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NWA Trailblazers Facilitate New Standard in Connectivity

Trail design expertise continues to help cities realize visions, raise quality of life

By Erin Rushing, Executive Director, NWA Trailblazers

It’s not often a single community sets out to blaze 172 miles of mountain biking, hiking, running and walking trails. But Bella Vista, AR, has a vision – a master plan to build on the momentum of the nearby Razorback Regional Greenway, which spans 36 miles through the heart of Northwest Arkansas.

The vision was to begin with the Back 40, a connected set of soft-surface trails through the backyard hollows and wooded hills of Bella Vista. What the city needed was a way to bring together local government, its large property owners association, residents, funding and the trail-building experts to get the job done. And that’s where we fit in.

Founded in 1996 as part of an initiative to build a 1.75-mile loop trail around Lake Bella Vista, the Northwest Arkansas Trailblazers has gone on to coordinate the development of more than 80 miles of trails across the region. We’ve tapped our expertise to help make the Razorback Regional Greenway and Slaughter Pen mountain bike trails possible, while providing tunnels and other critical cycling and pedestrian infrastructure solutions across Bentonville, and more. But I believe the Back 40 serves as the greatest example to date of the value and expertise the Northwest Arkansas Trailblazers bring to the table.

This project was a game changer, but it required the establishment of countless easements, purchase of undeveloped lots and a plan for working around golf courses and other community amenities without disturbing play. It meant rolling up our sleeves and going door to door, talking with and listening to residents. It meant coming up with maintenance agreements between the City of Bella Vista and the Property Owners Association. And it meant securing funding through organizations like the Walton Family Foundation, and working side by side with three of the best trail building companies out there.

All of that – along with the construction of the trails – began in January 2016, and had to be ready and center stage for the annual International Mountain Bicycling Association World Summit in November. But we did it. What's even more exhilarating than meeting that timeline is that the residents of Bella Vista and this entire region now have a whole new 40-mile section of the Ozarks to explore.

So, as hundreds of folks – myself included – strapped on their helmets and running shoes for the inaugural Back 40 Trail Run & Ride earlier this month, I could feel the adrenaline. These are the kinds of events and buzz an asset like this creates. On any given day, I can drive by the various trailhead lots and see cars – often times with out-of-state license plates. A new bike shop has opened in Bella Vista and the community is already turning its attention to the remaining 132 miles of trails in its master plan.

Northwest Arkansas is experiencing how these investments in connectivity aid revitalization of historic downtowns, spur commercial interest, raise property values and – most importantly – improve quality of life. A lot of communities just don’t have expertise in trail planning and design. We’ve been through the trenches and know everything that goes into getting these undertakings to the finish line – it's why we exist. With every project, we’re bringing people together. Bringing communities together. And the world is taking notice.