The adamant opposition from Friends of Martin Park Nature Center stems from a proposal by nonprofit group Wilderness Matters, Inc., which seeks to add two new handicapped-accessible trails, a treehouse, a boardwalk across the lake and a sensory garden. The projects would require a large amount of construction and could destroy trees, rare plants and wildlife that have long been part of the park at 5000 W. Memorial.
“These proposed changes were going to cause problems and, in my opinion, had not been thoroughly vetted,” said Janna Gau, an attorney and spokeswoman for Friends of Martin Park Nature Center.
The Oklahoma City Council approved the plan a month ago and was scheduled to finalize the approval this month. Some unanswered questions, however, forced city officials to send the proposal back to the parks commission, which ended up deadlocked 3-3. As a result, the parks commission will conduct an additional review of the plan during a 3 p.m. Dec. 19 meeting at the Will Rogers Garden Exhibition Center at N.W. 36th and Grand Boulevard.
The commission’s recommendation could then be forwarded to the city council for consideration in January.
For the Friends of Martin Park Nature Center, the issue is simple: Don’t disturb the park or its inhabitants.
“Once you start widening or building new trails, you have to widen them all to maintain compliance with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). Then, when you start to build structures, you have to cut down trees and bring in tools that will disturb the predator-prey balance,” Gau said.
Construction at any level, she said, could destroy some of the park’s rarest plants and prevent migratory birds from nesting there.
“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.”
Ward 8 City Councilman Patrick Ryan said several questions must be addressed before final decisions are made.
“We want to see detailed plans from the people who want to put these plans in place,” he said.
Ryan acknowledged that construction at the park could force wildlife, such as bobcats and wolves, to move into surrounding neighborhoods.
“That’s a possibility,” he said. “We really don’t know anything yet.”
Jack McMahan, executive director for Wilderness Matters, could not be reached for comment. The group’s website shows that McMahan, an avid outdoorsman, suffered a serious spinal cord injury following a 2004 bicycle accident that left him quadriplegic.
McMahan and his board of directors, according to Ryan, are willing to privately fund the $1.5 million needed for the park development. 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.
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.”
To achieve its desired results, the organization 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.
Wendel Whisenhunt, director of the city’s parks and recreation department, said there is no expectation for the city to “contribute to this development at all.”
“They (Wilderness Matters) feel they have the ability to raise the money,” he said.
Gau said environmental and financial impact studies should be conducted before moving forward.
Wilderness Matters conducted its own environmental impact assessment, but the results have not been shared with city officials, Ryan said.
“We’ll have to look at that one and try to verify it,” he said. “We certainly don’t want to destroy the park, but it should be accessible to everyone.”
Gau said her group also wants accessibility for all visitors.
“It’s the unintended consequences we’re concerned about,” she said. “Until the parks department and Wilderness Matters come to the table with an environmental impact study, it’s hard to bite off on this.”
Donation boxes at Martin Park Nature Center disappeared early this month after being in place for more than 30 years.
Coincidentally, a group known as Friends of Martin Park Nature Center has been fighting city hall and nonprofit Wilderness Matters, Inc., in connection with a development proposal that would change the park’s landscape and potentially harm wildlife and rare plants.
“The city helped us install those 30 years ago,” said Friends spokeswoman Janna Gau. “The timing is highly suspect considering our opposition to the proposal.”
Oklahoma City’s Ward 8 Councilman Patrick Ryan defended the removal.
“Whether they’ve done it the last 100 years doesn’t matter. We just found out about it,” he said. “There’s no proof where that money has gone.”
Gau said donations have totaled about $1,000 a year with all proceeds used to benefit the park.
Oklahoma City Parks and Recreation Director Wendel Whisenhunt said he ordered the boxes removed because they were not authorized. He also said he didn’t know how long the boxes had been in place.
However, Gau said parks employees in 2008 reinstalled and cemented the boxes into the ground for greater security and to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
Gau said she originally was told the city intended to audit the Friends group in connection with the donations, but have since backed off following inquiries by Oklahoma Gazette.