Plan boosts con­ser­va­tion ef­forts

Map of valu­able open spa­ces aids pro­tec­tion amid de­vel­op­ment

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - DAN HOLTMEYER

The plan to save the re­gion’s most es­sen­tial open and nat­u­ral ar­eas has helped bring hun­dreds of acres un­der pub­lic and non­profit pro­tec­tion in the past two years, and it won’t stop there, sev­eral ex­perts and ad­vo­cates said.

Ben­ton and Wash­ing­ton coun­ties’ lead­ers in early 2016 en­dorsed the Open Space Plan, a de­tailed map of the parks, woods, streams and pas­tures that hold the most value to the re­gion’s peo­ple and wildlife. Since then, cities and other groups have bought or been given at least 1,000 acres to pro­tect them from heavy de­vel­op­ment, said El­iz­a­beth Bowen, project man­ager with the North­west Arkansas Re­gional Plan­ning Com­mis­sion, which or­ga­nized the plan.

The ar­eas are small com­pared to coun­ties that stretch over hun­dreds of thou­sands of acres, and the Open Space Plan doesn’t get all of the credit, Bowen and oth­ers said. But it has be­come a use­ful tool in a mis­sion that’s be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ur­gent amid the metropoli­tan area’s rapid growth.

“Shap­ing the fu­ture of our re­gion, it’s kind of now or never,” Terri Lane, di­rec­tor of the North­west Arkansas Land Trust, said at the group’s work­shop ear­lier this month em­pha­siz­ing how de­vel­op­ment and preser­va­tion can go hand in hand. The trust re­stores and pre­serves wet­lands and other ar­eas with the landown­ers’ bless­ing.

The tracts range in size from about an acre to more than 400 acres ad­ja­cent to the Devil’s Eye­brow Nat­u­ral Area, roughly 3,000 acres of rugged for­est and rare plant species in north­east Ben­ton County. Those acres are in the process of be­ing pur­chased, said Dar­rell Bow­man, who di­rects the Arkansas Nat­u­ral Her­itage Com­mis­sion.

All of the new prop­er­ties are given or sold by their pre­vi­ous own­ers — the Open Space Plan and preser­va­tion by groups like the land trust are en­tirely vol­un­tary.

The newly pro­tected land will help bridge Devil’s Eye­brow’s two sec­tions, al­low­ing wildlife to travel more freely back and forth, said Bow­man said. He said the ad­di­tions likely wouldn’t have hap­pened, at least not now, with­out the Open Space Plan.

“That def­i­nitely helped us bridge the gap to part­ners we might not have been talk­ing to oth­er­wise,” Bow­man said last week. “We’ve been able to bring in more part­ners to con­serve that area.”

The com­mis­sion co-owns most of Devil’s Eye­brow with the Arkansas Game and Fish Com­mis­sion. The area’s cur­rent out­line and its ex­pan­sion are an achieve­ment of a mo­saic of co­op­er­at­ing groups, as is typ­i­cal for lo­cal pro­tected lands, Bow­man said.

The Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion, an­other non­profit group called The Na­ture Con­ser­vancy, the fed­eral and state park ser­vices and other groups all helped cover the hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars needed for the ex­pan­sion, Bryan Ru­par, the com­mis­sion’s land ac­qui­si­tion and stew­ard­ship chief, wrote in an email.

“We knew it was unique — we knew it was the kind of area we need to set aside in con­ser­va­tion,” Bow­man said of Devil’s Eye­brow in gen­eral.

Other high pri­or­i­ties in the Open Space Plan in­clude es­tab­lished ar­eas like Devil’s Den State Park in south Wash­ing­ton County and Hobbs State Park-Con­ser­va­tion Area near Beaver Lake, which to­gether in­clude roughly 15,000 acres. Nearly ev­ery stream and creek in the area and much of Fayet­teville are also highly val­ued.

THE VALUE IN OPEN SPACE

Forests, wet­lands and other green ar­eas pro­vide a count­less ar­ray of ser­vices, Bow­man and other ad­vo­cates say. They clean rain­wa­ter and slow its floods. They sup­port fish, birds, game and other wildlife, in­clud­ing species not found in other states or even other parts of Arkansas. They ab­sorb car­bon diox­ide. They give hu­mans places to hike, play and re­lax.

And while many such ar­eas are rel­a­tively un­touched, open spa­ces are still valu­able when they’re in­te­grated into peo­ple’s built en­vi­ron­ment as parks or trails or fields, said Seth Mims, pres­i­dent of Spe­cial­ized Real Es­tate Group in Fayet­teville.

“We have come to be­lieve that in­cor­po­rat­ing na­ture is one of the most im­por­tant things we can do,” Mims told the land trust work­shop ear­lier this month.

He said home­buy­ers want those open spa­ces, giv­ing the homes nearby more value — a pat­tern sup­ported by re­search from the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency and oth­ers. Stud­ies go­ing back decades have found trees and other green­ery, even through an apart­ment or hos­pi­tal room’s win­dow, can im­prove sev­eral mea­sures of health.

Spe­cial­ized al­ways builds its homes near a trail, Mims said, and many prop­er­ties are near a com­mu­nity gar­den.

“Peo­ple love it,” he said, urg­ing other de­vel­op­ers to let more of na­ture into their projects.

Gen­try, a city of about 4,000, bought about 12 acres near the town’s cen­ter for $80,000 in April to ex­pand a city park sys­tem that needs more room, Mayor Kevin John­ston said. An­other 14 or so ad­ja­cent acres could soon fol­low. The whole piece

could be home to sports fields, moun­tain bike trails or other ameni­ties, though the mas­ter plan hasn’t been de­cided.

“I think it’s ex­tremely im­por­tant, and I hear that echo through­out the re­gion,” John­ston said of hold­ing on to open spa­ces, adding the land is mostly sur­rounded by sub­di­vi­sions. “We wel­come some of that growth, but we also don’t want it to con­sume ev­ery­thing that we have.”

Groups like the Illi­nois River Wa­ter­shed Part­ner­ship and Beaver Wa­ter­shed Al­liance work with thou­sands of in­di­vid­ual landown­ers to pro­tect the wa­ter qual­ity of Beaver Lake — the re­gion’s drink­ing wa­ter — and all of the area’s rivers. They can help a farmer build buf­fer ar­eas of grass and trees near streams on the edge of a pas­ture, for ex­am­ple, to help catch sed­i­ment and fer­til­izer.

“The re­search shows that if you have 2 inches of grass, it will slow down rain 70 per­cent,” said Ron Mor­row, a cat­tle farmer west of Fayet­teville who’s re­tired from the Arkansas Nat­u­ral Re­sources Con­ser­va­tion Ser­vice, a di­vi­sion of the fed­eral Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture.

Mor­row prac­tices and preaches ro­ta­tional graz­ing, mov­ing a herd from one pas­ture to an­other in­stead of let­ting them munch the grass to dirt. The rivers ben­e­fit and so do the farm­ers, who gain health­ier, more nu­tri­tious food for their an­i­mals, he said.

THE MONEY PROB­LEM

The Open Space Plan states it’s not meant to pro­tect all of the area’s high­est-pri­or­ity lands nor to ne­glect lower pri­or­i­ties. Pro­tect­ing such a large amount of land would re­quire hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars, far be­yond the ca­pac­ity of ev­ery lo­cal con­ser­va­tion group, Nicole Hardi­man, the Illi­nois River part­ner­ship di­rec­tor, told the land trust work­shop.

The plan in­cludes steps to­ward a pos­si­ble sales tax of a frac­tion of a cent for the re­gion to con­tin­u­ally pay for the plan’s ef­forts with min­i­mal pain on the pop­u­la­tion. Bowen with the re­gional plan­ning com­mis­sion said the group has the nec­es­sary grant money to be­gin a fea­si­bil­ity study into that op­tion and needs one of the two coun­ties to re­quest the study for it to move for­ward. She plans to speak to the county gov­ern­ments in the next month or two.

“I haven’t had any­one say this isn’t a good idea, so I think we’re off to a good start,” Bowen said, re­fer­ring to the over­ar­ch­ing Open Space Plan and the newly pro­tected land so far.

Mean­while, land pro­tec­tions will con­tinue one landowner and one project at a time with piece­meal pub­lic and pri­vate sup­port. The Wal­ton foun­da­tion, for ex­am­ple, gave more than $3 mil­lion to­ward Fayet­teville’s Kessler Moun­tain pre­serve and park and the trail con­nect­ing it to the rest of the city.

The park opened last year and is “a huge win for the re­gion,” said Jeremy Pate, a for­mer de­vel­op­ment di­rec­tor for the city who rep­re­sented the foun­da­tion at the land trust work­shop.

“We also see our­selves as a con­vener” of po­ten­tial part­ners, he said.

Non­prof­its like the Illi­nois River part­ner­ship will also keep host­ing field trips and classes to keep build­ing a wide­spread and durable “con­ser­va­tion ethic,” Hardi­man said.

“It’s so ex­cit­ing to see it ac­tu­ally com­ing to fruition now,” she said of the plan.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/DAN HOLTMEYER

Isaac Ogle (right) and his wife, Jen­nifer, ex­plore a bluff shel­ter along a spring-fed creek Sun­day in the Devil’s Eye­brow Nat­u­ral Area in north­east Ben­ton County. Jen­nifer Ogle is a land man­age­ment spe­cial­ist with the Arkansas Nat­u­ral Her­itage Com­mis­sion, one of sev­eral groups that man­age the area and are ex­pand­ing it un­der the re­gional Open Space Plan.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/DAN HOLTMEYER

A soli­tary leaf pokes out of rock along a creek Sun­day in the Devil’s Eye­brow Nat­u­ral Area in north­east Ben­ton County. The area is home to hun­dreds of plant species, in­clud­ing many that are rare in Arkansas.

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NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/DAN HOLTMEYER

Jen­nifer Ogle, a land man­age­ment spe­cial­ist with the Arkansas Nat­u­ral Her­itage Com­mis­sion, hikes along a spring-fed creek Sun­day in the Devil’s Eye­brow Nat­u­ral Area in north­east Ben­ton County.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/DAN HOLTMEYER

A clus­ter of rose-gen­tian flow­ers bloom Sun­day along the trail in the Devil’s Eye­brow Nat­u­ral Area in north­east Ben­ton County. The Arkansas Nat­u­ral Her­itage Com­mis­sion and other groups man­age about 12 miles of rugged trails in the area.

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