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The NWA Land Trust's mission to preserve 10,000 acres with #10k4NWA


Northwest Arkansas is a rapidly developing region. The area’s population is set to hit 1 million by 2045, and U.S. News and World Report, the same people behind those “Best Places to Live” lists, ranks Fayetteville as the 15th fastest-growing city in the United States.

Most other cities on the list are located in Florida, a state famous for its urban development in spite of considerable environmental obstacles. During the 1900s, Florida drained their wetlands to make way for cities and farmland, and now only 50% of the original Everglades remain. And biodiversity has suffered.

While development shows no signs of slowing in northwest Arkansas, there are those working to prevent urban expansion from wrecking the natural landscape that many people in this region hold dear. The Northwest Arkansas Land Trust is one such organization that has recently set a lofty goal of protecting 10,000 acres of land across the region.

“We want this place to remain as beautiful as it is today,” Spann said. “We want that same beauty, that same, just awesomeness of what is all around us to be available for generations to come.”

That’s Grady Spann. He’s the executive director of the Land Trust. He spent nearly three decades working with Arkansas State Parks before coming to the trust. He says his time working at parks made him realize how important their impact is on people’s lives.

“And so I just happened to run across an opportunity with Northwest Arkansas Land Trust,” he said, “and realized that the work that the land trust does: protecting our natural landscapes, protecting quality of water, Protecting Access to outdoor recreation, protecting small farm operations, protecting natural habitats really was impactful to me, because we did essentially a lot of those same things to state parks. And the unique part of this is this is, you know, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization. So it depends on, you know, building support from the grassroots level up to help promote and protect what we love so much about northwest Arkansas.”

Land trusts preserve and manage donated land. They also offer conservation easement services to landowners who want to protect their land permanently.

Easements are voluntary, legal agreements that permanently limit the uses of property to protect its conservation values.

“Conservation easements are really the keystone to how we do particularly, and we work with private landowners,” Spann said. “We’re not a government agency. We don’t use tax dollars or anything. But we work with landowners that are interested in protecting their land. In other words, their land legacy. Some landowners are just very passionate about the fact that their family has owned this land for generations, and they want to maintain it in the state that it is today. And so we work with landowners. And each conservation easement is a voluntary agreement with that landowner to protect that property from development. But each conservation easement is tailored to that landowners wishes. So some landowners may want to protect 100% of their property, which is fine. And the land, you know, has conservation value too. We assess all that. And then some landowners say, ‘Well, I want I want to protect these 80 acres, and then these five acres, I need to keep that for my children to build a house.’ And so every one of them is different. And so we work hand in hand with landowners to create that, you know, balance of conservation, and development, conservation and land legacy with that landowner. So that’s really the best way to protect land.”

The trust has been working to protect land since 2003. In celebration of their 20th anniversary last year, they announced a new initiative: 10k4NWA. The trust has dedicated itself to setting up protections on 10,000 acres of land in northwest Arkansas, along with other 10k-themed fundraising opportunities.

Spann says the name came about during a team meeting and stuck because of the potential gravity of such an achievement. Ten thousand acres is roughly the size of Manhattan Island, and protecting 10k4NWA would mark a major milestone for regional conservation.

They’re close to meeting that goal, too. In December, the trust finalized its 44th property easement around an area called Breeze Bluffs in southern Washington County. The 130-acre property’s protection brings the trust’s total to 7,495 protected acres, nearly three-quarters of the way to 10,000.

“But that’s not where we stop,” Spann said. “That’s just a goal for the next couple of years, we hope. And we want to continue to grow, the acreage we we need to protect at 10,000 acres will simply be a stepping stone to go to the 15,000 acres to go on. That’s just a goal for the next couple of years, we hope. And we want to continue to grow, the acreage we need to protect at 10,000 acres will simply be a stepping stone to go to the 15,000 acres to go on. But we also can use 10k4NWA as a fundraising opportunity where we, you know, we depend on grassroots support, can I get 10,000, you know, monthly subscribers at $25 each, you know, to support conservation work, can we do a 10k run through Lake Francis when that all gets open as a fundraising event for supporting conservation work in northwest Arkansas. So it was just a phrase, it’s catchy, it’s a good goal for us. It’s a big milestone to protect 10,000 acres. If you look at in my world, state parks, that would make our properties the second largest state park in Arkansas. So it but we’re also at 44 different properties too. So it’s spread out a lot of areas. But each of those properties is significant. And in the work that it or the conservation value, it has an impact it has on our daily lives.”

Spann said every acre they protect is important. However, properties are unique and offer diverse benefits.

Some feature streams that flow into the Illinois River Watershed or Beaver Lake Watershed, which provide the region with clean drinking water. Others include farmland that are now protected sources for locally grown foods. Breeze Bluff’s protection is significant as it’s situated within the Boston Mountain Wildlife Corridor priority area, which is critical for wildlife movement.

Spann said landowners are the backbone of the trust’s entire operation.

“They’re really our strongest partners, or our greatest support, because what they’re doing is given a value to their land, if you add up all the easements that we’ve had put in place, right now, it equals about $15 million,” Spann said. “So it’s huge, but that’s land value. And they’ve, they’ve allowed that to be put in a conservation easement, putting permanent protection, to keep this natural landscape around us that we all love so much. So, you know, our landowners are really the heroes here that really stepped up to the plate, say, ‘You know what, I believe in conservation, I believe in protecting this natural landscape. I believe in protection of water, I believe in in making sure that the stream is always clean, and I’m going to protect it forever.’ And those are the real heroes in this whole story.”

Spann said he thinks northwest Arkansas is unique in how dedicated the community is to preserving its surrounding landscape.

He said it usually strikes him as he travels north up Interstate 49.

“It never ceases to amaze me at the ‘Ah moment’ that when I come to that tunnel, and I start seeing all the landscape that’s protected there. ‘Wow, this is here forever.’ And that’s just wonderful," Spann said. "And I think communities really want to see a conservation network. Because, you know, I think down deep inside, people realize that there has to be a balance. And we are the organization that can create that balance to northwest Arkansas land trust by balancing, you know, protection of land protection of small farm operations, protection of natural landscapes, you know, water sources, all the things we just talked about, in conjunction with the development that’s going on here, which is a gift for northwest Arkansas.”

You can visit their website to learn more about the organization, 10k4NWA, how to get involved as a volunteer or to set up an easement on your own property.

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Jack Travis is a reporter for <i>Ozarks at Large</i>.<br/>
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