By Ethan Inlander
This report describes development of a Conservation Priority Ranking Model (CPRM) and its application to areas in and around Fayetteville. The area is renowned for its natural beauty and tree-covered hillsides which most certainly have contributed to population growth that inevitably threatens natural areas. Fayetteville Natural Heritage Association (FNHA) began this project in 2005 with a grant from the Arkansas Forestry Commission’s Urban Forestry Program and the U.S. Forest Service. The project’s purpose was to identify the highest priority natural areas for conservation in and around Fayetteville before they disappeared. FNHA’s partners in this project are The Nature Conservancy’s Ozark Highlands Office and the Landscape Architecture Department at the University of Arkansas.
The idea for a study began when the FNHA Board commissioned a student intern at the U of A to look at conservation strategies. He interviewed local officials, planners, conservationists, scientists and developers, and he visited many nearby natural areas. His report strongly recommended development of a Conservation Priority Ranking as an essential tool to evaluate urgent conservation needs and to advance improvements in land use policy.
Public input was solicited, asking what criteria should be used to rank areas for conservation. This was done through a questionnaire that was made available at five public meetings and also on the City website. Over 120 were returned. Results indicated that natural areas with the potential for trails held the highest priority for the participants. Connecting trails linking large natural areas was the next highest priority. Participants also identified 30 specific areas as conservation candidates. (Ninety percent of these areas were also identified in the CPRM analysis.)
Project guidance was provided by a Science Advisory Committee (SAC) that consisted of FNHA members, U of A faculty, City of Fayetteville staff (a forester and individuals from the planning and parks departments), State Forestry staff, Beaver Water District staff, and TNC staff. Members of the SAC also analyzed 34 of the top sites identified by the CPRM analysis. The site visits identified vegetation types, soil characteristics, a diversity of natural features that allowed a glimpse of the unique qualities of the region, and recreational possibilities of walking and hiking on the site.
The study area goes beyond Fayetteville’s planning area and includes the Illinois and White River sub-watersheds and nearby communities. Washington County Assessors Office data allowed analysis of each parcel of property in the study area. About 5,500 parcels were identified that were larger than 5 acres and had less than 50% development. 557 parcels are in the city and 797 are in the planning area. The project methodology insured that top sites in the study area, the City planning area, the City and each ward were identified. A high proportion of the ranked parcels that were visited had locations with features worthy of consideration for conservation.
An interesting result of the GIS analysis was that most of the top ranked parcels were part of larger clusters of other highly ranked parcels. In one example, there are five ranked parcels are near Lake Wilson (the highest is #3). Stream valleys to the south that feed this lake have major bluffs and old logging roads that could be used as trail corridors. In another example, there are three ranked parcels on Puddin Hill (the highest is #5). The City of Fayetteville master trail plan has suggested a loop trail around the top of this hill and a trail up the southern slope (now a utility easement) that allows access to a truly impressive bluff. A third example is the Washington Mountain/Kessler Mountain cluster with five ranked parcels (highest are #’s 4 and 8). This cluster could be part of a trail corridor linking the Boys and Girls Club to the proposed new soccer fields. Additional clusters are within the watershed, but outside the Fayetteville city planning area.
The highest ranked parcel within the city (#7) is on Markham Hill and it is worth noting that the owner is working to conserve the property by pursuing limited development. A considerable number of the ranked parcels visited were either under development or for sale. One has the infrastructure completed (Happy Hollow area, #60), one has clearing in progress (Township Street east of College Avenue,#11), two were in various stages of planning (DePalma property, #66 and a parcel at the east end of Whillock Street, #72), and the parcel north of Lake Lucille (Rank #10) is up for sale. One of these has been conserved: the developer and the DePalma family have given 30 acres of the DePalma property contiguous to Mt. Sequoyah Woods to the City. Another is on the way to a conservation effort by neighbors with FNHA’s help: a parcel north of Lake Lucille.
Overall results of this study have been included in the development of the Fayetteville City Plan 2025, and the Beaver Water District has begun a GIS based survey on the Beaver Lake watershed using criteria specific to their charter based on the success of this study.
History has shown that communities often operate by crisis management, particularly in regard to land use. Recognizing this and observing the rapid pace of development in this area, FNHA has created a Conservation Priority Ranking Model that blends ecology, aesthetics, human use, and threat of development to rank widely diverse land parcels. This “short list” will provide focus to future conservation efforts, e.g., working with specific landowners to develop conservation opportunities, and working with city leaders to guide land use policy.December 08, 2010