The sky is clear and the temperature is 78 degrees as we head west out of Little Rock on Arkansas 10. We pass the new headquarters of Bank OZK, a structure that would be right at home in the wealthy suburbs north of Dallas.
There are long lines at the drive-through windows of the restaurants that have popped up like spring weeds along this route. People are enjoying the weather and excited to get out as the pandemic winds down.
At the wheel is Jen Barnhouse, philanthropy director for the Nature Conservancy's Arkansas chapter, which has done so much during the past four decades to preserve natural areas across the state. Even though I live in west Little Rock, I'm stunned at how quickly we arrive at Rattlesnake Ridge. It's one of the charms of this place we call Arkansas: the ability to go from the state's largest city to what is in essence a wilderness area in a matter of minutes.
The Nature Conservancy is partnering with the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission to preserve Blue Mountain, the westernmost peak in what's known as the Maumelle Pinnacles chain. The state commission is hoping to raise $4 million with grants from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council and the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Meanwhile, the Nature Conservancy is attempting to raise $1 million to go toward land acquisition while raising another $1 million to manage the property.
Barnhouse says the goal is to add foot and bike trails along with a welcome area, as has been done at Rattlesnake Ridge. With land and a home from the Lee Bodenhamer family, the Nature Conservancy and the commission opened Rattlesnake Ridge Natural Area in 2018. About $3 million was raised so the 373 acres at Rattlesnake Ridge could be protected while also adding six miles of trails. More than 50,000 people visit each year.
Attractions such as the Cliffbrake Trail are now highly popular following thousands of volunteer hours that went into developing the trail system.
In the parking area we meet Theo Witsell, ANHC's chief of research and inventory. Witsell will be our guide as we go to the top of Rattlesnake Ridge in order to have an unobstructed view of Blue Mountain. Witsell, an expert on the state's plants, says the acquisition of Blue Mountain will help conserve rare species while providing additional recreational opportunities.
"One thing the pandemic made clear was the importance of our public conservation lands and the need for more places for outdoor recreation," Witsell says. "Pinnacle Mountain is our most visited state park, and it's crowded. The lot often is full here at Rattlesnake Ridge also. Blue Mountain will add 458 acres of wild natural space for everyone to enjoy."
The land is owned by timber industry giant PotlatchDeltic.
We jump in a four-wheeler to start up Rattlesnake Ridge. Barnhouse drives, and Witsell narrates. We see the positive effects of the prescribed burns the Nature Conservancy and ANHC have conducted on the ridge.
We go as far as the trail will take us before a steep climb through the woods (I had been warned to wear my hiking boots) to reach the top. The view to the west, which includes Lake Maumelle, is spectacular on this late spring day.
Witsell points out the sandscape barrens atop Blue Mountain. These barrens contain plants and animals that are more common in states west of Arkansas. The Western prickly pear, for example, can be found atop the mountain, along with Western diamondback rattlesnakes.
"You sometimes feel more like you're in Arizona," Witsell says. "It's a special place."
Folks such as Barnhouse and Witsell are able to articulate what we need elected officials in Arkansas to understand: Preserving and enhancing spots like this is about far more than tourism or giving residents something to do on the weekend.
In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, economic development isn't about attracting manufacturing plants. It's about attracting talented people. These well-educated folks demand quality-of-life amenities. Key among those are outdoor recreational opportunities. Arkansas is well positioned to attract and retain such people if it plays its cards correctly.
The Nature Conservancy and ANHC will be just as important as the Arkansas Economic Development Commission--perhaps even more important--in the future development of the state. Protecting natural attributes such as Rattlesnake Ridge and Blue Mountain is the key to growth in population and per-capita income.
In 1971--Dale Bumpers' first year as governor--a bill that charged the Arkansas Planning Commission with establishing a system for the preservation of natural areas passed the Legislature. What was known as the Arkansas Natural Area Plan was completed, but there was no funding included in the bill to acquire and protect natural areas.
In 1973, Bumpers successfully pushed for establishment of the Arkansas Environmental Preservation Commission to implement the Arkansas Natural Area Plan. The agency was renamed the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission in 1975 and is now part of the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.
In 1997, the Legislature transferred the duties of the Arkansas Natural and Scenic Rivers Commission to ANHC.
"The professional staff of ANHC is dedicated to acquisitions, research, public outreach and natural area stewardship," Jonelle Doughty writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "ANHC maintains the system of natural areas, which consists of lands specifically managed to preserve, and sometimes restore, natural communities that are now rare. The system protects more than 50,000 acres of ecologically important land across the state.
"Lands within the system of natural areas represent some of the best, and last, remaining examples of many of the state's original natural communities. Once an area is designated a natural area, ANHC staff work to maintain the unique characteristics of that area. The goals of natural area stewardship are to restore and enhance conditions for rare species and to maintain the ecological integrity of these natural communities. One of the most basic ways to protect natural communities and rare species is to determine their location and status."
ANHC maintains an extensive database of the locations and status of rare species across the state.
"This information is provided to other governmental agencies, consulting firms, corporations, researchers and students," Doughty writes. "Although much of the information is technical, educational resources are designed to be interesting and easy to understand. They serve as a critical link between ANHC and the public."
The Nature Conservancy created its Arkansas chapter in 1982. It was the 29th chapter in the United States and was established with the help of a $1 million challenge grant from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.
The Virginia-based organization already had been at work in Arkansas since the 1970s, acquiring land that became Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area in northwest Arkansas, Overflow National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Arkansas, and Logoly State Park near Magnolia.
In 1978, the conservancy and ANHC launched the Arkansas Natural Heritage Inventory Program, the central repository of data on the state's biodiversity. The two organizations have worked closely together ever since.
When I was doing economic and community development work in eight states for the Delta Regional Authority, I constantly preached to cities, counties and states that they must play to their strengths. Arkansas' greatest strength is its natural beauty and diversity. Our ability to protect and promote these gifts will go a long way toward determining if this state reaches its potential in the years ahead.
Thank goodness the Nature Conservancy and ANHC are out there fighting the good fight.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.