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story.lead_photo.caption FILE PHOTO About 544,790 acres of forestland were counted in the Benton and Washington counties last year.

The estimated 750,000 people living in Northwest Arkansas by 2040 will need more roads and buildings, and that development will affect the area's forests and water quality, planning and environmental experts say.

"It's simply a matter of choices," said Michele Halsell, managing director of the Applied Sustainability Center at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. "We're at a decision point here in this region and in Northwest Arkansas about the kind of place we want to be in the future."

Fast Fact

Ecosystem Restoration

Congress established the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program in 2009 to encourage the collaborative, science-based ecosystem restoration of priority forest landscapes. The Wedington Unit of the Ozark-St. Francis National Forests is part of the Ozark Highlands restoration program to promote forest health.

Source: U.S. Forest Service

Expansion and development, such as the widening of U.S. 412, is already planned, Halsell said. Development is likely to fill the land where Interstate 49 and U.S. 412 intersect with more building spilling over a few miles on the other side of the highway, she said.

Without a regional plan on development and conservation, urban sprawl will take over in Northwest Arkansas, she said.

"There is nothing about urban sprawl that is healthy," Halsell said. "It's just a waste."

Planning commission maps illustrate the effect of massive growth on Benton and Washington counties in the past few decades. Highlighted in red, the four major cities, plus Siloam Springs, eat away at surrounding green spaces. The pace of development quickened between 2001 and 2011, records show.

The two counties need to "balance between protecting our best open, natural spaces while still being able to grow our region's population and economy," said Rob Smith, spokesman for the Northwest Arkansas Council. The council estimates about 24 people are moving daily to Northwest Arkansas.

The increase in population and development has spurred leaders to want a plan to preserve areas, including forests, said John McLarty, Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission assistant director. The commission is putting together an "open spaces" plan to address the issue of conservation and development via a $350,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation, said Elizabeth Bowen, project manager.

Environmental advocates aren't the only residents who want conservation. Developers want to build with the least impact too, said Matthew Pelkki, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Monticello's School of Forest Resources. Pelkki specializes in natural resource economics and management, according to the university's website.

More than 20 government officials, building and planning experts and environmental advocates attended the first open spaces meeting earlier this month. The group hopes to create a coordinated, voluntary program to protect and promote the region's natural landscapes, Bowen said.

Healthy Forests

Northwest Arkansas' forests are healthy, but problems are coming, said Fred Stephen, a professor in the entomology department at the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food & Life Sciences at the University of Arkansas.

"The bad news is we will experience invasive insects in Arkansas and Northwest Arkansas, just like other states are," Stephen said.

Forests in the region are unique because they are some of the most diverse in the state, Pelkki said. Overgrowth, disease, insects and development could hurt them, experts said. If the forests decline, so too will the water quality because the health of the forests are intricately linked to cleaner water, Pelkki said.

"What is critical is that -- it's not that development can't happen -- it's that we are leaving enough forest and diverse areas that the ecosystems are going to be maintained," he said. "You have cleaner water when you have a healthy, growing forest."

Diseases and insects from Asia and Europe will target trees including sassafras, black walnuts, red buds and ash. The Emerald Ash Borer, which is deadly to ash trees, is already in south-central Arkansas, Stephen said.

The ash makes up about 1 percent of trees in the Beaver Lake area, but the tree is still significant, said Keith Cook, district forester for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps manages Beaver Lake. Arkansas has five types of ash trees: Carolina, Green, Blue, White and Pumpkin Ash, according to the Arkansas Forestry Commission website.

At Devil's Den and Beaver Lake, foresters ask campers and visitors not to bring in their own firewood. Insects can be inside the wood, and if it is not burned, they will come out and attack local trees, said Monte Fuller, park superintendent.

At least one area is vulnerable, Tracy Farley, spokeswoman at the U.S. Forest Service, wrote in email. The agency has roughly 13,000 acres of public land in the Wedington Unit of the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest, and about 10,000 acres are dominated by trees more than 90 years old, she said.

"The result is that this forest is vulnerable to oak decline, disease and damage," Farley said. "We are beginning to see oak decline."

Pelkki said forests must be maintained or they will deteriorate. Plans are under way to restore the health of the Wedington Unit, which is a designated an urban forest, Farley said. That includes restoring grazing lands to native grasses and cutting trees so sunlight reaches the forest floor, she said. Burns are also planned for next year, she said.

"Our goal is to accomplish vegetation management that will reduce an over-abundance of trees, allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor and develop a more resilient forest," Farley said.

Human Impacts

Increased development in the two-county area could affect the health of the forests, too, Stephen said. People can reduce the number of trees by so much that the original ecosystem disappears and won't reproduce by itself, he said.

"Some development is essential, but you certainly can get too much development," Stephen said. "Reducing the amount of forests and increasing the very urban development, it changes things."

Last year, about 544,790 acres of forestland were counted in the two-county area, according to a document from the state Forestry Commission.

While Washington County lost about 344 acres of forests from 2012 and 2013, Benton County added 2,000-plus acres, driving the total amount of wooded land up, records show. More than half of Washington County is forested and nearly 40 percent remains forested in Benton County.

Governments more and more want to protect environmental assets, including forests, or add to them, Halsell said.

Cities want to have forested areas inside their limits, said Rogers Mayor Greg Hines. The city is expanding Lake Atalanta park and bought property on Mount Hebron Road in southwest Rogers, he said. A large section of the Hebron property is meant to stay natural, he said.

Smaller cities like Gentry are restoring, building or managing forested or wooded areas to attract visitors and increase quality of life for residents, said Kevin D. Johnston, Gentry mayor. Gentry had its first public event on the restored, 10-acre Flint Creek Nature Area in July, he said. The property, once abandoned, used to be the source of Gentry's drinking water, he said.

"We decided we had a gem there and decided to clean it up," Johnston said. "It's become a place for relaxation for area people."

Residents are the ones who must decide how important forests are for aesthetics, clean air and water, environmental experts, planners and professors said.

"It becomes a question of quality of life," Stephen said. "Do you want to live in an area that's completely urban? Or do you want a completely rural feel? It's nice to live in an area that gives you some of both."

NW News on 01/01/2015

Print Headline: Region Plans To Maintain Forests

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