“This park is for sale” protest continues Sunday at Lone Elk Park
By Jo Schaper
With a chill breeze rustling the early November leaves, a small but dedicated changing cast of 6 to 8 people stood peacefully by the side of the road in the late morning, Saturday, November 5th, outside the entrance to Lone Elk Park. Some held signs. Others took turns approaching each car that rolled down its window as it came by, asking: “Did you know this park is for sale? Call your councilman about it!”
Conversations were short. Park visitors were given a sheet of paper with the news on one side, and a list of county official contacts on the other. In the time between 10:30 and 12:30, about 175 cars passed by, with between 75 and 80 percent rolling down the window, accepting a flyer and expressing agreement with some aspect of the protest.
(You Tube video by Jo Schaper)
By the time a local TV film crew arrived about noon, the group was out of flyers, and a restocking run was needed.
Lone Elk Park, just west of Valley Park on I-44, is the best known of the St. Louis County parks which is not restricted from sale or removal from use as parkland by deed or covenant. Twenty three parks are slated for possible closure or sale on January 1, 2012 under the proposed St. Louis County 2012 budget.
About three-quarters of the protesters were in their 50s and 60s. “We missed the hippie days of protests,” said Linda Clay, one of them, wearing her handmade signboard. “But this is our turn. We won’t let them take the parks away from us.”
Clay explained why she came out. “I think they should cut the special interest spending,” she said. “The rich people in the county have too many perks. If we don’t go along with them, they say they’re going to cut police, fire and parks. They’re doing it to keep money for the stuff they want, and not for things that benefit everyone.”
The informational protest is the brainchild of Marty Koch, who served as a St. Louis County Park ranger for 30 years before retiring seven years ago. He gathered his fellow leafletters with an overnight call for participation on Facebook.
Early on, traffic was light. By noon, traffic bunched up in fives and tens. Most people coming to the drive-through animal refuge were families, or men, but all ages, from the barely old enough to drive, to the elderly filed through.
It’s impossible to get proper attribution when an overheard conversation lasts thirty seconds at most. Of those who stopped, only one or two refused the offered flyer.
“I’ve been coming to this park for 43 years,” said one woman. “We’ve got to keep this open.”
“I already signed a petition online,” another said. “What else can I do?”
“Call the people on that list and let them know that,” Koch answered.
A few who did not know expressed disbelief. “I love this place. I don’t believe this. You’re right. Save the park,” said another.
As a former ranger, Koch knows the park rules better than anyone. “I was a little worried early on, when the two ranger cars parked on the opposite side of the road, and no one got out,” he admitted. “But a little later another ranger came by, and told me that as long as we stayed within certain bounds, we wouldn’t be bothered. But I just can’t let this happen. I can’t just sit by and watch and do nothing.”
Another car pulled up. Dan Provence approached, and said “If the budget is approved, this park will be sold. We’ve got six weeks to stop it.”
“That’s a shame,” said the fellow in the SUV. “Thanks for telling me.”
The next car kept its window rolled up, sped up past the leafletters, and hit the park cattle guard noisily. “Slow down, you’re breaking the speed limit,” yelled Koch. A few minutes later, a driver asked if anyone knew about the park’s trails. Koch slid back into his old ranger mode, and gave the basics about the White Bison Trail, a 3 mile hike that circles the park.
Six people on horses rode up from the adjacent Castlewood State Park Road. “I can’t imagine closing this park,” she said. “Why do they want to do that?”
Active St. Louis County park rangers, whose jobs are on the line and cannot comment while on duty, exchanged a few words each time they drove by.
The basic reason for park closures, as presented by County Executive Charlie Dooley in his proposed 2012 budget, is to save money. County Council Chairman Steve Stenger is skeptical of the need for such drastic measures. Alternative funding, such as entrance fees, or dedicated donation boxes have been proposed by park supporters.
Koch’s phone rang. “Channel Five is on I-44, headed this way,” he said. He rallied his troops. “Remember, this is about the parks, not about the politics. If they want to talk to you, be polite, and don’t say bad things about individual people.”
In a larger sense, though, it is about the politics.
“While politicians may not care about the parks or the citizens, they certainly care about re-election. If they go through with this plan, I guarantee you that not one of them will win re-election,” he said.
Nancy Renner, one of the women holding a “Save Lone Elk Park” sign, explained it this way: “I’m having a real hard time about this,” she said. “That’s why I’m here. Every time I think about it, I burst into tears. This place is my heart. I’ve been coming here ever since I was a kid. Where else can you go this close to downtown St. Louis and see elk and bison? I’m heartsick over this.”
Koch, and whomever he can rustle up, will be back at the park on Sunday, Nov. 6, starting at 11 a.m. Anyone who wishes and will abide by the peaceful, sober and respectful atmosphere is welcome to join them.
(Author note: Jo spent the rest of the day unsuccessfully going up to random park visitors in this and three other county parks trying to find anyone who thought the proposed shutdown is a necessary and and reasonable idea. If you know of anyone holding opposing views, please have them call 800-874-8723 x 2 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org for possible interview.)