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"The purpose of this Conservation Easement is to ensure that the Brooks-Hummel Nature Reserve will remain forever predominantly in its present condition as a nature park preserving the natural habitat as much as possible, with the City of Fayetteville retaining the right to construct, maintain and repair trails, picnic areas, benches and other park amenities which within the discretion of the City are compatible with a city nature park. The City further retains the right to construct small parking lots near access areas ..."

-- Dec. 12, 2008, agreement between the city of Fayetteville and the Fayetteville Natural Heritage Association.

What’s the point?

City leaders should not give up plans to develop a path through a city-owned nature preserve.

It was a little more than a decade ago that a passionate group of

Fayetteville residents lobbied city leaders to purchase a 14-acre piece of property in an otherwise residential area behind the Evelyn Hills Shopping Center as a nature preserve. Beyond that, they put their money where their mouths were: The Fayetteville Natural Heritage Association provided $179,500 toward the $495,000 purchase price, with the balance coming from Fayetteville taxpayers.

That the property remained natural is a testament to the Brooks and Hummel families that owned it. The association recognized putting the property on the open market would likely lead to urban development, destroying a natural space nearby property owners had enjoyed for years.

"This is a hidden treasure, right smack in the middle of the city," resident Hugh Kincaid said back in 2006 of what became the Brooks-Hummel Nature Reserve.

In the years since, it has pretty much remained just that, a treasure, but hidden from most of the public. The city has not made any additions that would make the property inviting and accessible to more than just the people who live nearby. But, since even before the city owned it, Fayetteville's master plan for trails has envisioned some kind of passage through the preserve and beyond. A trail there would help create a welcome connection for walking and bike-riding residents between Mission Boulevard/North Street to the east and beyond College Avenue. Especially desirable is that residents could use that east-west connection to reach the area around Woodland Junior High School.

Why there? The topography to the east of College Avenue is steep in most places. Alongside the nature preserve and beside Sublett Creek is a rare location where a trail could be developed without steep grades, creating a needed east-west connection anyone could use.

In the city's list of projects tied to the recent voter-approve $226 million bond issue, the Sublett Creek trail project comes in at $1.3 million. The city plans to tackle the approved trails projects in three phases, with the Sublett Creek trail currently in the final phase.

The preliminary plan has the trail starting at Poplar Street and College Avenue and going behind businesses on College and Evelyn Hills Shopping Center. Spurs would go through the Brooks-Hummel preserve, with a bikeway to run along Lakeridge Drive at Lake Lucille. The trail would then go east across Mission Boulevard, head north, and connect to Old Wire Road.

It would be an incredible connection for the trail system, but it would also create access to the city-owned natural area that has been missing for too long.

Last week, about 30 residents or preservation advocates, however, asked the City Council's Transportation Committee to remove the trail project entirely from the trails master plan, saying it could destroy the natural area.

In a letter to the city, some of the same people who lobbied for the city's land purchase more than a decade ago are back, asking the city to leave the Brooks-Hummel preserve untouched. They argue development of a trail, no matter what material is used, will have an adverse ecological impact on the property, resulting in "habitat fragmentation" for plants and animals.

To their great credit, members of the Transportation Committee declined to abandon this trail project's place in the master plan, although they did mark it as a "study area." That's governmentspeak for not saying yes and not saying no.

But a plain reading of the conservation easement shows city leaders at the time of the purchase recognized a need to develop access to the property so that its public purpose could be fully realized. The city should not give that up.

In 2006, the Northwest Arkansas Times supported the purchase through an editorial, but with an eye toward any future temptation to declare the nature preserve untouchable, even for the greater community's good:

"It must be said, however, that the only way the use of public money in this effort makes sense is if the land will become highly accessible and usable by the citizens of Fayetteville. ... Our city leaders need to evaluate this land and its future use based on its value and use by the citizens. Making it publicly owned means the land should be promoted as a public area and steps should be taken to make sure it's easily accessible for public use. ...

"In our view, this land cannot simply be purchased using public funds and then left as is. It must be made, in real terms, into an asset that invites the public's use. Otherwise, it would be preservation of land for just the neighbors, and if that's the goal, it should be left to the private market."

Back in those days, advocates for the Brooks-Hummel natural area were busy raising money to fund the Heritage Association's part in the purchase, saying they hoped people from throughout Fayetteville would contribute because it was a meaningful purchase for the entire city.

We agree it was a meaningful purchase, but today, a dozen years after it became public property, most city residents are unaware that they, as taxpayers, are the owners of a nature preserve. The fact that they're welcome to visit its wonders has gone unpromoted, and the work necessary to create real access for people beyond those who live nearby hasn't been accomplished.

We cannot fault property owners around the Brooks-Hummel property for wanting this land left undisturbed. Concerns about activities overrunning the property should be taken into account. This smaller natural area shouldn't become a mountain biking haven, for example, but the city should encourage hikers and a path that's part of the city's trails.

For the good of the city's residents overall, a trail -- perhaps a boardwalk less disruptive than a concrete trail -- serves a dual purpose of creating a valuable new trail east-west connection and better access so the property's owners can enjoy what the neighbors have appreciated for so long.

Commentary on 05/19/2019

Print Headline: Trail, baby, trail

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