I got my start in advocacy about 20 years ago with battlefield preservation. Having been to many fields — preserved and unpreserved — over the past 40 years, it’s often heartbreaking to see what’s been allowed to happen to these places through commercial and residential development. I used to, and still do, serve as a tour guide for local battlefields and it’s really tough to get someone in the mood of the historical moment when you pull up to a point and try to explain what happened here and how the shape of the land affected things. We have lost more than 2/3rds of the old battlefields here in central Arkansas… Bayou Fourche battlefield lies underneath the LR Port Authority, I-440, and a residential development, with only a couple of stome markers and a split rail fence to mark the place. Terry’s Ferry lies underneath the Willow Beach housing area. Some of the classic examples are Chancellorsville, VA, and Franklin, TN, where bloody ground now lies under strip malls, parking lots, and up until the year before last, a Pizza Hut parking lot marked the place where Arkansas General Pat Cleburne gave his life.
Preservation is an interesting debate as to who we are and what we value. I remember downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock from the 1960s and early 1970s, when these were the commercial hub of the city. Riding down Main Street now, I am nearly heartbroken to see what’s been torn down, what’s been lost to the community, and the endless stretches of blank concrete and asphalt parking lots. These have become symbols to look into the modern world. We have a population explosion that nobody is, or can, address. My core feeling is that land needs to be protected for cultural, environmental and agrarian reasons. Our historic, natural, and recreational resources are traditionally underfunded and underutilized because the potential these outdoor social and military classrooms offer is not realized. The truth is the battlefields are diamonds in the rough. They are also becoming islands of green within a sea of concrete.
The value of the River Trail is that it really is an “Island of Green” in our community… where one can briefly escape the pressures of urban lifestyle and commune with nature. Its natural beauty and atmosphere attracts not only our own citizens, but visitors from all around the state and from out-of-state to enjoy its wonders. Sadly, this natural beauty is the same quality that entices a commercial developer to think, “Wouldn’t it be a sweet deal to put an apartment complex there?”
Adding the proposed number of housing units in the area will greatly increase the amount of motor traffic on River Road, and greatly increase the conflicts between park and trail users and the potential residents. The noise and visual pollution will significantly degrade the natural beauty that gives that section of the trail its popularity and attracts as many visitors as it does. Conflict in this situation is not just possible, it is guaranteed.
The Big Rock Quarry area has always been regarded as a natural and recreational park resource, and that continues to be its best anticipated use as far as all central Arkansas residents are affected. North Little Rock is blessed to have as much park and green space as it does, and park resources should be used and developed only for natural and recreational use — not for yet another housing area in an already nearly-saturated market.
We cannot expect government to fix this issue without our advocacy. Sometimes tough economic and social issues revolve around protecting historic and natural green space – land rights, government power, lack of financial resources to protect historic sites, immigration, quality of life, habitat, race, air quality, ecosystems, defining culture, family values, and so on.
As our population expands serious questions must be asked about how we are planning and zoning. If we really value exercise, fitness, healthy lifestyles, and natural resources, we need to put those beliefs into effect — by preserving those “islands of green” that make North Little Rock the wonderful community — and home — that it is. Often the critics are the people who have financially invested in the natural property they want to develop. Rarely is there a non-financial motive in trying to stop the protection of a historic site. Local government is habitually the lynch pin to saving or destroying historic resources, and sadly often the status quo is to build.
Look around — Rapid growth in the surrounding area, and hundreds of other examples tell us we are losing not only historic green space at an alarming rate, we are losing the family farm and forests that helped define Arkansas as the “natural state” as well as America as a whole. All side issues aside, this is neither the time or place for this sort of development. We need these islands of green to keep our sanity and our connections within our community.