Broadening the Lens to Care for Natural Areas in Northwest Arkansas
Updated: Sep 8, 2020
“The name of our proper connection to the earth is ‘good work,’ for good work involves much giving of honor. Good work is always modestly scaled, for it cannot ignore either the nature of individual places or the differences between places, and it always involves a sort of religious humility, for not everything is known.” – Wendell Berry
What does “good work” look like when it comes to stewarding the unique natural landscapes of our region? How do we balance the needs of wildlife with the needs of man? How can we best serve whole communities through the land? What are the cumulative, long-term implications of the decisions we make today? …those are just some of the questions we should be asking ourselves as we “broaden the lens” to become better stewards of our Northwest Arkansas landscapes.
From a conservation perspective, land stewardship could be said to involve the responsible planning, management and use of our natural resources. In the spirit of Wendell Berry, from a preservation perspective, it can also mean how we honor the land, how we exercise restraint, and how we preserve a sense of place for those who come after us.
Here at the land trust, we believe in a holistic approach to land use and stewardship. It’s an approach that begins with understanding of the history of the land, the plants and animals that inhabit the land, the needs of the surrounding human community, and the greater ecosystem and watershed of which it is a part.
This type of stewardship requires us to first know and appreciate what is there. It requires broadening the lens through which we make decisions that will have a lasting impact on our landscapes and our communities. All too often, however, these decisions are made in a vacuum without consideration of the greater context or cumulative impacts.
Before actions are taken on the land - before use, management or stewardship of natural areas begins and before public access is installed - project leaders should have a firm understanding of the sites most critical and not always obvious ecological features and benefits.
Let’s take a closer look at the four tenets of a broader lens approach - history, species diversity, landscape context, and community.
1. History. The southern Ozark Highlands and Boston Mountain ecoregions (in which Northwest Arkansas is located) are rich with unique history and cultural heritage. Everything from Native American bluff shelters to Civil War battle sites to the unmarked graves of once enslaved peoples are tucked into our hills and scattered throughout our valleys.
Landowners often carry their own “stories of the land” as well - stories that can be lost if care is not taken to learn and preserve them. Taking the time to ask and understand the history of a place is the first step in preserving a sense of place.
Does the proposed land use preserve and honor this history, or ignore and override it? How can honoring the history and heritage of this site make the “project” (park, trail, preserve, neighborhood greenspace) stronger?
2. Species diversity. Species diversity is the foundation on which all life depends. It is the bedrock of a healthy, functioning ecosystem. Our region is home to a wide array of plants and animals, some of them endemic (found nowhere else on earth), and many of them threatened. Habitat loss and fragmentation, human intrusion, and the proliferation of nonnative and invasive species are byproducts of urban development, and leading causes of species decline.
Taking a survey of the plants and animals that live, breed, nest, rest, migrate to or through an area is an essential part of the upfront due diligence that should be performed when making land use and stewardship decisions. Whether it’s a salamander that uses a wet seep for breeding, a bird that requires uninterrupted interior forest patches for nesting, or a rare plant that grows only in the unique talus soils of a bluff line, these species are all part of the web of life that must be kept intact if biodiversity is to persist into the future.
Does the proposed land use account for and protect the species that use the site? Is the site an important remnant of a unique or sensitive habitat, such as a prairie or wetland? How can we exercise restraint in balancing human use of the land to ensure our native species not only survive, but thrive into the future?
3. Landscape context. In broadening the lens, it is also important to remember that each property is part of a larger ecosystem, landscape, and watershed. Each is a piece of a larger puzzle that should be treated in the context of it’s greater whole if we are to preserve the integrity of our Ozark landscapes, both urban and rural.
Looking beyond parcel lines and political boundaries is essential, but all too often we narrow our thought processes within those artificial lines, making decisions that collectively add up to a degraded natural and cultural integrity over time. Landscape-scale thinking, on the other hand, creates stronger projects, stronger communities and is a critical component for smarter growth.
Is the site part of a larger, currently intact habitat area or green corridor? If so, will the proposed use or layout impede or fragment this system? What watershed does the site drain into? How can the wetland/stream/drainageway on the property be protected to preserve water quality? What about the scenic integrity of the site as viewed from distant vantage points?
4. Community. Lastly, a broader lens means that we consider the demographics and needs of the surrounding human community. Not all neighborhoods are the same. Recognizing these differences and taking the time to engage with and listen to local communities is essential for serving whole communities through our land use decisions.
Is the surrounding community best served by leaving the space natural or “unprescribed”? What type of recreation does the community actually want or need – have we asked? What forms of outdoor enjoyment are already offered in the immediate area, and what opportunities are missing? Can an eyesore be turned into an area that builds pride and community rather than impacting another nearby natural area? Will the project lead to neighborhood gentrification?
These four tenets should be part of the upfront due diligence for all land use decision-making thinking, planning and stewardship. Because, let’s face it, who wants to visit an area where communities and their offerings are homogeneous, where history is lost, where natural areas are devoid of life, or where the unique plants and animals used to live?
We have one chance in Northwest Arkansas to get this right. To do otherwise is to shortchange our region and our future.
What does good stewardship mean to you?
For a complete discussion of the broader-lens approach, with examples and practical pointers, watch for our Planning and Caring for Natural Areas white paper, coming soon.
Terri Lane is Executive Director & CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust, a regional nonprofit based in Fayetteville, Arkansas. She has worked in the environmental field for over 20 years, serving at the helm of the land trust for eight. She applies her experience and passion toward saving the landscapes that matter most in the Ozark Highlands and Boston Mountain ecoregions of Northwest Arkansas.