Looking towards the next 20 years and the things Arkansas needs to do to realize its potential, I have come to the conclusion that the state’s largest nonprofit might be the Nature Conservancy. Let me explain.
When I was doing economic and community development work, I constantly preached to business and civic leaders that they needed to harness their strengths. Arkansas’ greatest strength is its natural beauty and outdoor recreational opportunities. One of our biggest flaws, meanwhile, is retaining talented young people while attracting highly educated residents from other states.
In the national race for talent, a key attribute for any state is easily accessible and affordable outdoor activities. Surveys show that this is a major quality of life piece of equipment that young people demand when deciding where to live. We have world class hiking, biking, fishing, hunting and camping in Arkansas.
Nautical sports? We’ve got them, from great lakes to ski on to mountain streams for canoe and kayak trips.
Climbing? Check. Hang gliding? Check. Bird watching? Check. Ride a horse? Check. I could go on, but you see the picture.
If Arkansas does a proper job in protecting and enhancing these divine gifts (combined with making broadband widely available in rural areas), we are poised to thrive in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century. Just as Californians escape traffic jams and high taxes in their state for places like Colorado, Arkansas could become a mecca for people fleeing cities like Houston, Dallas, St. Louis and even Chicago.
Colorado of Central America? Do not laugh. It could happen.
Outside of government, few entities have done more than Nature Conservancy over the past four decades to protect what we have here. The national organization was incorporated in October 1951 in Washington, DC, as a nonprofit organization. The Arkansas Field Office, which was established in April 1982, was the 29th state conservation program. It started with around 250 members and a staff of three.
Kay Kelley Arnold opened Arkansas’ first office in Little Rock and had a board of directors made up of prominent business leaders such as Randy Wilbourn, John Cooper Jr., Tommy Goldsby, Henry Hodges, Kaneaster Hodges, David Snowden Sr. and Jim Walton. In 1986, Nancy DeLamar became the second manager of the Arkansas office.
In 1984, Nature Conservancy purchased 5,570 acres in Pulaski and Lonoke counties, which were then transferred to the state to form the Holland Bottoms Wildlife Management Area. It is one of the last large areas of lowlands remaining in a rapidly urbanizing part of the state.
According to the Arkansas Encyclopedia of the Central Arkansas Library System: “During DeLamar’s tenure until 2003, over 200,000 acres of Arkansas were placed in a state of conservation, and in 1993 she received the National Wetlands Conservation Award from the US Fish & Wildlife Service in recognition of conservation involvement in a 41,000-acre land swap that created a protected corridor between two national wildlife refuges, the Cache and the White.
“Arkansas’ unique geology and topography, coupled with abundant freshwater and annual precipitation, provide habitat for a rich variety of plants and animals, not found anywhere else. engages in projects that protect thousands of species and hundreds of habitat types in Arkansas … Working with a wide variety of partners and using the best available scientific data, Nature Conservancy identifies and conserves landscapes and water bodies where the richest and rarest biodiversity is found.
“The main strategies include acquiring ecologically significant lands from willing vendors and donors; restoration of degraded lands and waters; the carrying out of prescribed burns to maintain fire-dependent habitats; promoting sustainable and conservation-conscious land use practices in areas such as forestry, agriculture, animal husbandry and road construction; and research, recording and monitoring of biodiversity. “
The Nature Conservancy is active statewide. DeLamar described the regional projects this way:
Ozark Mountains – “Research and protection projects in the karst ecosystem protect the habitat of sensitive and endangered cave creatures while protecting water quality and scenic beauty.”
Southern Arkansas Pinewoods – “Center for Projects on the Conservation of the Remaining Black Grasslands and the Sustainable Management of Native Pine and Deciduous Forests.”
Ouachita Mountains – “The restoration of oak forests and the conservation of river systems are the main areas of interest.”
Delta – “The Big Woods Project includes the conservation of lowland deciduous forests and wetland ecosystems for migratory birds, large river fish, black bears and other species. It’s in the Big Woods of Arkansas that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was rediscovered in 2004, giving increased meaning to the work of the Nature Conservancy and many in the Delta in previous decades. ”
Scott Simon replaced DeLamar as director and continues to serve the conservatory.
In the late 1980s, conservation was busy in Arkansas. In 1986, Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was created with the transfer of reserve land to the federal government and with legislation pushed by the two U.S. senators from Arkansas at the time, Dale Bumpers and David Pryor. The following year, the conservation purchased and transferred 4,400 acres to the state for the creation of the Cossatot River State Park and Natural Area.
In 1989, Conservation and the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission teamed up to purchase the Lorance Creek Nature Preserve in Pulaski County, preserving a tupelo-cypress lowland forest. That same year, the reserve acquired 3,667 acres at the current headquarters of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.
During the 1980s, the conservation acquired over 9,000 acres in the delta and replanted that land with hardwoods. Landowners in the area have noticed it. In 1999, Arkansas was among the top 10 states participating in the wetland reserve program with more than 130 landowners registering nearly 36,000 acres.
In southwest Arkansas in the 1990s, Conservation and ANHC embarked on Black Grassland conservation with the establishment of the Black Earth Natural Area in Clark County. Conservation of the Blacklands was strengthened in 1997 with the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission acquisition of what is now the 4,885-acre Rick Evans Grandview Prairie Wildlife Management Area near Hope.
In 1995, the Nature Conservancy established its Fire Restoration Program. Crews have used controlled burns to restore tens of thousands of acres of public and private land. Later in the decade, the conservation entered into a restoration agreement with the Pine Bluff Dockyard on 6,000 acres and with Fort Chaffee on 55,000 acres.
In 2010, the reserve established the Kings River Preserve along seven miles of the river in northern Arkansas. A year later, in the delta, an agreement was reached with the US Army Corps of Engineers to restore a 4.6 mile stretch of the Cache River that had been channeled in the 1970s. Half a million seedlings deciduous trees were planted in the lowlands of Cache the following year.
At the same time, conservation teams are restoring the heavily eroded banks of the branches of the Little Red and Saline rivers. Many such restorations followed.
In 2015, North Woods Ranch, along the Little Maumelle River in the far west of Little Rock, became the reserve’s first urban reserve. Three years later, with the support of the Lee Bodenhamer family, the Rattlesnake Ridge Natural Area opened a few miles to the west.
From those original 250 members and three staff members, the Arkansas Nature Conservancy has grown to over 6,000 members and a staff of over 40 full-time and seasonal employees.
The role he plays in the future could contribute to a golden age for Arkansas. After the pandemic, this state has what people are looking for.
Rex Nelson is editor-in-chief at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.