GREEN: The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas
The Kings River Preserve southeast of Eureka Springs features scenic bluffs and diverse plant and wildlife.
photography courtesy of TNC and Ethan Inlander
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Arkansas works with landowners, businesses, public agencies and partner organizations to conserve the state’s natural places and has had a hand in conserving more than 280,000 acres of critical natural lands throughout the years. Nature Conservancy members make it all possible. These places are rich and diverse and hold surprises — even for lifelong Arkansans. Following is more information about the kinds of ecological treasures TNC helps to maintain in the Natural State.
Kings River Nature Preserve
Incredibly scenic, lined with tall bluffs and forested banks, the Kings River flows clear and clean, and now a corridor of this natural beauty is conserved for the future.
TNC in Arkansas purchased land for the Kings River Nature Preserve in Carroll County in 2010 to maintain the health of the river system and protect water quality — and to maintain the beauty along these picturesque seven miles.
“The Kings River Nature Preserve is a beautiful example of how conservation can benefit our lives in many ways,” said Scott Simon, state director of TNC in Arkansas. “This river is not only a source of drinking water for many Arkansas and Missouri communities, but it also is a recreational treasure, great for canoeing, and home to 19 species found only in the Ozark Mountains and nowhere else on Earth.”
Anglers know the Kings River as one of the best destinations for prized fish, including the smallmouth bass. Birdwatchers can see egrets, kingfishers and herons along its banks — as well as many bald eagles during the winter months.
“This initiative has focused on the river and its corridor,” said Simon, adding that TNC is dedicated to maintaining the health of the river and its water quality.
When a river system is clouded with excessive sediment, organisms at the bottom of the food chain are choked out, and this affects species at the top of that food chain, such as the smallmouth bass. Sediment has been a threat to the health of the Kings and other upland rivers in Arkansas, he said.
Forested river corridors — called “riparian areas” — and properly-constructed and maintained unpaved roads help reduce sediment that enters a water system. Maintaining the Kings River Nature Preserve will benefit animal and plant life, as well as the people who enjoy its beauty, fish in its depths and drink its waters.
The best way to explore the Kings River Nature Preserve is to see it from the river and its banks during the day. The river’s gravel bars are ideal for leisurely canoe stops during float trips. There are no hiking trails along the preserve, due to the high bluffs and surrounding private property.
Outfitters provide canoe and kayak rentals for the Kings River, and there are public access points, including one owned by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Rockhouse Access, just upstream from the preserve.
The Interior Highlands comprise pine-oak forests, woodlands and savannas of the Ozark Highlands and Ouachita Mountains and are home to bears and eagles, among an incredible diversity of plants and animals. Here, Arkansans can find the last remnants of tallgrass prairies that once covered thousands of acres in the Ozarks.
But these highlands have changed since early explorers described them as grassy, open woodlands with rich plant life on prairie areas. In the late 19th century until the early 20th century, these forests were cleared. In response to diminishing wooded acres, citizens allowed trees to grow and protected them from fire, natural or otherwise. But through extensive research, TNC and partners know that such wooded areas rely on fire to maintain a healthy understory that supports diverse wildlife. Without fire, increased tree density weakens the ecosystem, making it more vulnerable to drought, disease and infestations — as well as to more dangerous, uncontrollable wildfires. TNC works with partners to use controlled burns to restore and enrich Arkansas’s Interior Highlands. Today more than 300,000 acres of forestland statewide show observable improvement in response to fire restoration programs.
Southwest Arkansas Blacklands
The blacklands in southwestern Arkansas get their name from the rich, black soil formed over oyster beds left by a receding Gulf of Mexico that occupied this area millions of years ago. These prairies and woodlands are now home to more than 600 species of plants and 21 globally-imperiled plant communities. Rare birds like Bachman’s sparrow, Henslow’s sparrow and painted bunting are some of the 315 animal species found in Arkansas’s blackland areas. What was once a 12 million-acre habitat across the U.S. south has been reduced to 50,000 acres in scattered patches in a few states, with 10,000 of it under conservation management. Much of this is in Arkansas. The remaining acres are losing ground today to suburban development and invasive species.
The Conservancy has partnered with landowners, agencies and other conservation organizations to identify and conserve the best remaining blackland sites, now totaling more than 8,000 acres. Great progress is being made. Conservancy land stewards are restoring blackland areas in Arkansas by conducting controlled burns and planting native prairie grasses in degraded areas. Landowners are also part of the solution; individuals, families and businesses have collaborated with the TNC to restore thousands of acres since 2004.
The Big Woods of Arkansas
Delta forests used to cover 24 million acres, creating the largest forested wetlands in North America. Today, much of this area has been converted to cotton, rice and soybean fields, and the rivers have been controlled for irrigation, navigation and anti-flooding efforts, leaving fewer than five million acres of original forest in small, damaged patches. The 550,000 acres of the Big Woods in eastern Arkansas is the largest area of bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the Delta outside of Louisiana.
The flora and fauna here are among the most diverse in the world, including cypress trees that have been growing since long before Columbus landed in the New World, free roaming black bears and renowned populations of wintering waterfowl.
To help heal the damaged ecosystem, TNC in Arkansas and its partners have reforested more than 50,000 acres and brought more than 120,000 acres into state and national wildlife areas that encourage public use. The current focus is healing the area’s rivers, by building on the recent stream restoration project at Benson Creek and other places. There is much more to be done, and the Conservancy will continue to join with others to conserve the Big Woods and its big rivers as a healthy, functioning floodplain system that sustains people and wildlife alike.