Conserving and Connecting Natural Landscapes in Northwest Arkansas for Water Quality, Wildlife and People
LandWise, Northwest Arkansas Land Trust’s signature program, is centered around the concept of connectivity. The connection of people to nature, the connection of regional partners working together to achieve shared conservation outcomes, and most importantly, the conservation of connected landscapes in our growing region. The program provides a framework for strategic regional conservation efforts and increases the pace and impact of land conservation in Benton and Washington counties, the two most rapidly urbanizing counties in our service region.
The LandWise Approach
Northwest Arkansas is under intense development pressure, particularly in Benton and Washington counties. In the face of such rapid land use changes, we must act now to protect clean water, wildlife habitat, local farms, and abundant scenery – before it is too late.
The Northwest Arkansas Land Trust works across political boundaries to protect the larger ecosystems and natural processes upon which we all depend. Streams and rivers are the lifeblood of our communities. Beaver Lake is the drinking water supply for over 400,000 residents. Wildlife depend on connected habitat corridors to survive. Unspoiled scenic views fuel regional tourism and increase property values. Family farms provide the local foods that sustain us. Conserved greenspace provides the opportunity for families to enjoy the outdoors, improving our health and wellbeing. These values are all important to our quality of life and are dependent on the success of a connected landscape vision.
Through LandWise, the land trust works with regional partners in water quality, open space preservation and habitat stewardship, focusing our land conservation services for greater meaning and impact in the at-risk areas of our service region. As we plan for and invest in places to be developed, we must also work together to plan for and invest in places not to be developed. Each are important to our quality of life and essential to the continued vitality of our region. That is the LandWise approach.
The Case for Landscape Connectivity
Why is it important to conserve connected landscapes? In the absence of a coordinated, strategic effort, “haphazard conservation” will occur, resulting in “conservation islands” that do little or nothing over time to preserve the important natural values mentioned above. When landscapes are kept whole, however, wildlife can move to meet their seasonal needs, watersheds remain healthy, and scenic views remain unspoiled.
Partnerships for Open Space and Water Quality Preservation
Regional partnerships are essential for conservation success. Through our LandWise program, we strive to effectively leverage the expertise, input and support of key partners to achieve shared conservation results, creating win-win outcomes that balance growth and preservation.
Water quality partners Beaver Water District and Beaver Watershed Alliance support our efforts to conserve land as a key practice for protecting our region’s drinking water supply. The Illinois River Watershed Partnership collaborates with the land trust in outreach to farmers and other landowners to preserve farmland and protect habitat in this important river corridor. Watershed Conservation Resource Center restores eroding streambanks, reducing pollution and enhancing habitat, while partnering with the land trust to place those restored areas into permanent protection.
Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission administers the NWA Open Space Plan for Benton and Washington counties. The Plan prioritizes important areas for conservation in these two counties. The land trust partners with the Planning Commission and other Open Space leaders to implement the permanent protection of key parcels identified in the Plan.
Support from the Walton Family Foundation, Beaver Water District, and other partners enable the land trust to pursue these and other important conservation goals that benefit the entire region.
Our Changing Climate
Landscape connectivity is also critical in the face of climate change. Our region is expected to experience continued increases in temperature and extreme weather events in the coming decades. Planning for and preserving connected, diverse habitats throughout our region increases our climate resiliency. Climate resiliency refers to the ability of our communities and ecosystems to withstand the added stress caused by changing climate conditions, such as drought, flooding and increased temperature trends. Protecting priority landscapes will also provide sanctuary for wildlife and plant species that must adapt to these changing habitat conditions.
The Critical Role of Regional Decision-Makers
Decision-makers influence specific projects, patterns of growth and the types of development and protections that are in place as our region continues to expand. Coordinating with municipal and regional leaders across political boundaries helps ensure a more holistic approach is taken toward our built and natural environments, with greater understanding and care for the larger ecosystems that will be impacted along the way.
One of the key components of LandWise is to work with elected officials, business leaders, planners, developers, and other community leaders who may not be otherwise engaged in a shared, regional conservation vision. By hosting Mayor’s Coffee’s, workshops and other events, bringing decision-makers together with conservation partners, we can identify opportunities to work together and address the individual needs and conservation challenges of each community. The ultimate LandWise outcome is that we grow together as a region, sustaining our economic progress without sacrificing our natural heritage or unique cultural identity.
Landowners Save Land
Land conservation would not be possible without the willing participation of landowners. The vast majority of land in our priority landscapes is privately owned. Either by donating all or a portion of their land to the land trust, or by working with the land trust to place all or a portion of their land into a conservation easement, landowners can permanently protect the land they love while leaving a lasting legacy for future generations. Donations of land or conservation easements can also yield significant tax benefits.
Through LandWise, the land trust reaches out to landowners in priority landscapes to work with those who are interested in voluntary land protection. Donated land is held as preserves by the land trust, and conservation easements are monitored in perpetuity to protect the unique characteristic of the land. In some cases, through regional funding partnerships and grants, certain at-risk properties may be acquired through purchase where land or conservation easement donations are not an option.
Our Priority Landscapes
In working with key partners, the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust has identified priority landscapes in which to focus our conservation efforts. These areas are not the only landscapes important for protection, nor are they the only areas in which the land trust works. They are, however, specific areas that were selected through a strategic conservation planning process based on several key factors, including:
- Prioritized by local watershed protection partners; and/or
- Prioritized in the Northwest Arkansas Open Space Plan; and/or
- Identified by our staff, board or other experts as being critical for wildlife; and/or
- Located in areas vulnerable to development; and/or
- Identified as having landscape features that foster climate resiliency