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Acres Added to Searles Prairie Natural Area

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Friday, June 28, 2019

The Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission recently acquired a new addition of 2.5 acres that was adjacent to Searles Prairie Natural Area (NA) in Benton County. The now 12.5-acre Searles Prairie NA is a remnant of tallgrass prairie and became a natural area in 1988. It is one of the last remaining unplowed prairie remnants in the Arkansas Ozarks.

The land that makes up Searles Prairie NA is part of the Osage Prairie, a contiguous treeless grassland that once extended for approximately 12 miles from Vaughn north to Centerton, and east from Centerton to Rogers. According to the General Land Office (GLO) survey completed in the early 1800s, the Osage Prairie covered nearly 10,000 acres. Today, it is estimated that less than half of 1 percent remains.

“Surviving tallgrass prairies are remnants of rare and ancient ecosystems, thousands of years old,” ANHC Chief of Research, Theo Witsell says. “These scraps of old-growth grasslands are among the most historically rich natural communities in Arkansas, containing many rare species not found in any other habitat type. They are also among the most imperiled.”

The ANHC purchased the 2.5-acre addition for $275,000, which is 21 percent below the appraised value of $350,000. The majority of the funds to purchase the tract came from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council Grant, the city of Rogers, the Walton Family Foundation, natural gas proceeds, and individual donors.

“This project, which worked with the community and donors, and leveraged available grant funds, is a perfect example of how cooperation can achieve benefits for all,” said Stacy Hurst, Department of Arkansas Heritage (DAH) director. “The community will benefit by this place being saved, and the ANHC’s conservation efforts will ensure that this beautiful remnant of authentic Arkansas is around for future generations.”

The 2.5-acre addition is listed as a natural and cultural site within the Northwest Arkansas Open Space Plan.

“We are excited to contribute to the Searles Prairie Project along with other public and private partners to take quick advantage of this fleeting opportunity,” John McCurdy, Community Development Coordinator, city of Rogers, said.

The 12.5-acre natural area supports at least 250 native plant species, including 10 species of state conservation concern. Two of those, brown bog sedge (Carex buxbaumii) and open-field sedge (Carex conoidea) are not known to occur anywhere else in the state.

Isaac and Anna Mae Searles purchased the land that became Searles Prairie NA in 1939, never once plowing it. Isaac grew up in the prairie region of western Missouri and Searles Prairie reminded him of his boyhood home. After Isaac’s death, Anna Mae donated a conservation easement to the ANHC so that the property would be protected from future development.

“When I was just big enough to play outside, Grandma and Grandad Searles would take us on walks in the prairie to see all the new plants or flowers they had discovered,” Diane Hoppe Puckett, granddaughter of Anna Mae and Isaac Searles said. “During those hot days of summer with my Grandma’s hat on my head and oversized boots on my feet, they brought us into contact with such beautiful treasures that only nature could show.”

Anna Mae requested that her prairie be used to educate young people about their natural and cultural heritage. Students from one of Arkansas’s AEGIS (Arkansas Enrichment for the Gifted in Summer) programs visited Searles and spent the evening with Anna Mae annually for 10 years. Students from Rogers High School conducted research projects at the site for several years, and most recently, students from Northwest Arkansas Community College (NWACC) have studied at the site and collected native seeds for use in a prairie restoration site at the college.

“When I was a nerdy ninth grader at a summer biology camp in Arkansas, I first fell in love with prairies. The teacher had taken me and my fellow campers to this special, postage stamp-size place and explained to us that this was virgin prairie, that it was different than all the agricultural fields and pasture lands that surrounded it, that it had been like this for thousands of years,” Clark S. Mitchell, BAND Foundation Secretary and former editor at Travel and Leisure magazine, said while talking about Searles Prairie NA. “I never forgot that experience and it made a huge impression on me that someone had had the foresight to set that little tract of land aside (and, of course, manage it for prairie) so that a kid like me could visit and imagine a landscape that once was.”

The Northwest Arkansas Master Naturalists (NWAMN) have adopted the natural area through the ANHC’s Adopt a Natural Area Program. Members of NWAMN have conducted volunteer clean-up events, provided stewardship work, and assisted with one-time projects and research. They are the ANHC’s local “boots on the ground” for Searles Prairie NA.

“Our goal is to train our team members to lead interpretive hikes on the site for learners of all ages. We look forward to expanding our trail into this new addition,” Terry Weidercraft, Northwest Arkansas Master Naturalists, said.


Top -- A field of prairie gayfeather (Liatris pycnostachya) at Searles Prairie Natural Area.

Bottom -- The late Anna Mae Searles (left) and Ellen Turner, Commissioner, ANHC and former AEGIS instructor (right) pictured at Searles Prairie Natural Area. Photo by Neil Compton.

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