Jack McMahan, Wilderness Matters’ executive director, made an hour-long presentation at the Dec. 19 commission meeting, trying to ease fears voiced by groups such as the Sierra Club and Friends of Martin Park Nature Center. An outdoorsman who has used a wheelchair since 2004, he emphasized the project would consume less than two acres, 1 percent of the park’s 144 acres.
Wilderness Matters wants to add two new trails, a treehouse, a boardwalk across the park’s lake and a sensory garden, which would provide nature experiences to visitors with diverse levels of mobility, sightedness, and cognitive development.
Critics of the proposal have argued that the construction could destroy trees and rare plants, disturb the nesting seasons of migratory birds and scare away wildlife that has been part of the park since it was built in the late 1970s.
Several citizens in wheelchairs at the meeting urged the commission to help the park become more accessible.
“All we have is an idea to make Martin Park a wonderful nature park that is accessible,” McMahan told the commissioners. “I think we’ve been dealing with miscommunications and misunderstandings about what we want to do. Right now, no formal plan exists. There are no specific trails and no specific structures.”
McMahan touted an assessment conducted by the Guernsey Group, which examined 11 biological and environmental concerns at the park. According to McMahan, independent wildlife biologist Clint Porter and Mark Howery, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Wildlife Conservation, have endorsed his nonprofit’s proposal.
However, part of the project includes a new handicapped-accessible trail in the southern part of the park, which is a wildlife sanctuary. That drew the ire of Neil Garrison, who worked as the park’s naturalist and site supervisor for 30 years.
“If it is opened to the same level of use as the parts of the park where the students go, there will be a decrease in wildlife, especially with the predators [that] are essential for keeping a predator-prey balance in the park,” he said.
Garrison also said flooding is a critical issue that has been overlooked.
“I can tell you from years of experience that the proposed observation platform and treehouse will probably wash completely away or at least be damaged by the floods the park experiences,” he said.
Garrison cautioned the commissioners about approving the proposal based on the environmental assessment presented by Wilderness Matters. He asked that a new review of the environmental consequences be conducted by experts in ecology, wildlife biology, hydrology, geology and botany.
“The proposal, as currently planned, will have major negative consequences on the wild plants and wild animals that call Martin Park Nature Center their home,” he said.
Cathy Christenson, who lives near the park, said Wilderness Matters provided “an appalling lack of transparency” by not communicating with area residents.
“They want inclusivity [for the disabled], but they are not including others,” she said.
After the often-contentious meeting was over, McMahan and Janna Gau, a spokeswoman for Friends of Martin Park Nature Center, extended olive branches in hope of reaching a consensus to satisfy everyone.
Acknowledging that Wilderness Matters already has a built-in “community of stakeholders” among disabled people, McMahan said he wants to include the Friends in future plans and meetings.
Gau made a similar gesture. “We’re happy the city will move forward and everyone will have more accessibility to the trails, and that we can continue to work with the city and Wilderness Matters to the extent they will receive our input so we can minimize as much negative impact on the wildlife and the natural character of the park,” she said. “Hopefully, we can work together and the expertise of the Friends group will be utilized in the final proposal.”
Gau noted the Friends should be vigilant as the issue moves before the city council and through additional reviews.
Funding the proposal is not in the Oklahoma City parks budget, but that should not be a problem, McMahan said.
Already, Wilderness Matters has raised $300,000 toward the proposed development. Previous cost estimates have been $1.5 million, which McMahan described as a “ballpark” figure.