Value of Natural Areas

Department of Arkansas Heritage - Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Pictured: On the left, an 1881 Map of Arkansas showing the distribution of forests. On the right, a map of ANHC's Natural Areas.  

The Value of Natural Areas

Prior to settlement, Arkansas was marked by an expansive mix of natural communities. In all, more than 40 different natural community types occurred across Arkansas’s landscape. Since the 1880s, however, urban development, agriculture, fire suppression, and the spread of invasive plant species have destroyed or degraded many of these diverse ecosystems. The land that you or I see now is very different from that of our ancestors.

What is a natural area?

Natural areas are lands specifically managed to preserve, protect, and sometimes restore vital habitat for plants and animals that represent the natural heritage of all Arkansans. Natural areas encompass a wide range of environments and generally exist as islands within otherwise altered settings.

The Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission (ANHC) is charged with the responsibility of protecting the best of the last remaining vestiges of the state’s natural communities through its System of Natural Areas, acquiring land for the System that represents Arkansas’s natural landscape. Most additions secure habitat for rare species or offer a chance for restoration measures.

Why do we need natural areas?

Natural areas are more than just a glimpse into the past. What these areas ultimately can provide are blueprints for understanding how Arkansas’s diverse ecosystems originally functioned.

ANHC works to conserve our biodiversity by identifying ecologically important areas and setting priorities for their protection and the species that inhabit them. We maintain a biodiversity database, the only comprehensive source of information regarding the rare species and natural communities of Arkansas.

Why do we need biodiversity?

Biodiversity is important for many reasons, including medical research and treatments, pollination of successful food crops, recreation, employment, tourism, and more.

Despite great advances in medical sciences, most of our prescription drugs are derived from compounds from plants, including aspirin, ACE inhibitors, and more. The cure or treatment for any ailment or disease could be out there waiting to be discovered in the most unlikely of places.

America’s pollinators need a variety of plants in order to survive. If we lose pollinators, our world’s food population would be in danger. Of 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of our global food supply, 71 are pollinated by bees. The value of pollination of food crops by bees in the U.S. alone is estimated at $16 billion, and insect pollinators in general contribute $29 billion to U.S. farm income (Source: CNN). China is a perfect example of what could happen if we lose our bee pollination. Due to the destruction of their bee population, China now has to hand pollinate their food crops and other plants.

People love to go outside and explore, evidenced by the amount of money spent collectively in the U.S. on hunting, fishing, birding, canoeing, kayaking, and many more outdoor activities. According to the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, conducted by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011, hunters, anglers, and wildlife watchers spent more than $1.8 billion on wildlife-related recreation in Arkansas that year.

Why do we need management of natural areas?

The very concept of “natural areas” seems to imply that these are places that should be left untouched. The reality is often the opposite. What happens, or in some cases does not happen, on surrounding lands can have a profound impact on the ecological integrity of natural areas. As a result, we cannot simply fence these lands in and walk away.

Long-term viability of remnant natural communities requires science-based conservation through active and sound management. In some cases, natural areas must undergo restoration to improve their overall condition.

ANHC stewardship staff follow a framework and conservation vision, guided by management plans, specific to individual natural areas. The foundation of stewardship work includes routine ground maintenance activities such as boundary demarcation, installation of appropriate signs, removal of trash, and establishment of public access points. Where appropriate, staff also apply a variety of techniques to maintain and restore a site’s ecological integrity. These techniques include non-native and/or invasive species control, timber stand management, and prescribed burning. 

Visit the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission to locate a Natural Area near you.