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First printed in
The Morning News
of Northwest Arkansas
Aubrey's Notebook:
Greathouse Park Deserves Careful Handling

They held their meeting in the shade near the trunk of a huge tree whose destruction they voted to authorize.

They recognized that a shady spot was more comfortable than a sunny spot on a day when the official high temperature was 100 degrees. Yet they appeared not to understand that destroying numerous shade trees is wrong for anyone and unforgivable for a group of people charged with setting policy for the management of city parks.

Members of the Fayetteville Parks and Recreation Advisory Board were in Greathouse Park on Aug. 26 to see the situation before taking a final vote on a proposal to remove numerous trees of various sizes and channelize a stretch of one of the tributaries of Town Branch, itself a major tributary of the West Fork of the White River.

In response to criticism of the project, members of the board said that people in the neighborhood were in favor of the plan. And they were right, to some degree. Residents of the south Fayetteville neighborhood near Greathouse Park probably all would agree that a bridge to allow people to cross the small stream to get from a parking lot to the main area of the park is needed.

But, because a representative of Friends for Fayetteville and a representative of Neighborwoods were on hand to say that people didn't know details of the plan before the previous night's meeting of the board, it appeared that maybe area residents also might not know the details, which had appeared in local newspapers for the first time that very day. I had only a few minutes to check the facts, but I learned that a man who lives across the street from the park's parking lot and whose brother lives next to that parking lot in a home their grandfather lived in for decades, was in favor of a new bridge but did not know or favor the destruction of streamside timber and the dredging and widening of the creek. A lady who lives a block upstream said "The neighbors are all against it." My survey wasn't scientific or complete, but it suggested that the neighbors of the park, like me and a few others at the meeting, had not heard all the facts.

Even members of the board confessed they hadn't previously been there to learn the full details of the planned destruction of habitat for fish, birds, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons and people. But they had committed $120,000 to the project.

One board member asked "wouldn't you sacrifice these trees to save a child's life." An answer from a person in the crowd was "Yes, one tree." He was emphasizing the fact that no more than one tree would need to be removed to replace the walking bridge taken down a few years ago. But the fact is that kids are only pawns in this battle over whether to degrade the park to increase its accessibility. Kids want to play in the water. If broken glass is kept out of creeks, wading to catch crawdads and learn about life in a mountain stream is not dangerous, especially if the water is protected from pollution, siltation and littering.

A big reason the board has been under pressure to destroy the timber to build the bridge is that the maintenance crew won't be able to get its tractors to the site easily once the current owner of the adjacent former Levi's clothing factory finds a buyer unless the new owner realizes that allowing free access to the park and preventing the destruction of the most beautiful part of the park would be good for public relations. Has anyone in a position of power negotiated that point with the current owner? Wouldn't the buyer, likely someone whose business not only will provide some local jobs but also will be hoping to get a good reception in the local market, want to provide a public service? Park-board members argued that "closing the park" would be the only alternative to destroying the stretch of timber and natural shoreline vegetation to meet Federal Emergency Management Administration rules to allow placement of the bridge at the site.

If they are correct, it would appear that FEMA's flood-control regulations conflict directly with other federal rules that mandate protection of wetland habitat.

Providing a safe bridge for people to enter the park, meeting federal guidelines to avoid increasing the depth of flooding in the area and providing access for maintenance equipment are all fine goals. The question, however, is which one dominates the decision-making process? Kids love the creek and the shade trees. The tiny, 6-acre park has little else to offer; and adding more playground equipment won't reduce the need to go to the shade on a hot day.

Could the desire to get tractors across the creek to mow be the main factor driving the decision?

Fayetteville's parks are mowed so often that wildflowers disappear just when they are beginning to be outstanding in spring; and, during the annual summer drought, the mowers pass over the grass without cutting even the dried tops.

With little more than half the acreage needing mowing, why not use small mowers and go over only the areas with real need. Children don't need to see baby rabbits that have been killed by the tractors, something that happens in mowed fields and many large private yards about the middle of every July. Another question: What does "closing the park" mean? If it means ceasing to do the maintenance (mostly mowing), so what? The public could still enjoy the area; and many, particularly youngsters and nature lovers, would find it much more interesting if left wild for however long it takes the authorities to figure out a way to put the bridge in without destroying the vegetation. A solution can be found. Youngsters and senior citizens can get into the park safely, the timber can be protected and some kind of mowing equipment can be brought in when needed.

The key is getting influential people to see the problem and get involved before the timber is destroyed. No matter what kind of trees are planted, the channelized area will remain an ugly ditch for many years, and most of us won't live to see a significant shady area reappear on the northwest side of the park.

Twenty years ago or more I wrote that Fayetteville ought to buy every mountain top to protect their beauty for future parks. And I should have said the same about every floodway in the city. Future generations can figure out how much, if any, development those areas need. Our job is to protect the land for the future. Children and the wild things will thank us if we do.

Besides, if mowing is required, there are dozens of youngsters offering inexpensive mowing services in my south-Fayetteville neighborhood. They had a bidding war in June. Their price range was something like $5 a lawn, maybe $20 an acre, and they would push the mowers (some even tow them behind their bicycles) for miles to get the chance to work. Why tie up skilled maintenance crews mowing with those gas-guzzling, air-polluting tractors when more important work could be done?


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Aubrey James Shepherd
Fayetteville, AR © 2003, 2004, 2005

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