Nature teaches lessons in philanthropy

by Jan Spann

It looks like it’s just a hardscrabble patch of dirt with straggles of weedy flowers and scrub trees, and yet the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission (ANHC) bought the 135 acres in Saline County and called it a treasure. What does the appreciative eye of a master botanist see on this rugged terrain? Much more than the average eye, and so begins the lesson that even in the tiniest of seeds sprout rare species, some found at few other sites on earth.

Theo Witsell is an ANHC botanist who invited me to join a field trip comprised of seven University of Central Arkansas graduate students and two science professors, Drs. Katherine Larson and Sally Entrekin. Rounding out the group was Jennifer Akin, ANHC grant coordinator and plant community ecologist.

The trip to Middle Fork Barrens Natural Area is just a short ride from Benton and immediately adjacent to the ever growing Hot Springs Village. Purchased in 2004, this project is a restoration of glades and woodlands. 

Witsell, along with amateur botanist and nature photographer John Pelton, found the property in 2001 while collecting plants for Witsell’s master’s thesis. On one early visit to the site, the 80-year-old farmer who owned the land questioned why Witsell was interested in “the sorriest piece of ground on my whole place.” In subsequent discussions, Witsell showed him some of the native plants that were unusual and even unique to this property.

“He liked that the ANHC preserves and restores the lands in the System of Natural Areas, and eventually agreed to sell 135 acres to the ANHC for the natural area, even though he probably could have gotten more money if he had held out and sold to land developers,” said Witsell. “This really is a special, one-of-a kind site, and his appreciation of that has allowed us to protect and restore several rare habitats and species.”

Philanthropy comes in many shapes and methods, including the willingness to eschew the greater profit for the greater good. The old man didn’t ask that his name be placed on the natural area; he wanted no fame and not too much fortune. As a result, benevolence such as his is one more reason that Arkansas can be called The Natural State. In fact, more than 20 percent of the natural areas in the ANHC system involved some type of philanthropic gift. 

Witsell, Akin and other ANHC staff survey prospective sites and make recommendations to the 15-member Natural Heritage Commission about what unique sites should be considered for purchase and inclusion into the System of Natural Areas. The Commission oversees 70 natural areas with funding that comes from the Natural and Cultural Resources Council and the 1/8-cent conservation sales tax, as well as federal grants, natural gas proceeds and general revenue. Since its inception 40 years ago, the commission has expanded the conservation initiative through responsible stewardship and scientific input.

Each of the ANHC properties is representative of one of the six natural divisions of Arkansas: Ozark Mountains, Arkansas Valley, Ouachita Mountains, Coastal Plain, Mississippi Alluvial Plain and Crowley’s Ridge. The areas are open to the public and some even to hunters, but no motorized vehicles are allowed.

“Many plants and animals are now restricted to a dwindling number of undisturbed natural habitat fragments, such as glades or unplowed prairie remnants, and our goal is to continue to find the best remaining areas to preserve for future generations to study and appreciate,” said Akin. “Not all pieces of ground are the same, and species and habitats are strongly interconnected. An intact, whole community is essential for species to survive on a site.”

Development means progress to the people population but often signals habitat destruction for flora and fauna, and that makes protection of these natural areas even more crucial. At Middle Fork Barrens, what at first might seem to be barren is anything but. Shale glades are naturally open, treeless areas with expansive shale bedrock that make it a farmer’s worst luck but offer a world of study for scientists and students.  

During the trek, we saw the Diana Fritillary, the state butterfly, which is globally rare but flourishes locally in these “barrens.” In fact, this area contains more than 600 documented plant species, 11 of which are considered rare, and that includes a few surprises for Witsell.

“Middle Fork Barrens has turned up plant species that were previously unknown and are ‘new-to-science,’” Witsell said. 

Pelton’s rose-gentian was described from this site in 2005 by Witsell and colleague, Dr. James Pringle, and it is known only from this site and a few others, also in Saline County. Witsell is currently working on documenting other new discoveries from the site. The process continues through scientific channels, as accuracy is in the details.

Witsell and the ANHC partner with other agencies on protection and restoration projects, such as when the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department helped facilitate the transplant of sod from a roadside prairie remnant to a nearby natural area, instead of just plowing the soil for a road widening project. While many in the scientific community initially scoffed at the idea, Witsell has now presented the positive results at international conferences, and the idea has gained some acceptance and notoriety.

“There’s lots that even the experts don’t know about nature, so it’s imperative to stay open to what’s possible – and even impossible,” Witsell said, proving yet again that Mother Nature has plenty to teach us about giving.