OPINION | FRAN ALEXANDER: Some degraded prairie land being revived in Northwest Arkansas

Some degraded land being revived in Northwest Arkansas

"... European newcomers saw the land as an enemy to be vanquished. The Indians saw the prairie and forests as a benefactor, and they practiced a benign tenancy of both."

-- James Krohe Jr.

If we tear our jeans, we patch them. But a "patch of land" is a small plot, perhaps left for some special use. Can it repair anything? In the case of original, unplowed prairie land in Northwest Arkansas, virgin patches of prairie grasses are few and far between. Some scarce scattered parcels that still hold some original prairie characteristics are undergoing restoration efforts by individuals and organizations. They are patches of repair.

What makes this dirt so special or different? Unlike polluted water, which we can usually taste, or dirty air that we can see and smell, soil is subtle when it's in trouble. Except when it's eroding away or drying up, soil sits quietly ignored under our feet, its value appreciated mostly by good gardeners and farmers. But, since soil feeds us, we need to learn a lot more lessons about this third card in our deck of survival necessities.

Long ago when the buffalo roamed the prairies that stretched over millions of acres from Canada to Mexico, there was grass enough to feed the great herds, which in turn were a source of food, clothing and shelter for native tribes of humans. The components in the prairie soil, which built up over thousands of years, were derived from a vast diversity of plants and animals that interacted within the ecosystem. Occasional fires and native humans kept trees from encroaching on the grasslands, but then along came settlers with other ideas of how to run things. Plowing and later tilling with tractors broke open the prairie's organic layers and different plant crops changed the soil's ingredients.

In our region, these grasslands once covered parts of Northwest Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma, southeast Kansas and western Missouri. (I wrote about Searles Prairie (12.5 acres) in Rogers in my Sept. 5 article.)

Woolsey Farmstead and Wet Prairie Sanctuary (about 60 acres) is next to Fayetteville's West Side Wastewater Treatment Facility, 15 S. Broyles St. The city's management and monitoring report of the site in 2020 noted that since 2005, when only 47 plant species were found, there's been a 1,055% increase now totaling 496 plant species. Woolsey is proof that relic seed banks in soil sometimes can successfully reclaim their niche if provided the right conditions. In addition, the city's restoration of the Woolsey home, where they raised 13 children in the mid-1800s, is very important historically to the state.

Joe Woolbright, director of the nonprofit Ozark Ecological Restoration Inc. (OERI), says that after many years of good stewardship practices, including prescribed burns and battling invasives, some degraded prairie land is being revived. He also told me about other patches of prairie in this region. (More information on each can be found online.)

Callie's Prairie (about 30 acres), named for Callie Henson, whose family settled land north of Lake Fayetteville in the 1860s, has been helped by the Fayetteville Natural Heritage Association that worked to remove invasives like eastern red cedars and black cherry trees. The city does prescribed burns there when needed.

Also in Fayetteville, Wilson Springs (121 acres near Sam's) is being restored by efforts of Arkansas Audubon and the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust. Unity Church Prairie on Wedington and World Peace Wetland Prairie on South Duncan Street are two smaller examples of efforts toward prairie preservation.

Baker Prairie Natural Area in Harrison is a 71-acre remnant of what was once 5,000 acres of tallgrass prairie. (Native tallgrasses can reach 4 to 8 feet or more in height.) Woolbright says Baker is "a rare virgin chert (flint rock) hill prairie with extremely high quality plant diversity and home to many rare and uncommon species."

Near Siloam Springs is Chesney Prairie Natural Area, 82 acres of tallgrass land, which was purchased by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission in 2000. Also 7 acres of virgin chert tallgrass prairie are on the Siloam campus of John Brown University. OERI has been restoring both of these and numerous others.

Some other potentially restorable remnant patches are Round Prairie west of Gentry, Beaty Prairie and Wet Prairie near Maysville, Norwood Prairie west of Wedington, and a 7-acre site next to the Devil's Eyebrow Natural Area.

When we take things apart we need to save all the pieces. Prairies are libraries of unique earthly knowledge that we've almost lost.

Upcoming Events