Opinion

OPINION | FRAN ALEXANDER: Organization’s impact on water quality realized throughout the state

The Nature Conservancy’s mission runs deep in Arkansas

What's in a name? There is a lot to dig out of The Nature Conservancy's name, but by playing with Latin and joining "con," (meaning "together") and "serve" (meaning "save"), we get "together save." Add "the" and "nature" to that handle, and it's an easy vision statement in three words.

One of the main takeaways from my research on the organization's is that their working philosophy is indeed to join up people with nature. First and foremost, humans have a need to understand how nature functions and where we fit inside, or are left outside, nature's whole scheme on which our lives depend.

This organization is not just about acquiring and holding land, although it does that, too. Its mission is more broadly applied toward finding and using techniques for land and water that repair, improve or preserve these resources. Although their reach is global (in 79 countries and territories), this article is about their Arkansas impact.

Arkansas, the Natural State, needs to live up to its slogan. One effective way The Nature Conservancy contributes to this state's goal is through numerous water protection programs. For example, 85% of Arkansas' county roads are unpaved and poorly designed, which leads to sediment erosion and runoff into waterways. Sediment kills fish and muddy water is expensive to treat for drinking use. By training road crews better drainage methods, ditch stabilization and engineering for more durable driving surfaces, road erosion can be reduced by as much as 95%.

Another relatively easy and hugely successful water sustainability program for farmers in the Delta provides free timers (there's a waiting list) to turn off water to fields once optimal irrigation levels are reached. This reduces the fuel and labor costs of constantly tending pumps, prevents most overflow erosion, and crucially, the timers are conserving severely depleted aquifers. About 400 timers on 42,000 acres of rice, soybeans, cotton and other crops have saved an estimated 10 billion gallons of groundwater annually.

Also, in partnership with other organizations and agencies, the organization helps develop projects for native vegetation buffers along waterways that reduce runoff and provide quality habitat for game species like quail and cooler, cleaner water for fish. Groups collaborate also on pasture and livestock management practices in relation to clean water and soil conservation.

Protecting the state's rivers is one of The Nature Conservancy's highest priorities. Along with work on Smith Creek, a tributary to the upper Buffalo River, the organization and its partners have done restorations on the Saline River and tributaries, on the beautiful Kings River, in the Greers Ferry Lake watershed and along the corridors of several other waterways.

Also extremely important to understanding how nature works is the study of Arkansas underground. Mike Slay, The Nature Conservancy's caveman, surveys living creatures in regional caves and the forests around them. He declares that Blanchard Springs Caverns, where he and other cavers have documented over 120 unique species, is the most diverse cave west of the Mississippi River.

Perhaps most notable, and sometimes controversial, of their conservation practices is prescribed burning. According to studies of historic fire cycles, both natural and those set by native tribes, it's been learned that occasional fire improves wildlife habitat growth and dormant seed regeneration in forests and grasslands. Also, fire strategies to reduce fuel loads have been of major interest after our nation's tragic wildfires in recent years. With their experience restoring " a million acres in Arkansas ... to a natural, healthy condition," The Nature Conservancy's state chapter has gone global, and so far has shared their expertise of how to have a "good fire" with six other countries.

By far my personal favorite projects of this organization are its 50-plus natural areas and nature preserves across Arkansas. Newer additions to the list are Logan Springs Preserve here in the northwest with a fishing pond just for kids and 50 acres of restored monarch butterfly habitat; and the Blue Mountain Natural Area, linked with Rattlesnake Ridge west of Little Rock, combines 14 miles of trails. The Nature Conservancy "works with others to conserve over 320,000 acres of land ... and owns approximately 35,000 acres, much of which is open to the public to enjoy."

All of this, and much more, takes expertise, dedication, hard work and donations from individuals and companies in order to " together save" what is left or is endangered in nature. On the organization's list of values they say, "Our mission of preserving biological diversity guides everything we do." That is a mission we all need to embrace.

The Nature Conservancy's 2030 goals can be found at https://www.nature.org under the dropdown menu "What we do."