Grassland restoration

Partners team for Little Rock project

Pale purple coneflower is one of the native plants used in grassland restoration at the Covey Project in Gilliam Park. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Bryan Hendricks)

Nearly a dozen members from the ACCESS Academy contributed to a unique grassland restoration project at the Audubon Delta headquarters Tuesday in Little Rock.

ACCESS is a 501c3 nonprofit offering evaluation services, full-time education, therapy, training and activities for individuals with special needs. Members participating in Tuesday's activities harvested seeds from native grassland plants and also planted cultivars between panels in Audubon's solar farm. Plants grown from the seeds are used in the Covey Project at Gillam Park, which contains a nepheline syenite glade, one of the earth's rarest habitat types.

Partners in the project are the Little Rock Garden Club, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, The Nature Conservancy, the ACCESS Group, Quail Forever and Central Arkansas Water.

The project has multiple prongs, said Jonathan Young, Habitat and Working Lands Program Coordinator for Audubon Delta. One objective is to harvest and glean seeds from native grassland plants to help restore the grassland profile at Gillam Park. A greater objective is to heighten awareness and appreciation for native grasslands, which are under increasing pressure from residential, commercial and agricultural development.

Encompassing less than 10 acres, the Covey Project at Gillam Park is a demonstration model that supports grassland restoration at large.

"This is a small scale project, but this is just one example of a project that does a lot of community engagement on top of the grassland restoration," Young said. "Grassland habitat is some of our most impacted habitat nationwide. Anywhere that's open has been developed or farmed, so a lot of these historic grasslands are gone and so we really have to work to restore some of these ecosystems so that these grassland birds have a place to exist."

The area is probably too small to attract and support quail, but the name symbolizes the mission.

"We call it the Covey Project because it's a grassland project for quail and things like that," Young said, "but we won't have the quail, and we won't have the grassland birds without the habitat and without the pollinators they need to support that habitat. That all starts with seed and native plants, and that's what we focus on."

Among the plants being propagated are pale purple coneflower (Echinacea), Missouri coneflower, prairie leatrice, rattlesnake master and slender mountain mint.

"Echinacea will start blooming in the spring and early summer," Young said. "Other things will bloom into the fall. We want to make sure we have something in here for pollinators all season long."

Restoration involves an oak savanna that once contained the Granite Heights neighborhood. It was razed and reconstituted with new homes in the early 2000s on an adjacent property. The elements of the savanna were intact, Young said, providing the foundation for a multi-prong restoration.

"It was originally a housing development for returning Black soldiers after World War II," Young said. "When it was removed and relocated, they left a lot of these big oak trees. A big oak savanna would have been here on the back side of this hill. They kind of recreated it when they didn't remove these big post oak trees. We're removing woody invasives and burning and trying to open it aback up to grassland habitat."

On the other side of the hill is the nepheline syenite glade. Young said it is one of only two such glades known to exist in the world. The other one is in Central Arkansas, as well. Young said it is a remnant of an epoch when Arkansas's climate was much drier. It supports diehard plants like prickly pear, various yuccas and false aloe.

"They're both right here," Young said. "That rock is a metamorphic rock that only comes to the surface a few places on earth. It's mined everywhere it comes to the surface. All of your blue gravel, all your shingle granules, all your grinding wheels, riprap -- that's all nepheline syenite. It all comes out of quarry back here. Everywhere it does come to the surface, it's mined away.

"We were able to work with the City of Little Rock some years back to do a land swap with the quarry to save this piece up here. The glade itself is 80 to 100 acres. It's got really cool plants on it, things you would only see in a desert. It's just a little lifeboat from times much much past when it was much drier here, and they've persisted on that really dry site up there. a It's really neat area, and we're working to save and preserve it."