Looking toward the next 20 years and the things Arkansas must do to achieve its potential, I've come to the conclusion that the most important nonprofit organization in the state 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 must play to their strengths. Arkansas' greatest strength is its natural beauty and outdoor recreational opportunities. One of our biggest shortcomings, meanwhile, is retaining talented young people while also attracting highly educated residents from other states.
In the nationwide race for talent, a key attribute for any state is easily accessible, affordable outdoor activities. Surveys show that this is a major quality-of-life amenity that young people demand when deciding where to live. We have world-class hiking, cycling, fishing, hunting and camping in Arkansas.
Water sports? We have them, from large lakes on which to ski to mountain streams for canoe and kayak trips.
Rock climbing? Check. Hang-gliding? Check. Birdwatching? Check. Horseback riding? Check. I could go on, but you get the picture.
If Arkansas will do a proper job protecting and enhancing these God-given gifts (combined with making broadband widely available in rural areas), we're primed to thrive in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century. Just as Californians escape congestion and high taxes in their state for places such as Colorado, Arkansas could become a mecca for people escaping cities such as Houston, Dallas, St. Louis and even Chicago.
The Colorado of middle America? Don't laugh. It could happen.
Outside of government, few entities have done more than the Nature Conservancy the past four decades to protect what we have here. The national organization was incorporated in October 1951 in Washington, D.C., as a nonprofit. The Arkansas field office, which was established in April 1982, was the conservancy's 29th state program. It began with about 250 members and a staff of three.
Kay Kelley Arnold opened the first Arkansas office in Little Rock and had a charter board 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 director of the Arkansas office.
In 1984, the Nature Conservancy purchased 5,570 acres in Pulaski and Lonoke counties that were later transferred to the state to form Holland Bottoms Wildlife Management Area. It's one of the last extensive bottomland areas remaining in a part of the state that's rapidly becoming urbanized.
According to the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas: "During DeLamar's tenure through 2003, more than 200,000 acres in Arkansas were moved into conservation status, and she was awarded the 1993 National Wetlands Conservation Award from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in recognition of the conservancy's involvement in a 41,000-acre land exchange that created a protected corridor between two national wildlife refuges, the Cache and White.
"Arkansas' unique geology and topography, coupled with abundant fresh water and annual rainfall, provide habitat for a rich variety of plants and animals, many found nowhere else. The conservancy 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 science, the Nature Conservancy identifies and conserves the landscapes and waterscapes where the richest and rarest biodiversity occurs.
"Major strategies include acquiring ecologically important land from willing sellers and donors; restoring degraded land and waters; conducting prescribed burns to maintain fire-dependent habitats; promoting conservation-minded, sustainable land use practices in areas such as forestry, farming, ranching and road construction; and researching, recording and monitoring biodiversity."
The Nature Conservancy is active statewide. DeLamar outlined regional projects this way:
Ozark Mountains--"Research and protection projects in the karst ecosystem safeguard habitat for sensitive and endangered cave-dwelling creatures while protecting water quality and scenic beauty."
Pine woods of south Arkansas--"Projects center on conservation of the remaining blackland prairies and sustainable management of native pine and hardwood forests."
Ouachita Mountains--"Restoring oak woodlands and conserving river systems are the major areas of focus."
Delta--"The Big Woods project includes conservation of bottomland hardwood forests and wetland ecosystems for migratory birds, big-river fish, black bears and other species. It was in the Big Woods of Arkansas that the ivory-billed woodpecker was rediscovered in 2004, giving heightened meaning to the work of the Nature Conservancy and many in the Delta during the preceding decades."
Scott Simon replaced DeLamar as director and continues to serve the conservancy.
By the late 1980s, the conservancy was busy in Arkansas. In 1986, Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was established with the transfer of land from the conservancy to the federal government and with legislation pushed by Arkansas' two U.S. senators at the time, Dale Bumpers and David Pryor. The following year, the conservancy purchased and transferred 4,400 acres to the state for the creation of Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area.
In 1989, the conservancy and the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission partnered to purchase Lorance Creek Nature Preserve in Pulaski County, preserving a tupelo-cypress bottomland forest. That same year, the conservancy acquired 3,667 acres at the current headquarters of Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.
During the 1980s, the conservancy acquired more than 9,000 acres in the Delta and replanted that land in hardwoods. Landowners in the region noticed. By 1999, Arkansas was among the top 10 states participating in the Wetlands Reserve Program with more than 130 landowners enrolling almost 36,000 acres.
Down in southwest Arkansas in the 1990s, the conservancy and ANHC moved into blackland prairie conservation with the establishment of Terre Noire Natural Area in Clark County. Blacklands conservation was strengthened in 1997 with the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission's acquisition of what's 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 conservancy entered into a restoration agreement with the Pine Bluff Arsenal on 6,000 acres and with Fort Chaffee on 55,000 acres.
In 2010, the conservancy established the Kings River Preserve along seven miles of the river in north Arkansas. A year later, over in the Delta, an agreement was secured with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to restore a 4.6-mile stretch of the Cache River that had been channelized in the 1970s. Half a million hardwood seedlings were planted in the Cache bottomlands the following year.
At the same time, conservancy crews were restoring heavily eroded stream banks on forks of the Little Red and Saline rivers. Many such restorations have followed.
In 2015, Ranch North Woods along the Little Maumelle River in far west Little Rock became the conservancy's first urban preserve. Three years after that, following the support of the Lee Bodenhamer family, Rattlesnake Ridge Natural Area opened a few miles to the west.
From those first 250 members and three staffers, the Nature Conservancy in Arkansas has grown to more than 6,000 members and a staff of more than 40 full-time and seasonal employees.
The role it plays going forward could help lead to a golden age for Arkansas. After the pandemic, this state has what folks are looking for.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.