpone consideration of the new development and appoint a joint committee to resolve problems with the proposal.

Friends of Martin Park Nature Center are raising opposition stemming from a proposal by nonprofit group Wilderness Matters Inc., which wants to add new handicapped-accessible trails, a tree house, a boardwalk across the lake and a sensory garden.

Friends members say the projects would require a large amount of construction and could destroy trees and rare plants, disturb the nesting seasons of migratory birds and scare away wildlife that have long been part of the city park at 5000 W. Memorial.

“These proposed changes were going to cause problems and, in my opinion, had not been thoroughly vetted,” Gau said.

The Oklahoma City Parks Commission conducted an additional review of the plan during a Dec. 19 meeting and voted to send the proposal to the City Council for consideration during the Jan. meeting.


Volunteers say ‘Do Not Disturb’

“The new trail will alter the healthy natural ecosystem in the southeastern portion of the park,” said Cathy Christensen, president of the Oklahoma Bar Association and representative of the nearby Val Verde homeowners. “It is home to deer, owls, foxes, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, muskrat, beaver and a variety of nesting birds, and it is an important habitat for migrating ducks, geese and songbirds. Remove those animals and you lose the opportunity to educate thousands of children and park visitors.”

Christensen also said that disruption to the natural ecosystem could reduce the number of predators, such as owls, which keep populations of rodents, skunks and other animals from overpopulating and becoming pests to nearby neighborhoods and the park itself.

Construction at any level, Gau said, could destroy some of the park’s rarest plants and prevent migratory birds from nesting there. Construction could force wildlife, such as bobcats and wolves, to move into surrounding neighborhoods.

“We have four rare species of plants you can’t find anywhere else in Oklahoma, and then we have birds like the ruby-throated hummingbirds that migrate here in the spring,” Gau said. “That’s just one of 30 migratory birds we have. The issue is we have migratory birds coming in all year, so it makes it difficult to make changes to the park. This type of construction could prevent them from coming here if the area is altered.”

Plans not available yet

Although detailed plans have not been made available to the City Council, Jack McMahan, executive director for Wilderness Matters, said they will be made available once the plan proposal is passed by council members.

McMahan, an avid outdoorsman, suffered a serious spinal cord injury following a 2004 bicycle accident that left him a quadriplegic.

“Losing my mobility was hard, but losing my access to outdoor adventure on top of that was devastating,” he said.

The disappointment led him to find ways to make a wilderness experience, however large or small, accessible to everyone.

“Access to senior citizens, of course, who find walking difficult, citizens using canes, walkers, crutches, wheelchairs or other mobility device; accessible, as well, to those with limited sight, impaired hearing or developmental disability,” McMahan said.

Phases of the project include a large treehouse, a universally accessible trail throughout the park and, in the final phase, “identifying, selecting and installing information/syndication systems that enhance the experiences of all stake holders who visit the park,” according to Wilderness Matters.

McMahan said the projected cost is expected to be between $1.2 to 2 million, and the Wilderness Experience would remain free to the public as Martin Nature Park is now.

Wendell Whisenhunt, director of Oklahoma City Parks and Recreation, said Wilderness Matters Inc. representatives have gone before the OKC Parks Commission three times and discussed improvements they wish to make to the Martin Nature Park. The most recent meeting was Dec. 19 at which time the board of park commissioners voted unanimously to let the proposal go before the City Council during the January meeting.

The proposal states the entire project cost is to be born by Wilderness Matters, which proposes to raise all of the dollars necessary, McMahan said.

Group’s first project

Wilderness Matters was incorporated as a 501(c)(3). The board is comprised of McMahan, Nichols Hills Mayor Peter Hoffman, philanthropist and former assistant attorney general Tricia L. Everest, and Martha J. Ferretti, a college professor and physical therapist.

McMahan said Wilderness Matters is about helping all people, but especially people with disabilities, enjoy universally accessible outdoor experiences.

“We are about building and delivering a world-class wilderness experience for everyone to enjoy. The result of our work is to improve the human experience,” McMahan said.

McMahan said he and his board of directors are willing to privately fund the approximately $1.5 million needed for the park development.

The group also has told city officials it would provide an endowment to fund maintenance for the proposed development.

According to its website, Wilderness Matters “aims to partner with municipal and state agencies to help all people — able-bodied and disabled — access and enjoy universally designed nature experiences.”

The organization’s website states it selects public nature parks, wildlife areas or other outdoor venues and then designs, builds and donates facility improvements to the partner. The website, however, did not list specific projects completed by Wilderness Matters, and McMahan admitted this proposed project is the first project for the organization.

Parks Director Whisenhunt said there is no expectation for the city’s Parks Department to “contribute to this development at all. They (Wilderness Matters) feel they have the ability to raise the money.”

Gau said environmental and financial impact studies should be conducted before moving forward.

McMahan said Wilderness Matters conducted its own environmental impact assessment, an assessment conducted by the Guernsey Group, which examined 11 biological and environmental concerns at the park.

“It’s the unintended consequences we’re concerned about,” Gau said. “Until the parks Department and Wilderness Matters come to the table with an environmental impact study, it’s hard to sign off on this.”


Donation boxes taken down

Donation boxes at Martin Park Nature Center were taken down early this month after being put in place more than 30 years ago by Friends of Martin Park Nature Center.

“The city helped us install those 30 years ago,” Gau said. “The timing is highly suspect considering our opposition to the proposal.”

Gau said donations have totaled about $1,000 a year with all proceeds used to benefit the park.

On Friday, Whisenhunt said he was not aware the collection boxes had been placed in the park.

“I cannot authorize the collection of money at parks,” Whisenhunt said, “and that is why I had the boxes removed.”

Did You Know?

49.7 million people living in the United States ages 5 and older have a disability, nearly one in five U.S. residents, or 10 percent.

Most people will experience some form of disability, either permanent or temporary, over the course of their lives.

MARTIN PARK Nature Center, created in response to the demand for conservation, is visited by tens of thousands of Oklahomans each year, including school groups, senior citizen centers and Boy and Girl Scouts. It features a hands-on nature museum highlighting the animal life, flora and fauna of Oklahoma, a picnic area, browsing library, three hiking trails, a bird observation wall and a watch tower. National Geographic named it one of the “Ten Best” parks in the region in its guide for families.

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