FAYETTEVILLE -- Nature enthusiasts and indoorsy types alike will have access to a natural area that ecologists and archaeologists say has long-hidden stories to tell of biodiversity and history.
The Watershed Conservation Resource Center plans to restore and preserve 98 acres south of Huntsville Road along the West Fork of the White River, at the southeast edge of town. The center is a nonprofit in the city that focuses on watershed restoration and education.
The property once belonged to late developer Gary Combs, who planned to build an upscale retirement community. The development never came to fruition, and a bank eventually took ownership. A 25-acre topsoil excavation area on the property became a pond that is now a habitat for fish, beavers and plant life.
The city agreed to partner with the resource center to buy the land in 2019. The city put in $150,000, and the resource center contributed $100,000 toward the $250,000 asking price.
Staff with the resource center intend to bring back the wetlands, floodplain and other natural features lost over time and place the property under a conservation easement, protecting it from development regardless of ownership.
The restored land will help filter sediment and nutrients from floodwater along the river, which flows through the property and into the region's drinking water source at Beaver Lake, said Sandi Formica, the resource center's executive director.
Plans also involve making the land accessible to visitors, she said.
"It's going to be a nature park, but it's going to be even less developed than a nature park," Formica said. "It's going to have trails where you can go to enjoy the wetlands and the river and find a quiet spot to observe and be a part of nature."
The University of Arkansas Community Design Center received a $25,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant to design features at the site.
A building north of the pond, tentatively named the River Institute, will house the resource center's office, a classroom, volunteer training and greenhouse space, said Steve Luoni, design center director.
The center also will design artfully crafted boardwalks so people can navigate the wetlands; spots for art installations; recreation areas for hiking, canoeing, fishing and birding; and exhibits memorializing Native American riparian land use, according a university news release.
"We have history, art and information about watershed stewardship itself," Luoni said. "That's really what makes this a unique commons, bringing those different voices together in one place."
Native Americans living in the region domesticated and cultivated several wild plant species to use as food, fiber and medicine a few thousand years ago, said George Sabo III, director of the Arkansas Archaeological Survey at the University of Arkansas System. The office is developing content for the exhibits along a soft trail system at the site.
The intention is to make the exhibits as inclusive as possible, Sabo said. His office is working with descendant community organizations and researching historic Euro- and African-American land use practices as well, he said.
The resource center conducted a controlled burn and removed some invasive plant species last year. A bumper crop of purple swamp milkweed emerged soon after, which attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. The center is monitoring native vegetation growth and will need volunteer help to plant thousands of indigenous plants, Formica said.
Eddie Wade and his son, Eddie Wade Jr., walked around the area near the pond Thursday afternoon. Wade said he and his son started visiting the site a few years ago after seeing the giant pond.
"I always wondered about the pond because I could see it from the road," Wade Sr. said.
The pair agreed to volunteer to take pictures of fish they catch in the pond to help inventory the species living there, although the pond is not yet open to the public for fishing. Wade Jr. caught a 2-plus-pound white crappie and put it back in the water. Formica sent a photo to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
Wade Jr. said he's seen the property flooded from the West Fork of the White River and looks forward to the educational and recreational opportunities a developed site could provide.
"It's going to be nice out here," he said. "I can already see it now."
The city's parks director, Connie Edmonston, said there haven't been any discussions so far with the resource center on what role the city might play in developing the site. However, she said she could see opportunities with the city planning a paddle park along the river on the west side of Dead Horse Mountain Road.
The timeline for the project will depend on what money comes in, and when, Formica said. A grant from the Walton Family Foundation is paying for the wetlands restoration effort. The rest, however, will have to come from donations or other grants or some combination of the two, she said.
The resource center will know how much the project could cost once designs are finished, Formica said.
"It took seven years to finally acquire this property. The main point was to be able to save it as a natural floodplain so it can still protect water quality," Formica said. "Then once we got it, it just turned out to be much better than we thought, and this other vision came about."
The Watershed Conservation Resource Center has three goals it wants to achieve in restoring 98 acres on the southeast edge of Fayetteville.
• Restore and protect:
Conduct ecological restoration of the wetlands, floodplain, river channel, and riparian habitat.
Place the property in a permanent conservation easement.
• Create a permanent facility for the WCRC that supports:
Ecological restoration projects in the Ozark region.
A venue for outreach related to rivers, floodplains, wetlands and native flora and fauna.
• Create public access that integrates the site ecology with culture, history and science.
Source: Watershed Conservation Resource Center