About Natural Areas

 

What is a natural area?

Prior to settlement, Arkansas was marked by an expansive mosaic of natural communities. In all, more than 40 different natural community types occurred across Arkansas's landscape. Since the 1800s, however, urban development, agriculture, fire suppression, and the spread of invasive plant species have destroyed or degraded many of these diverse ecosystems.

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. ANHC does this through its System of Natural Areas. Natural areas are lands specifically managed to preserve, and sometimes restore, natural communities that have become rare.

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. Such information will be especially vital as Arkansas continues to develop and address important environmental issues into the future.                     

flower in front of flower field
image of prescribed burn

Stewardship

The very concept of "natural areas" would seem to imply that these are places that should be left untouched. The reality is often just the opposite. Today, many natural areas exist as "islands" of natural habitat in a veritable "sea" of altered land. 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.

The System of Natural Areas encompasses a wide range of natural communities and supports a rich diversity of animal and plant species. To protect these natural areas, management by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission (ANHC) is essential. Stewardship staff take methodical steps, based on sound scientific research, to restore ecosystem functions and maintain or enhance habitat conditions required to perpetuate rare species and natural communities. Work activities are conducted within the framework of a conservation vision and are guided by management plans specific to individual natural areas. Management plans are updated in a five-year review cycle and incorporate research findings and the results of proactive land management practices.

The foundation of stewardship work includes routine ground maintenance activities such as boundary demarcation, installation of appropriate signs, removal of trash, and establishing public access points. Where appropriate, staff also apply a variety of techniques to maintain or restore a site's ecological integrity. These techniques include non-native and/or invasive species control, timber stand management and prescribed burning. 

Birth of the System

Following its establishment in 1973, ANHC began to incorporate sites into its System of Natural Areas. Singer Forest Natural Area was Arkansas’s first natural area and was donated to ANHC by the Singer Company in 1973. Roth Prairie, located in Arkansas County, was the first natural area purchased by ANHC. It was acquired on July 23, 1976.

Data from the Arkansas Heritage Program has enabled the commission to make choices based upon scientific data. Many early acquisitions concentrated on small tracts to protect habitats of certain rare animals and plants. Near the White River in Stone County, Hell Creek Natural Area supports one of the only known populations of the federally endangered Hell Creek crayfish (Cambarus zophonastes). Warren Prairie Natural Area was acquired in 1983 and is one of only a handful of sites in the world where the federally threatened plant geocarpon (Geocarpon minimum) grows. The small parcel that started out as Warren Prairie Natural Area has now grown to more than 4,000 acres.                 

Reconnecting Landscapes

From the mid-1980s to the present, ANHC has focused on larger and more complex projects. In 2010, conservation partnerships with other governmental agencies, non-profits, and private industry advanced a large-scale conservation effort. Warren Prairie Natural Area was expanded when The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a non-profit organization, sold 2,107 acres to ANHC. TNC initially purchased the property from Plum Creek Timber Company. ANHC's funding came from a U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Grant administered by the Arkansas Forestry Commission. The grant, worth more than $2 million, was matched by ANHC primarily through the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, which is funded by the state’s real estate transfer tax.

The site will remain a working forest, meaning it will continue to provide local forestry jobs and forest products to local mills. The Commission will work with Plum Creek Timber Company, which once owned the land, and with TNC and contractors to ecologically thin overly dense pine stands at the property. Overly dense forests prevent sunlight from reaching the ground, which results in few plant species on the forest floor and in turn affects wildlife diversity and populations. Controlled burns will also be used to restore dense pine stands to open, natural timberlands with abundant plant and wildlife diversity.

Another example of large-scale conservation partnerships in action is Cossatot River State Park - Natural Area. Managed cooperatively with Arkansas State Parks (ASP), this 4,470-acre natural area was acquired in 16 different transactions between 1987 and 1993. It protects 11 miles of the Cossatot River and the unique communities found within an upland Ouachita Mountains stream. Because of the cooperative approach to managing this natural area, portions of the area have been developed to enhance environmental education opportunities and public visitation.

image of plants sprouting from ground
image of trees in forest

Public Hunting Land in Arkansas

Specific forms of hunting are allowed on some natural areas. A cooperative agreement between ANHC and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) incorporated certain natural areas into AGFC's Wildlife Management Area (WMA) system. Every effort has been made by AGFC to provide maximum opportunity, maintain safety, protect healthy wildlife populations, and adhere to the conservation values inherent to ANHC's System of Natural Areas. Natural areas that are also considered AGFC WMAs will receive the same level of attention from AGFC enforcement staff as do other WMAs. Consequently, all applicable hunting regulations will be enforced on natural areas where hunting is allowed. Please make yourself aware of current AGFC hunting regulations before visiting a natural area. You can download a PDF of the current Arkansas Hunting Guidebook.

The AGFC has created a General Use WMA Permit required of anyone who hunts, traps, fishes, or boats on a WMA. The permit is free and can be obtained at any licensed vendor, by calling 800-364-4263, or visiting online. More information about the new permit can be found here.

Hunting on a Specific Natural Area

Below is a list of natural areas where hunting is permitted. Some natural areas have limited access, and it is the hunter's responsibility to obtain permission to access adjacent private landowner's property. Follow the natural area links below for directions and boundary and county locator maps. Please follow the WMA links (listed under each natural area) for specific hunting regulations, as the types of hunting allowed on each natural area varies.

Feral hogs have become a threat to land across the state, including properties within the System of Natural Areas. If you are interested in hunting feral hogs on natural areas, AGFC has developed special regulations for land in the WMA system. Visit the AGFC website for that information.