Year 2020 has naturally lent itself to a vision theme. Here at the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust, we envision a region committed to conserving land as essential to our vibrant communities and our future. It’s what we focus on each and every day.
We see clearly how NWA is growing, and how many acres of natural land (and the community benefits they provide) are being lost in the process. We see the dots that connect clean water, wildlife habitat, local food and farms, scenic and cultural heritage, and places to enjoy nature to the same urgent call – the need to SAVE LAND.
But what do we save? How do we save it? And who is responsible?
As a region, we lack a clear and cohesive conservation strategy. Highway plans often compete with open space preservation plans; “scenic byways” transect natural landscapes with no plan for protecting the “scenic;” development proposals often advance in direct conflict with greenspace goals; and smaller communities often lack the capacity and resources to adequately address town planning, preserving their rural and historic character. And in communities that have adopted some sort of green network or green infrastructure plan, their vision often lacks the teeth, incentive or process necessary to adequately implement.
Elected officials, under pressure in a rapidly growing region with competing priorities and strong influences, may believe conservation is a secondary priority at best, or will be handled by the private sector or the state. With the population of Benton and Washington counties alone growing by almost 34 new residents per day, the built environment (however short-sighted) frequently trumps nature.
We can also see clearly, however, that the return on investment for conservation makes smart business sense. Land conservation is a critical component of smart growth. The cost benefit of land conservation is well documented. (For a comprehensive list of studies, visit https://conservationtools.org/guides/94-economic-benefits-of-land-conservation.) The bottom line is, dollars spent saving natural land reduces water treatment and energy costs, protects against flood damage, increases property values, brings in tourism and outdoor recreation dollars, and promotes health and wellness (reducing medical expenses) – the ROI can be expressed in terms of many multiples.
So why aren’t the leaders of our region more serious and proactive about conservation? Why do so many of the values and efforts touted by our dynamic region tie directly to the land, yet take no measures to adequately preserve it? And how do we go about tackling this complex problem?
Sometimes it helps to take a What, Why, When and Who/How approach to complex problems….
WHAT: We need a strong and cohesive conservation vision, led through a regional lens, to create and ensure a future that we can all be proud of. We need elected leaders and influencers to take a tough stance on protecting our natural assets. We need decision-makers who plan for and invest in our natural areas just as they plan for and invest in our built environment. We need to understand where to build, and what to set aside. We need to ask ourselves, from an individual property level, to municipal, county and regional level – “how will this project/plan/proposal impact ,,, ?” – and adjust accordingly.
WHY: At the land trust, our essential “why” is boiled down to our belief that land is essential to all life (and quality of life). Yet in the absence of awareness, serious planning and strong leadership, urban development will continue to occur haphazardly and unabated, water quality will be degraded, wildlife habitat fragmented (or eliminated altogether), species will continue to decline, prime farmland soil will be covered in subdivisions, and the impacts of climate change will be exacerbated. The “why” is both existential and practical.
WHEN: The short answer is NOW. Yesterday. Much of the natural landscapes that once existed in our region are heavily fragmented by increased development. Acres of farmland disappears every day; miles of river and stream are imperiled, including those that contribute to our drinking water supply, Beaver Lake; habitat and natural corridors through which wildlife need to move are being cut off by highways, roads and development; and climate changes are upon us. As Northwest Arkansas continues to be one of the fastest growing areas in the US, it’s not a matter of if we will continue to develop, but how. It’s urgent, but it’s not too late to start growing smarter.
WHO (and HOW)? Many people are overwhelmed by the challenges we face and they don’t know where to start. Here’s a quick breakdown that draws on existing resources and advances the work already being done by regional and statewide conservation partners.
--> ELECTED OFFICIALS/MUNICIPALITIES/PLANNERS - Read, know, get involved in, and help implement the NWA Open Space Plan. Direct existing funding toward, and help secure additional resources for, conservation. Give teeth and strong incentives to greenspace goals, ordinances, zoning and other tools for preservation. Speak up for the natural amenities in your community and take bold action to preserve them before it is too late.
--> NGO’s & REGIONAL PARTNERS - Many, like the land trust and our key partners, are already working hard to secure conservation easements, land preserves, and to restore and protect wildlife habitat and waterways. We must continue to strategically prioritize the use of limited resources to protect the most critical areas before it’s too late. And we must work together to educate, empower and provide expertise to the region at large, coordinating our efforts for maximum impact.
--> BUSINESS/INDUSTRY - Industry leaders must hold themselves accountable for their environmental impacts, but we must also provide them with ways to support and advance a conservation vision. With multiple Fortune 500 companies calling Northwest Arkansas home, those companies have the capacity to, and should, support, in big, bold fashion, the conservation efforts already underway by struggling organizations and agencies doing all they can to preserve our way of life.
--> LANDOWNERS - Private landowners are critical. Most of the natural areas prioritized for conservation are privately owned - and vulnerable to sale and conversion. Landowners can take action for the future by placing conservation easements on their land, donating land to conservation organizations, or implementing other best practices to preserve water, wildlife and more.
--> INDIVIDUALS/VOTERS - Support your local land trust and conservation partners; vote for leaders who prioritize the environment and smart growth; support public funding measures for open space preservation.
We can’t save every place, and with limited resources and climbing land prices, we must prioritize our efforts to get the most conservation bang for the buck. Priorities are established and tough decisions have to be made. We may lose a parcel here to gain a higher priority track there, but with strategy, focus, partnerships, leadership and FUNDING, we can take great strides to secure the future of our region through conservation.
At the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust, we are focused on doing our part to promote this vision and make it a reality. We hope you’ll join us for another year of #savingland in 2020!
-- Terri Lane, Executive Director, Northwest Arkansas Land Trust