Introduction to Natural Areas: Protecting Diverse Ecosystems
What is a Natural Area?
Prior to settlement, Arkansas was marked by an expansive mosaic of natural communities. In all, more than 40 different natural community types occurred across Arkansas's landscape. Since the 1800s, however, urban development, agriculture, fire suppression, and the spread of invasive plant species have destroyed or degraded many of these diverse ecosystems.
The Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission (ANHC) is charged with the responsibility of protecting the best of the last remaining vestiges of the state's natural communities. ANHC does this through its System of Natural Areas. Natural areas are lands specifically managed to preserve, and sometimes restore, natural communities that have become rare.
Natural areas are more than just a glimpse into the past. What these areas ultimately can provide are blueprints for understanding how Arkansas's diverse ecosystems originally functioned. Such information will be especially vital as Arkansas continues to develop and address important environmental issues into the future.
Birth of the System
Following its establishment in 1973, ANHC began to incorporate sites into its System of Natural Areas. Singer Forest Natural Area was Arkansas’s first natural area and was donated to ANHC by the Singer Company in 1973. Roth Prairie, located in Arkansas
County, was the first natural area purchased by ANHC. It was acquired on July 23, 1976.
Data from the Arkansas Heritage Program has enabled the commission to make choices based upon scientific data. Many early acquisitions concentrated on small tracts to protect habitats of certain rare animals and plants. Near the White River in Stone County, Hell Creek Natural Area supports one of the only known populations of the federally endangered Hell Creek crayfish (Cambarus zophonastes
). Warren Prairie Natural Area was acquired in 1983 and is one of only a handful of sites in the world where the federally threatened plant geocarpon (Geocarpon minimum
) (image left) grows. The small parcel that started out as Warren Prairie Natural Area has now grown to more than 4,000 acres.
From the mid-1980s to the present, ANHC has focused on larger and more complex projects. In 2010, conservation partnerships
with other governmental agencies, non-profits, and private industry advanced a large-scale conservation effort. Warren Prairie Natural Area (image right) was expanded when The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a non-profit organization, sold 2,107 acres to ANHC. TNC initially purchased the property from Plum Creek Timber Company. ANHC's funding came from a U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Grant administered by the Arkansas Forestry Commission. The grant, worth more than $2 million, was matched by ANHC primarily through the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, which is funded by the state’s real estate transfer tax.
The site will remain a working forest, meaning it will continue to provide local forestry jobs and forest products to local mills. The Commission will work with Plum Creek Timber Company, which once owned the land, and with TNC and contractors to ecologically thin overly dense pine stands at the property. Overly dense forests prevent sunlight from reaching the ground, which results in few plant species on the forest floor and in turn affects wildlife diversity and populations. Controlled burns will also be used to restore dense pine stands to open, natural timberlands with abundant plant and wildlife diversity.
Another example of large-scale conservation partnerships in action is Cossatot River State Park - Natural Area. Managed cooperatively with Arkansas State Parks (ASP), this 4,470-acre natural area was acquired in 16 different transactions between 1987 and 1993. It protects 11 miles of the Cossatot River and the unique communities found within an upland Ouachita Mountains stream. Because of the cooperative approach to managing this natural area, portions of the area have been developed to enhance environmental education opportunities and public visitation.