Before there was a Russellville, a River Valley, or even an Arkansas, there was The Natural State in its natural state. Sweeping prairies filled with remarkable biodiversity — insects, birds, bison, elk, red wolves, and flora of innumerable varieties — were part of River Valley prehistory. Today, we can glimpse a shadow of this once majestic landscape even among the shopping centers and apartment complexes of Russellville. Though reduced in size, these prairie remnants are a portal to the wild that once was.
Imagine with me if you will a young, pristine Arkansas. Before Europeans settled Arkansas, it was a mosaic of landscapes: flat treeless grasslands that stretched as far as the eye could see, open savannas with scattered trees grading into more densely wooded habitats that lay along rough ridges and bubbling brooks. Wet marshes could be found embedded in the open prairies. Wild flowers bloomed from frost to frost.
Today, the Arkansas landscape looks vastly different. Over the last 200 years the prairies have largely been destroyed, but it is still possible to catch a glimpse of what Arkansas looked like in its prime by visiting a prairie remnant. “A prairie remnant is like the name says. It is intact remaining examples of original ancient grasslands,” Theo Witsell says. Theo is a botanist and ecologist for the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission (ANHC) and curator for the ANHC Herbarium.
“Old growth grasslands have essentially been in the same condition more or less for thousands of years,” Theo says. “They are one of the most destroyed ecosystems that we have overall in the state and really all over North America. We have seen the greatest loss in grasslands compared to any other habitat. Statewide we have lost about 99 percent of our prairies. They are the only habitat left for so many things and so that is why they are important for conservation.”
Prairies occurred in five major areas in the state: eastern Arkansas, southeast Arkansas, the Arkansas River Valley, central Arkansas and parts of northwest Arkansas. According to Theo, most of the original grasslands over time have either been converted to fescue pastures, towns built on them, or because of lack of management, trees have taken over the remnants. “In 1830 there was once about a half a million acres in the Grand Prairie of eastern Arkansas in the Mississippi Valley and today there is about 400 acres,” Theo says. “So that’s about one tenth of one percent that remains over there. Then another place that there was a lot of prairie was Fayetteville, Rogers, and parts of Washington County. That’s one of the fastest developing areas in the state and because of that the prairies there are being urbanized.”
Pockets of remnants extend from Ft. Smith over toward Russellville all the way to Conway. “Conway was actually built in the middle of a 3,000-acre prairie,” Theo added. There are also a few remnants in Russellville near commercial property.
“Settlers chose places like Russellville because it had a lot of open grassland mixed with forest,” Theo says. “Some people think humans love that type of setting, that sort of open woodland with grass. They wouldn’t have had to clear land and had a place to put their livestock.”
In some areas of the River Valley there are still large chunks of prairie remnants left, Theo refers to those areas as the last strong hold. “We had extensive prairies, probably hundreds of thousands of acres, in the Arkansas River Valley,” Theo says. “The biggest ones were out near Charleston and Ft. Smith. Of all the grasslands in Arkansas, Charleston is probably where the highest percentage is left of the original. There might be as much as ten percent left.”
Theo explains that this is possible because the ranching culture in the River Valley has allowed the prairies to persist. “Each region where we have prairie has its own threat, or something that has contributed to its decline,” Theo says. “Urban developments like in the northwest, the eastern Grand Prairie was agriculture, and why there is so much left around Charleston is because the hay fields have allowed it to survive.”
In all cases prairie remnants have survived to modern times they have been used as hay fields. “There has to be something to keep the woody plants from taking over the prairie over a period of time,” Theo says. “You can go in and cut them annually for hay, and that doesn’t destroy the vegetation, the plants are still there, it just removed the above ground part like fire would do, but it removes that woody vegetation.”
Fire has also played a major role in maintaining prairie habitat for thousands of years and Theo claims fire is still essential for biodiversity. “Native Americans have used fire as a land management tool since they got here,” Theo says. “There is evidence of 10-12,000-year-old fire history on the land from Native Americans burning.”
Burning off remnant prairies regenerates the perennials that grow there, revitalizing the landscape. “Most of the plants are perennial plants. It’s the individual plants coming back every year, growing taller than the last set after a fire,” Theo says. “The year following the fire is the best time for the wild flowers. They go crazy,” he added. “There is a plant called False Indigo and it grows in prairies all throughout the River Valley and researchers know an individual plant can live for over 100 years. Prairie remnants are really ancient ecosystems.”
Today, prairie remnants owned by the Natural Heritage Commission are burned every three years. “If you let it go without a fire for too long you run the risk of having a devastating fire like in these forest areas,” Theo says. “But if you burn it regularly, what we call a low intention fire, it can maintain a healthy ecosystem. But prairie is no question — they have to burn regularly or be hay.”
The biggest challenge for the ANHC is acquiring prairie remnants near urban areas. “I wish we had recognized what they were before, now it’s either all gone or the land value has become too expensive, like in Northwest Arkansas,” Theo says. “There is some left but it would cost millions of dollars to protect them. And then there are challenges because the remnants are in the middle of a city.”
Once prairie remnants become surrounded by city developments, it makes it difficult for the ANHC to manage. “You have to burn them every couple of years and that is hard to do when there is a church on one side and an elementary school on the other,” Theo says. “It gets tough to manage them that way, whereas in a rural landscape, it’s no big deal.”
Prairie remnants thrive with biodiversity. “In a pasture you might find 10 or 15 species of plants when you’re walking around, but when you walk into a prairie remnant you can find 300 to 400 species, it’s just remarkable,” Theo says.
And every prairie remnant site is not the same. Each one is unique on its own. “Prairies are like snowflakes — each one is totally different,” Theo says. “Even if they are right next to each other, I don’t know if it’s different microhabitats or something was done differently in the past. They are kind of like people; they have their own little personality.”
The work of the ANHC is to find and preserve the highest quality of remaining samples of the original Arkansas landscape. “Our work was charged with identifying and protecting the last of the least and the best of the rest of Arkansas’s natural heritage,” Theo says. “We have a system of public nature reserves, 71 preserves, about 55,000 acres. Two of those sites are Cherokee and Flanagan prairie natural areas in Charleston. We immediately honed in the best of the prairies left in the River Valley.”
Thousands of species of insects and other animals depend on prairie remnants for habitat. The past few years the ANHC has made efforts in restoring the quail population in the River Valley. “These prairies are the best habitats for quail. I’ve travel around the whole state and I hear or see more quail in these native remnant prairies than anywhere else. There are so many kinds of insects and seeds available from these native prairie plants, and it’s just everything the quail need. The cover is just right. With the push to restore quail we have been able to do that by restoring these grasslands.”
Folks that are interested in prairie preservation can volunteer at ANHC events. One option is to volunteer to help collect prairie seeds. “We are going to be having some seed collecting events in the fall and maybe in summer for some of the more maturing species,” Theo says. “We will take a team of volunteers and go out and teach them about the prairie and about the plants. One person will collect one specific species and another person collects a different species. At the end of the day we will have bags of seed of individual species.”
The seeds are then given to a seed contractor who will germinate the seeds in pots and keep them until they are big enough to be planted in Arkansas fields.
“The farmers that are partnering with us are planting single species plots in their fields and then the seeds will be harvested off the field in the future. Then the seeds can be sold back, in this case it’s the Grand Prairie, and the farmers will sell it to the Corp of Engineers for
the bio-habitat restoration on the canal banks in the east. We want to expand this same model across the state.”
Even with the efforts of seed collecting, Theo says it is still impossible to recreate a prairie. “It would take tens of thousands of years to get them to what it is, but you can create a good habitat by using species from the remnants,” Theo says. “They are the only place where we can get seed from to create bigger chunks of prairie habitat.”
If you don’t have time to volunteer, the next best thing is to support the Natural Heritage Commission along with other agencies and organizations that are working to protect the grasslands. And of course learn more about the prairie remnants themselves.
Theo added, “If you think you have a remnant on your property, manage it in such a way that it doesn’t destroy it. Don’t plow it up, don’t spray it with herbicide; it actually produces good quality hay.”
Prairie remnants contain a wealth of knowledge, a living history book read at the micro level. For many, the remnants are a precious commodity worth preserving.
“Most of the state has been altered so much in the last 150 years it is really uncommon, especially for these grasslands, to find a piece that has the full compliment of things that used to be there,” Theo says. “There is so little left that every piece becomes precious now. Almost everything has become so altered from its original state that it no longer provides habitat for species, and that is our natural history, our natural heritage. And many people think it’s worth protecting, myself included.”
For more information about the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and how you can volunteer, go to www.naturalheritage.com.