OPINION | FRAN ALEXANDER: Rogers couple’s actions save historic prairie lands to give portal into what used to be

Foresight preserves sample of prairie habitat

"Money wasn't as important to her as flowers."

-- Mary Ann Hoppe, daughter of Anna Mae Searles

Relationships between people and land can be complicated and wrought with drama, and, as in most stories, winners and losers emerge in struggles for dominance. Humans have generally seen themselves as entitled to what's spread out before them and have dominated soil resources with everything from plows to gigantic machinery to poisons sprayed from tractors or planes. Depleted soil is spiked with fertilizers and fields are irrigated or drained to adjust for water needs.

Occasionally the rare human comes along who says, "No." They figure nature knows what it is doing in the creation of rich soil and integrated ecosystems, and it's best to learn from, rather than take from, the land. This is a tough lesson.

Driving past Dixieland Road and U.S. 62 (W. Hudson Road) in Rogers, one could be forgiven for assuming the open space there is just undeveloped land overgrown in a mishmash of weeds. However, that 12.5-acre spot is priceless. It is a gene pool. And it would now be covered in pavement and structures had a foresighted couple who bought their farm in 1939, Isaac and Anna Mae Searles, not loved prairie land.

In 2019, Theo Witsell of the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission said, "Surviving tallgrass prairies are remnants of rare and ancient ecosystems, thousands of years old. 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."

When the Searles family decided not to plow, they saved a tiny piece of Ozark Plateau habitat, which in the early 1800s covered tens of thousands of acres. Today less than one half of one percent of that original prairie remains. Yet, amazingly, these 12.5 acres support 250 native plant species, including 10 the state believes may need special care to conserve their viability."

Isaac Searles grew up on prairie lands in western Missouri and this tract reminded him of his boyhood home. After his death, Anna Mae knew to protect their special place. She needed it in a more secure designation than one that could be encroached upon or taken for utility or other right-of-way demands. The late Mina Marsh, who worked in securing special lands for the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, recognized immediately what threats were rapidly headed toward this property and worked with Anna Mae to get the land secured in a conservation easement with the commission in 1988.

Mrs. Searles' donation purpose was that her prairie be used for education, emphasizing especially to younger generations what natural and cultural heritage was under their feet right there alongside a busy highway. For years, she spent time at the prairie with students doing research projects. Students from Northwest Arkansas Community College have also studied there and collected native seeds for a prairie restoration site at the college.

Clark Mitchell, who works in grassland ecosystem preservation, says this about Searles Prairie: "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. 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. And of course so that the plants and animals that require this habitat could have at least a little of what they need to survive into the future."

We need to learn from our land-use mistakes by contrasting them with the lessons that original prairie soils have to teach us. The plants and fungi there have secrets we are yet to discover about how they fit into and feed ecosystems containing microbes, insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals, and eventually ... us.

Diane Hopper Puckett, granddaughter of the Searles, remembers, "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 on this little slice of God's gift to our family."

It became the Searles gift to us all.