A recent trail review series I wrote for the Flyer took me all over Northwest Arkansas. From Devil’s Den to Hobbs State Park to Lincoln, Ark., I explored the most beautiful regions in our area. In all my traveling, I have to say the trail I fell most in love with was Mount Kessler, right in Fayetteville’s backyard.
For those of you who haven’t heard of Kessler before, it’s a mountain located in the southwest corner of Fayetteville. It was named after Phillip Kessler, a German who purchased 13 acres on top of the mountain in 1866, and established the first winery and vineyard in the state of Arkansas. The only evidence left of the Kesslers is a hand-dug well and wine cellar, adjacent to the two-story stone Mount Kessler Inn.
The beauty the Kesslers no doubt enjoyed lives on, however, as 1,500 acres of the mountain and its surroundings remain undeveloped. The local advocacy group, Mount Kessler Greenways, has raised awareness for the mountain over the years, and several of the members privately own part of the land. About 200 acres are owned by the city of Fayetteville and have been dedicated as a regional city park.
More than 100 years after the first Mount Kessler settlers arrived, the future of part of the mountain is now in jeopardy. Another Mount Kessler settler, Frank Sharp, moved to the mountain with his family when he was just four years old, and has been working to preserve it ever since. Sharp has proposed that 387 acres, currently owned by Chambers Bank, be reserved for recreation and education use. The land was originally part of plans for SouthPass, a massive mixed-use development that was never started as a result of foreclosure. Now that chunk of land needs a buyer, and Sharp has partnered with multiple outdoors groups, University of Arkansas faculty and students and area conservationists to push for the creation of the Mount Kessler Reserve.
The best-case scenario, Sharp said, is the area remains undeveloped and the city and university jointly purchase the land. Adjacent to the city park, the reserve would be well placed for outdoor recreation, protection of natural resources and Beaver Lake and Illinois River watershed protection, Sharp said. Hikers and mountain bikers also use 8.5 miles of trails on Mount Kessler, trails that are steadily growing in popularity. The university could use the reserve and city park to expand the growing intramural programs or for outdoor laboratories and education.
The university should be vigilant and carefully consider opportunities to create outdoor laboratories, and Mount Kessler is one such opportunity, said Steven Beaupre, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences in a letter to University of Arkansas Chancellor G. David Gearhart.
“Unlike many of the top schools in the county, the UA has no holdings that can be dedicated for use as outdoor laboratories,” Beaupre said in the letter. “At other institutions, these outdoor laboratories become famous, such as The Duke Forest, Harvard Forest and the University of Tennessee Arboretum.”
Since all of this began about eight years ago, people who have hiked, biked or simply fallen in love with the mountain have come out of the woodwork to write letters in support of the reserve to the Chancellor and raise awareness, Sharp said.
Support for the idea, Sharp said, has come from several local organizations, such as the Ozark Off Road Cyclists, Fayetteville Natural Heritage Association, Beaver Water District and Ozark Highland Trail Association.
State organizations that have shown support include The Nature Conservancy and the League of Woman Voters.
Still, Sharp said he needs a lot of help.
Members of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board will consider endorsing Sharp’s proposal at their meeting in February. Sharp said he hopes to have a professional report complied soon, but does not have a specific timeline for when the land would need to be purchased by. Those wanting to help with the report or simply lend support can contact Sharp directly.