Eureka Springs Parks commissioner Steven Foster told the Independent that since Parks announced the Walton Family Foundation would be funding new mountain bike trails at Lake Leatherwood he has received phone messages and other communications which are “indicative of folks with an ‘us versus them’ attitude” making assumptions without all the facts.
Foster stated right away he was speaking as an individual, not as a commissioner, but pointed out, “We are the Parks and Recreation Commission.” When the ballfields were being planned at Lake Leatherwood he said there was considerable backlash, but the fields have been used regularly for sports events for kids, especially soccer tournaments, with no untoward consequences.
“I don’t have a bike. Not my sport,” Foster said, yet he noticed whole families go biking together as their activity of choice.
He maintained that mountain biking has a relatively low impact on the environment compared to motorized dirt bikes. He said those who ride ATVs and horses would love to ride through LLCP, but those activities have a high impact on the environment that mountain biking does not.
Also, Foster asked when has there been an environmental impact study done in Eureka Springs prior to a development? The city still allows asphalt and non-permeable surfaces, as well as old septic systems, all of which contribute to pollution of the springs and creeks.
Regarding rumors and the phone calls he gets, Foster stated every Parks meeting provides an opportunity for public comments and questions, but nobody shows up. “The notion the Walton Family Foundation is taking over all the public spaces in Northwest Arkansas is simply false,” he said. He maintained the opposite is true.
He said the WFF has partnered with the Nature Conservancy, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and others to protect large swaths of public land. That cooperative contingent has become a major environmental force in this area. For example, there are 5000 acres along ten miles of the Kings River that is now Nature Conservancy land, and much of the funding came from the WFF.
Four years ago, that contingent purchased a 1200-acre tract at the northern end of Beaver Lake called Devil’s Eyebrow Natural Area. The area is rugged and steep and contains many springs and caves. According to the conservancy website, the area “supports one of the highest concentrations of rare plant species in Arkansas with several typically found far to the north and others that are restricted in distribution and considered globally rare.” AG&F and ANHC co-own and co-manage the area, but Foster stated, “The Walton Family Foundation contributed significant funding to purchase it.”
Foster continued that LLCP, which is the second largest city park in Arkansas, is almost as large in area as the rest of Eureka Springs. The new downhill trails will be confined to relatively small corner of the park away from areas of major historical relevance and away from the quiet areas. The trails being flagged are near US 62. Parks had already allocated funds for a botanical survey of the park before the WFF approached them about the biking trails.
Foster, who has written 18 books about plants, said he understood most hikers do not pay close attention to plants or know as much about various species as someone with a trained eye. The focus on the botany at LLCP spiked after the discovery of Dirca decipiens, or Ozark Leatherwood, a new species named in 2009.
Botanists had been studying the glades at LLCP for years, and it was the trails that provided access to the biological resources of the park. Foster said he hiked the trails at LLCP with Theo Whitsell, botanist, ecologist and curator of the ANHC herbarium and Research Associate of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Fort Worth, as Whitsell inventoried what he saw in the park.
The ANHC funded a survey of species in 2015 and a dozen experts, such as grass and sedge specialists, toured the landscape and found patches of leatherwood, among other species. Harvard botanists were on the scene in September as they began a 10-year study of woody plants in the Ozarks, and they’ll be back. Foster’s point is that there are expert observers watching out for the assets at LLCP.
He also said that Aaron Rodgers, whose company will build the downhill trails, is a trained botanist. Foster showed Rodgers examples of leatherwood and Rodgers will alert Parks staff if he comes across anything noteworthy. Whitsell will be walking the new trails as they are flagged to make sure of what is there.
These plant experts, as well as herpetologists, are interested in glade restoration and biological management at LLCP. Foster even proposed the idea of making the east side above the trails a showcase for glade management – a model for others to emulate. “It’s what we have to offer here in Eureka Springs,” he commented.
In Foster’s estimation, it is the presence of trails that allow us to access our heritage resources, whether human, ecological or biological.