Trish Hollenbeck, Northwest Arkansas Times
Huxley Richardson splashes his waterproof boots, picks up a long stick and poses as if to begin a duel.
Then he runs back, a picture of boundless 2-year-old energy, marveling at the sound the water makes against his boots.
Towering over him is the large willow, its huge trunk standing in small pools of water as it soaks up the moisture like a straw. All around, bright grassy clumps glisten in the sun — a natural playground.
And it is right in the middle of the city.
This small piece of Eden in south Fayetteville, surrounded by industry and residential areas, is something local conservationists hope to make into a legacy as well as a practical part of environmental economics.
It is the College Branch Urban Wetland Prairie, virtually untouched by farming or for any other use, and it covers 2.46 acres.
Melissa Terry, Northwest Arkansas conservation director for Audubon Arkansas, says the plan is to purchase this property from developer James Mathias, who had planned a 45-unit apartment building here, and use it as a native restoration demonstration site.
A remnant of Ozark wetland prairie, this corner of the original farm was never worked or tilled precisely because of its wetland traits.
The proposed parcel appraised for $278,000 in November 2004, and Mathias has agreed to sell it to the Town Branch Neighborhood Association and the City of Fayetteville for $125,000.
Mathias gave the groups until May 1 to come up with the money.
Terry said Mathias has been a breath of fresh air, working with the neighbors and organizers of the project. "He’s just been very straightforward," Terry said. "What he says it what he means."
Already raised is $50,000 from the city of Fayetteville, $21,000 from Arkansas Audubon and $6,000 from the National Audubon Society toward purchase of the parcel.
Another $50,000 could come from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant to Audubon Arkansas on behalf of the city of Fayetteville.
If that money does not come through, Terry says she is optimistic that it can be raised in time.
Other money raised will go toward restoring the area to what it was meant to be, without invasive plants, but with the hydric soils, clumps of grass and water-loving trees that typify wetlands. "Basically, the wetland acts as a sponge," Terry said.
The soils can hold water over a long period of time, she said, and that can be beneficial from a stormwater point of view. It is a sort of way for nature to be used as part of the urban infrastructure.
Among supporters of preserving this wetlands site is the University of Arkansas. "We have such an asset in the university," Terry said.
The university, as well as K-12 schools, will be able to use this area as an outdoor laboratory.
One of the letters of support for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is from Douglas James, professor of biological sciences at UA and an ornithologist, who wrote that wet prairie habitat "is extremely rare in northwestern Arkansas, in fact, practically non-existent."
Certain bird species seeking this habitat are rare in this area because of the lack of habitat. "We find that even very small patches of wetland will suffice for these birds," James wrote.
Particularly of interest, he added, are wintering populations of Sedge Wrens, Marsh Wrens, LeConte’s Sparrows and Swamp Sparrows. He also stated that the wet prairie habitat would attract the American Woodcock and Common (Wilson’s) Snipe in migration and winter. In addition, he wrote, Soras and Virginia Rails migrate to this area but cannot find suitable wetland places to land.
James said the wet prairie restoration will provide needed stopover habitat for these species.
After personally inspecting the property, James stated that it will require restoration intervention, primarily the removal of Japanese honey suckle and some invasive shrubs plus re-seeding with wetland prairie species.
As a way to educate the public, there are plans for a kiosk at the parking area and installation of public viewing areas with picnic tables. Audubon staff plan to monitor the site for bird population species and numbers with quarterly field visits to the site. Water quality will be monitored by the Town Branch Neighborhood Association. Native plants, grasses and ecosystem rehabilitation also will be monitored.
Audubon has established a 20-member technical advisory group of professors, students and university staff who have written letters of support and attended planning meetings with recommendations of restoration.
It is the goal of Audubon Arkansas, the Town Branch Neighborhood Association and the city to use this urban wetlands site as a living laboratory for emerging conservation professionals and practices, according to the grant proposal to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
There is also a sense of preserving a piece of land for future generations.
If the population growth continues as it has for the past 10 years, Terry said, "We’re going to appreciate these spots."