Monday, January 13, 2014

Arkansas' Best Colleges for Outdoorsy People - Help Needed

I've wanted to do this article (and one ranking Bike-Friendly Campuses) for awhile now, but in order to do it right I planned to send out lots of surveys to campuses around the state, wait for feedback, analyze the data and then write it up.  Since this blog is a hobby that produces no income, I haven't gotten around to putting the time in on that.  Instead of waiting for lots of free time, I've decided to publish an incomplete article and solicit help filling it out.  If you are a student or recent graduate of any college/university in Arkansas, please respond to the survey questions below using the comment section or the contact form here.

Here is my draft ranking of Arkansas' Best Colleges for Outdoorsy People that will surely change as results come in from schools I haven't ever visited.  Rankings are based on trails and facilities owned/built by the school and on nearby resources such as state parks, great climbing spots, etc.  Since one of the goals of this piece is to encourage schools to compete for outdoorsy students by improving and expanding their hiking, biking, climbing, paddling, and swimming infrastructure; extra weight is given to projects and facilities owned or supported by the school.

Let me know what I got wrong and what I'm missing!

1.  UCA - I had to rank them #1 since they are really the only school that has made an effort to have trails and large natural areas on campus.  I think school owned natural areas, forest, prairies, etc. are important for student mental and physical health and also provide great research/educational opportunities.

2.  Arkansas Tech - This is kind of the opposite story.  Arkansas Tech has some of the weakest on-campus resources for outdoorsy types, but its location is hard to beat.  From campus you can be deep into the Ouachitas and Ozarks in less than an hour.  Petit Jean (my favorite state park) and Mt. Nebo are pretty close.  It looks like the school does a good job organizing trips to these incredible locations.

3.  University of Arkansas - I currently study/work here, so it is hard to be unbiased (positively or negatively) about this place.  I love the proximity to Devil's Den, War Eagle Creek, Beaver Lake, the Upper Buffalo, and all of Fayetteville's great city parks and trails.  I dislike the incredible lack of bike parking and bike routes on campus.  I get upset thinking about the hundreds of millions of dollars the university spends on athletic facilities students can't use (much of it from tuition and fees lest they try to convince you otherwise) and how little they spend on trails, bike infrastructure, acquiring land for research and conservation, etc.

4.  University of Arkansas at Little Rock - I have a hard time being unbiased here as well.  I sat on the Coleman Creek Greenway Committee and helped design and implement the initial stages of the trail construction and stream improvement project on campus.  The trail is still a work in progress, but much of it has been completed.  It serves as a shining example of a project that accomplishes a diverse set of goals including: helping students get to and from class in a scenic yet direct and efficient manner, preservation and improvement of habitat and water quality on campus property, creation of great outdoor research potential, and providing recreational opportunities for students and residents of surrounding neighborhoods.  When the trail eventually connects to War Memorial Park and Fourche Bottoms it will provide a viable transportation alternative to driving for thousands of people living, working, and shopping in Midtown.  While I love Pinnacle Mountain, the River Trail, Emerald Park, Fourche Creek, and everything else in Trails of Central Arkansas, I don't think they quite compare to what's around Arkansas Tech.

5.  University of the Ozarks - I love the Spadra Creek trails.  I'm not clear on the details of who owns the land and who built the trails, but they connect the campus to miles of paved and dirt trails.  I don't really know much about the campus so any input would be much appreciated.

6.  Hendrix University - I haven't visited the new Hendrix Creek Preserve, but I don't have a great impression of them as a recreational resource.  I'm also not clear on the distinction between the University and The Village at Hendrix.  It is easy to compare Hendrix to its neighbor UCA, and see who has done the most to promote conservation and trail creation. You'd think a small, private school interested in providing well-rounded educations could do better.

University of Arkansas
Pros: Climbing walls, Outdoor Connection Center (equipment rental and trips), Bike Loan Program
Cons:   No university owned forest, no trails, no outdoor pools, inadequate bike parking and infrastructure
Nearby: Razorback Greenway, Lincoln Lake, Beaver Lake, Hobbs State Park, Kings River, War Eagle Creek, Devil's Den State Park
Suggestions: Buy Mt. Kessler property.  Purchase other land nearby with different habitat types and trail potential.

University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Pros: Coleman Creek Greenway, Equipment Rental
Cons: No university owned forest, no dirt trails, no outdoor pools, inadequate bike parking and infrastructure.
Nearby: River Trail, Fourche Bottoms, Audubon Nature Center, Allsopp Park, Pinnacle Mountain State Park, Little Maumelle River, Little Rock Climbing Center
Suggestions: Help city purchase Fourche Bottoms, designate part of the bottoms a research forest/wetland and extend the Coleman Creek Greenway there.  Include plans to preserve woods at the northern end of campus in the Campus Master Plan.

University of Central Arkansas
Pros: 3 miles of trails on/bordering campus, 19 ac. Nature Reserve,
Cons: No climbing wall (but one coming soon?), no outdoor pools, no equipment loaning/renting(?)
Nearby: Cadron Settlement Park, Grassy Lake, Camp Robinson Special Use Area, Bell Slough, Woolly Hollow State Park, Petit Jean State Park
Suggestions: Visit other schools and establish a similar equipment (bikes, kayaks, tents, etc) rental program.

Hendrix University
Pros: Outdoor recreation rentals and trips, climbing wall, pool with retractable roof, Hendrix Creek Preserve
Cons: No real trails, no university owned forest
Nearby:  Cadron Settlement Park, Grassy Lake, Camp Robinson Special Use Area, Bell Slough, Woolly Hollow State Park, Petit Jean State Park

University of the Ozarks
Pros: Spadra Creek Trails, Ozarks Outdoors Basecamp
Cons: No climbing wall or outdoor pool
Nearby: Mulberry River, Ozark National Forest

Arkansas Tech
Pros: Outdoor equipment rental and trips
Cons:  No trails or natural areas on campus, No climbing facility on campus (but see below)
Nearby: Mt. Nebo State Park, Petit Jean State Park, Illinois Bayou, Arkansas River, Lake Dardanelle State Park, The Wall Climbing Center

Survey Questions:

1.  How many miles of trails does your school have? Feel free to specify designated use (mountain biking, hiking, jogging, biking).  Don't include campus sidewalks used primarily for getting between buildings on campus.
2.  What types of equipment, if any, are available for borrowing or rental on campus? Common examples include road bikes, mountain bikes, kayaks, life jackets, tents, and sleeping bags.
3.  Does your school have a climbing wall?
4.  Does your school have any outdoor pools? (On campus, not at private student apartments)
5.  What are your favorite nearby parks and trails?
6.  Does your school own any land that they plan on preserving? Do they have any land designated as research forest/prairie/etc?
7.  What does your school do best in terms of outdoorsy students' wants?  How about worst?
8.  Is there sufficient bike parking on campus? (Are there racks within 50-100 yards of every building? Do students have a hard time finding places near their dorm to lock up their bike?)
9.  Does your school have a bike master plan?

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