Northwest Arkansas Land Trust conserves 830 acres in Benton County

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 1,966 views 

Fayetteville nonprofit Northwest Arkansas Land Trust (NWALT) has acquired 830 acres of the historic Lake Frances property near Siloam Springs.

According to a Wednesday (Oct. 5) news release, the deal was made possible with a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. NWALT spokesman Ryder Snell said the purchase price was approximately $3 million.

NWALT will manage the property, now known as the Lake Frances Preserve, for wildlife habitat, water quality and future public access.

NWALT purchased the property from the descendants of Frances Sloan Thomas, for whom the lake was named. It is the largest tract purchased by NWALT, making it their most prominent conservation property in Benton County.

The preserve lies on the Arkansas/Oklahoma border east of the Illinois River and the former 70-acre Lake Frances. According to the release, it is one of the most extensive tracts of contiguous forest in western Benton County. It is considered one of the most significant pine/oak woodlands in Northwest Arkansas. There is also a large post oak savanna of regional conservation significance along Lake Frances Gate Rd.

“Permanently protecting the Lake Frances property ensures a piece of Benton County’s natural heritage is protected forever. The shortleaf pine stands and oak savanna are unique in our region and help tell the story of what it was like here nearly 200 years ago,” said Marson Nance, director of land stewardship and research. “We’ve already found unique plants on the property but have barely scratched the surface in documenting the land’s biodiversity.”

According to the release, Lake Frances Preserve has over seven miles of mapped streams, much of which consists of seasonal and ephemeral streams which support an abundance of plants and wildlife. Permanent protection of these streams and their habitats will help protect water quality in the Illinois River.

“We’re grateful and excited to showcase another example of a strong conservation partnership to save land in Northwest Arkansas,” said Pam Nelson, NWALT’s director of land protection. “The Illinois River Watershed has been a priority for us since the Land Trust was founded. We’re honored to preserve a family legacy and the history of this important property along with the natural legacy which makes Northwest Arkansas a special place to live.”

Public access plans include:

  • Site-appropriate hiking trails.
  • Natural surface multi-use trails.
  • A hard surface multi-use trail connecting Oklahoma Highway 59 north of the WOKA Whitewater Park to Arkansas Highway 59.

“This is NWALT’s first partnership with the development and construction of hiking, running, and mountain bike single track trails to encourage public engagement with the preserve to better understand the significance of protecting these special habitats,” NWALT CEO Grady Spann said. “We are excited about this partnership and how we provide recreational opportunities to all visitors to the Lake Frances Preserve.”

NWALT protects 6,000 acres in Northwest Arkansas, including 1,300 in Benton County and 1,700 in the Illinois River Watershed.

The land trust’s service area includes 13 counties in Northwest Arkansas, with a core focus on Benton, Carroll, Madison, and Washington counties.

Once a resort catering to wealthy Tulsans opened in the 1930s, the property included a hotel, dance hall, cabins, swimming pool, restaurant, tennis courts, and a golf course. A dam was constructed on the Illinois River to create the 70-acre Lake Frances.

The famous outlaw Belle Starr is believed to have hidden along the bluffs in the late 1800s, and Hank Williams Sr. honeymooned on the property in 1952. The facilities were demolished in the 1970s. In 1989, the Lake Frances dam was irreparably damaged, and the lake drained, restoring the course of the Illinois River.