Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Wind your way down a highway in the Ozarks and it's easy to get the impression Arkansas is still a fairly wild place. Beautiful as the state may be, though, its landscapes have been transformed over the past 200 years: Forests have been cleared, rivers dammed, wildfire suppressed, invasive species introduced and wilderness converted to cropland or city or suburbia. As a result, many of Arkansas's unique natural communities have diminished in diversity and shrunk dramatically in size.
It's the mission of the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission to protect the best of what remains, in part through the establishment of "natural areas" around the state that preserve ecosystems of exceptional quality or unusual diversity. In such special places, hundreds of species of native wildflowers, grasses, trees and other plants may coexist within a few dozen acres of land — a breathtakingly complex latticework of botanical life. (And that's to say nothing of the fauna both large and small living in, on and among the flora.) Unlike the public lands held by Arkansas State Parks, which are largely intended to serve as recreation areas, the main objectives of the ANHC's holdings are conservation and research.
"We allow recreation, but our main purpose is conservation," said Theo Witsell, the ANHC's senior botanist. "Our sites are picked because they're really high quality examples of natural communities." (The Arkansas Times profiled the Little Rock native as a Visionary Arkansan in 2013 for his extraordinary plant knowledge: Witsell can identify some 5,000 species, he estimates.) There are 71 natural areas statewide, he said, encompassing 63,585 acres as of the time of this writing. For most of the natural areas, he said, "Anybody can go there as long as they follow the rules." (Here's a map.)
We asked Witsell to lead us through a survey of some of the state's most ecologically interesting spots, most of which (but not all) are ANHC-designated natural areas. From the blackland prairies of Southwest Arkansas to the bluffs and glades of the White River Hills, here are his top picks. Some are easily accessible and some are remote, but all are open to restricted public use. Before you plan a trip, take into account the time of year, recent rainfall, what's in bloom and whether it's hunting season. Glades and prairies are typically at their best in the spring or fall; woodlands are worth a summertime visit, too. Remember: It is illegal to collect plants from state lands without a permit. Enjoy them, but don't dig them up.
The shale barrens of the eastern Ouachita Mountains, Witsell said, are among the most botanically diverse and interesting habitats in Arkansas. Rocky, thin-soiled grasslands, barrens occur in widely scattered pockets where shale bedrock outcrops or comes close to the surface of the ground.
"These treeless or sparsely treed areas — glades — are often wet in the winter and spring but are among our driest habitats the rest of the year," Witsell said. "The number of plant species found in these is remarkable in and of itself, but especially significant is the number of rare species they report. Shale barrens support the greatest number of 'globally rare' species of any habitat in Arkansas [meaning species that are rare on the global scale, as opposed to being rare within the state but more common elsewhere]." Many of these are endemic to the Ouachita Mountains — meaning their range is restricted to that particular region — and many are endemic to glade habitats in particular.
Several of these species have been discovered and described by science for the first time relatively recently, Witsell said, "the most noteworthy probably being Pelton's rose-gentian [Sabatia arkansana], discovered by retired mechanic and amateur naturalist John Pelton and new to science as of 2005. It is known only from seasonally wet glades in Saline County and nowhere else on Earth. These shale barrens also support desert flora such as yucca, false aloe, prickly-pear cacti, stonecrop and rock-pinks."
Rich Mountain is perhaps best known to Arkansans as the site of Queen Wilhelmina State Park and its mountaintop visitors' lodge. To ecologists, the allure of the state's second highest peak (2,681 feet) is its status as a "sky island": Rich Mountain's higher elevations enjoy more rainfall and somewhat lower temperatures than the surrounding lowlands. The result is an outpost of "cool, often moist habitat in a lowland sea of warmer, drier conditions," Witsell said. (Mount Magazine, the highest peak in the state, is another sky island.)
Both Rich and Magazine are home to some species whose main range occurs in northern states or the Appalachian Mountains, Witsell said. Such "disjunct" species include prickly gooseberry (Ribes cynosbati), spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) and Appalachian cliff-brake (Woodsia appalachiana). There are also a number of species endemic to the mountains, like Ouachita blazing-star (Liatris compacta), Ouachita goldenrod (Solidago ouachitensis), Church's wild rye (Elymus churchii) and Ozark hedge-nettle (Stachys iltisii). The latter two were first described to science in 2006 and 2008, respectively.
"Both mountains support 'boulder field' or 'rock glacier' habitat," Witsell said, or "large areas of deeply piled large boulders with little plant cover." The origins of such geological features are still poorly understood, but they may have been formed as a result of prolonged freezing conditions during the past ice ages.
Perhaps the most spectacular wildflower displays in the state can be found in the blackland prairies of Southwest Arkansas. These prairies, Witsell said, "are actually complexes of open grasslands, savannas and woodlands, maintained in part by soil conditions and in part by fire. They're found on calcareous [limey] soils that were formed under the ancient Gulf of Mexico. These prairies share many species with the limestone and dolomite glades of the Ozarks, but others with western grasslands in Texas and Oklahoma." Birds and butterflies also abound.
The state's largest protected blackland prairie complex is the Rick Evans Grandview Prairie Wildlife Management Area, a 4,885-acre area managed by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission; for nonhikers, it includes a driving tour with interpretive signs. The Terre Noire Natural Area near Arkadelphia is also of exceptional quality, Witsell said.
The peak time to visit for wildflower viewing is typically from mid-April through June, with another, smaller peak in September and October (the fall season is best if the preceding summer didn't experience drought conditions, the botanist added).
Although it's only 274 acres, this preserve is home to 41 rare plant species tracked by the Natural Heritage Commission, Witsell said, a higher concentration than any other natural area in the system. It's an ecosystem distinguished by its topography of rolling hills and sandy soils. "Deep sand deposits in the Gulf Coastal Plain of Southwest Arkansas support a rich assemblage of habitats ranging from open, dry sandhill grasslands and sandhill woodlands to wooded seeps and shrub swamps," Witsell said.
Pine plantations may be what come to mind when one thinks of South Arkansas, but there's more to the region's botanical life than the timber industry. Across the Saline River from Warren lies a region of stunted grassland interspersed with bottomland hardwoods and stands of dwarf palmetto: the Warren Prairie Natural Area. Naturally high amounts of sodium and magnesium salts in the soil are behind the woodlands' irregular distribution. The salt slicks and barrens of the area are home to a large population of Geocarpon minimum — also called tinytim or earth-fruit — a miniscule succulent listed as a federally threatened species. Birders should look for the threatened red-cockaded woodpecker; a breeding population was established here in 2012.
Perhaps no part of the state has been transformed by settlement as fully as the Delta, which 200 years ago was dominated by immense hardwood forests on both sides of the Mississippi River. Most of the great trees have long since been replaced by row crops, but the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge still contains a sizable remnant of old bottomland forest. A part of the larger White River refuge, the Striplin Woods Natural Area is co-managed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
As the woods slope down toward the White River floodplain, white, black and red oaks give way to overcup oak, bald cypress and willow oak, with many trees exceeding two feet in diameter. The site has been equipped with an elevated boardwalk, which provides visitors with year-round access to the frequently flooded bottomlands.
To access this site in the heart of the Big Woods, take to the water. A canoe trail through the area has been created in recent years, with multiple access points on Bayou DeView and the Cache River. The largest and oldest trees, Witsell said, are located on the portion of Bayou DeView between the Benson Creek Natural Area on state Hwy. 17 and the Dagmar Wildlife Management Area on I-40.
The water trail includes "extensive tracts of old growth cypress-tupelo swamp forest with cypress trees as old as 800 to 1,000 years and tupelo gums as old as 500 years," Witsell said. "The site is not especially diverse botanically — few plant species can withstand the long periods of flooding in the area — but it is spectacular for its majestic forest of giant trees. It also offers good birding opportunities." If any ivory-billed woodpeckers still fly in Arkansas, this is where you'll find them.
In its heyday, Witsell said, "the Grand Prairie of eastern Arkansas was an anomaly in its own right — at least 400,000 acres of treeless grasslands surrounded by savannas and woodlands in the middle of an area (the Arkansas Delta) otherwise occupied by bottomland forest." But as the woods have gone, so have the grasslands. Only about 420 acres of the Grand Prairie remain today; the rest has been swallowed by agriculture. About half of that acreage is protected in four natural areas spread across three counties: Downs Prairie (near DeValls Bluff), Konecny Prairie (south of Hazen), Roth Prairie (just south of Stuttgart) and Railroad Prairie (an area between Carlisle and DeValls Bluff, so named because it includes portions of the abandoned right-of-way of the former Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific railroad).
"A recent study documented 769 species of native plants occurring, or historically occurring, in grasslands and associated savannas and woodlands in the Grand Prairie," Witsell said, including 40 considered to be of conservation concern in Arkansas. "The Grand Prairie is also known for harboring the Stern's medlar [Crataegus × canescens], one of the rarest shrubs in the world. It is known from a single site in a rare type of prairie-edge woodland called a 'prairie slash.' Believed to have originated by the hybridization of an Old World medlar and a native North American hawthorn, its existence is one of the greatest mysteries in North American botany."
Through the northern half of the pancake-flat Arkansas Delta runs a low ridge composed of sand, gravel and loess (a fine, windblown soil) that extends from Missouri south to Helena-West Helena. Toward the southern end of Crowley's Ridge lies the St. Francis National Forest, a place in which "the rugged ravines and rich soils have produced spectacular hardwood forests more similar to those east of the Mississippi River than to anything else in Arkansas," according to Witsell.
"The St. Francis National Forest includes a few areas of very mature rich hardwood forest with stately beech, white oak and cucumber magnolia trees. This is the only region of the state where tulip poplar [Liriodendron tulipifera] is considered native. It is also one of the last holdouts for the butternut, or white walnut tree [Juglans cinerea], a species which is being wiped out across its range by a non-native fungal pathogen called butternut canker. And, southern Crowley's Ridge is the only place in Arkansas where certain other rare plants such as Virginia pennywort [Obolaria virginiana] and climbing magnolia vine [Schisandra glabra] can be seen."
The nature trail at Bear Creek Lake winds through forests that are both spectacular and accessible, Witsell said. "The Turkey Ridge Research Natural Area on the southwest side of Storm Creek Lake is especially impressive, but is so rugged and remote as to be only for the most adventurous," he added.
About 10 miles southeast of where the Buffalo River empties into the White River lies the rugged Sylamore District of the Ozark National Forest, a favorite destination of backpackers. North Sylamore Creek finds its headwaters in these mountains, its three forks flowing through deep gorges of limestone and sandstone. Nonetheless, the area is accessible by road and trail.
"So many rare plant species are found in this area that a portion was designated as the Clifty Canyon Botanical Area," Witsell said. "It's well known for a number of northeastern and Appalachian species not found anywhere else in Arkansas. These mostly occur deep in the canyons and include slender bunchflower [Veratrum latifolium], miterwort [Mitella diphylla], barren-strawberry [Waldsteinia fragarioides], white trillium [Trillium flexipes], interrupted fern [Osmunda claytoniana], shining fir-moss [Huperzia lucidula], Bowman's root [Gillenia trifoliata], running strawberry-bush [Euonymus obovata] and wood anemone [Anemone quinquefolia]. Glades above the streams support a totally different flora, rich in drought-adapted desert species like yucca and prickly pear cactus."
Witsell also notes that the area is "full of caves and springs and has some of the best swimming holes in the state." And while you're there, pay a visit to Blanchard Springs Cavern, which is just down the road on state Hwy. 14.
We laymen typically think of the Ozarks as a single region, but scientists divide the hill country of North Arkansas and southern Missouri into a number of more precisely described ecoregions. Devil's Eyebrow, a newly designated ANHC natural area north of Beaver Lake, sits at the junction of three such subdivisions: the Springfield Plateau (a generally flat highland area that was historically prairie and savanna), the White River Hills (rugged country along the White and its tributaries that includes bluffs, glades and barrens) and the Dissected Springdale Plateau (a rugged area with deep hollows that support several types of woodlands). This makes Devil's Eyebrow one of the most botanically diverse areas in the Arkansas Ozarks, Witsell said, and it is home to several species typically found in other parts of the U.S.
"Having all these different habitats and ecoregions packed together has resulted in exceptional botanical diversity, with over 700 species generally, and rare elements present from all points of the compass. There are southeastern rarities like ovate-leaf catchfly [Silene ovata] in deep narrow gorges, western elements in the glades and on dry bluffs, and rare northern species like white rattlesnake root [Prenanthes alba], black maple [Acer saccharum var. nigrum] and rock elm [Ulmus thomasii]." Rare animals such as the eastern collared lizard can also be spotted in the area. Witsell said the Natural Heritage Commission is working to remove eastern red cedar from the glades — an invasive species that often disrupts Ozark woodland ecosystems in the absence of regular fires.
Dolomite glades — so named for the type of rock that underlies these diverse natural communities — are common in the Ozarks, and two easily accessible sites in Carroll County contain particularly good examples.Northwest of Eureka Springs is Lake Leatherwood, which is surrounded by a large municipal park of the same name. "The entire area is comprised of alternating bands of dolomite glade and woodland," Witsell said. "Cedar has encroached on many of the glades — as it has throughout the Ozarks — but some are still open and support a rich flora characteristic of the dry, rocky grasslands of the region. Among the wildflowers to see are the Ozark endemic Trelease's Larkspur [Delphinium treleasei], blue false indigo [Baptisia australis] and purple prairie clover [Dalea purpurea]."
Witsell also suggests Saunder's Heights, a lesser known public park in nearby Berryville. "It sits atop a dolomite knob on the north side of town," he said. "You can drive up to an overlook among the utility towers at the top. Below the summit is an area of dolomite glades that have been cleared of cedar, releasing a great diversity of wildflowers and grasses. Uncommon and rare species abound and are easily accessible for viewing. The Ozark Chapter of the Arkansas Native Plant Society regularly has outings here."
This newly created park — phase one was just completed in August — aims to balance public recreation and conservation goals, providing athletic fields and recreation facilities adjacent to 384 acres of Ozark forest. The city of Fayetteville worked with the Walton Family Foundation, the Fayetteville Natural Heritage Association and the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust to acquire and protect the land. "Kessler Mountain Regional Park is a great example of a multipartner public/private conservation effort that is protecting a significant natural area," he said. The woodland "will have a network of multi-use [hiking and biking] trails to allow public access to the preserved forest."
From a botanist's perspective, it's the mountain's almost 550 plant species that are of most interest. "Most significant are pockets of old-growth oak woodland, bluffs with rare species and a very rare Ozark Shale Barrens community in a saddle on the ridgetop. Also, during surveys for an ecological assessment conducted by the ANHC in 2014, several small populations of Missouri ground-cherry [Physalis missouriensis] were found. This globally rare species had not been documented from Arkansas in more than 60 years. ... Kessler is an easy-to-access area where you can do some quality plant-watching close to town."
Prairies are perhaps most often associated with southern and eastern Arkansas, but Witsell said the largest prairie remnants in the state are found in the western part of the Arkansas River Valley. "There are three public preserves in close proximity to one another north of Charleston: Cherokee Prairie Natural Area and H.E. Flanagan Prairie [both managed by the ANHC] and Presson-Oglesby Prairie [managed by the Nature Conservancy]. All of these are exemplary botanical areas and are some of the last places in Arkansas that support good-sized areas of healthy, dense assemblages of prairie grasses and wildflowers."
As with many prairies, the wildflower show is especially good in the year following a prescribed burn, Witsell said. "They are also exemplary areas for bird and butterfly watching, supporting a number of grassland species that have declined dramatically from their historical population levels."
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