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The blacklands of southwest Arkansas

One of the many things I love about Arkansas is its geographic diversity.

There are mountains in the west and the north — the Ouachitas and the Ozarks.

There’s the Arkansas River Valley cutting across the state.

There are the pine woods of the Gulf Coastal Plain in the south.

There are the vast flatlands of the Delta and the Grand Prairie in the east.

Meanwhile, Crowley’s Ridge bisects that flat Delta land, providing hills and a habitat for plants that more resemble what might be found in the Appalachians.

A unique part of Arkansas — and one that few people ever hear about — is the blackland prairie area in the southwest section of the state.

Here’s how the Nature Conservancy describes these prairies: “The blacklands of southwestern Arkansas, a landscape dominated by tall native grasses and vibrant wildflowers, had a watery beginning. Millions of years ago, the Gulf of Mexico covered the region. As the gulf receded, it left behind deposits of shellfish that formed a chalky layer underneath a deep mantle of rich, black soil.

“It’s from this dark soil that the blacklands got their name. The state’s blackland prairies and associated woodlands harbor more than 600 types of plants, including 21 globally imperiled plant communities. Some 315 animal species are found at blackland sites, including rare birds like Bachman’s sparrow, Henslow’s sparrow, painted bunting and Harlan’s hawk.

“Originally about 12 million acres of blackland prairies and woodlands covered parts of Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Today only some 10,000 acres remain in scattered patches. Most of the original blackland landscape disappeared in the past 150 years, and high-quality remnants are increasingly rare. The open terrain and rich soils were appealing for agricultural fields, pastures and tree plantations. Today remaining blackland sites are losing ground to suburban development.”

Beginning in the 1980s, the Nature Conservancy partnered with the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission to identify the least disturbed blackland sites in the state.

In 1991, the conservancy teamed up with the commission to acquire the Terre Noire Natural Area in Clark County. That preserve now covers 490 acres.

In 1997, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission acquired what’s now the Rick Evans Grandview Prairie Wildlife Management Area. It covers 4,885 acres, making it the largest blackland conservation site in the country.

That marvelous acquisition wasn’t the end of the blackland conservation efforts.

Almost 120 acres were acquired in Hempstead County between 1998 and 2001 to create the Columbus Prairie Preserve. Following controlled burns at the site, one of the state’s rarest plants — the eared false foxglove — began to thrive there.

The Nature Conservancy transferred 66 acres in Howard County to the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission in 2004 to create the Saratoga Blackland Prairie Natural Area.

Three years ago, the conservancy, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission entered into a partnership to conserve the 1,018-acre Oak Ridge Ravines Preserve in Hempstead County.

A visit to these blackland locations can make for a great spring outing.

If you’re coming from central Arkansas, start your trip by getting off Interstate 30 at the second Arkadelphia exit as you head west. The Terre Noire Natural Area can be found by taking Arkansas Highway 51 for about eight miles toward the west.

The wildflowers there, which bloom from early spring until the fall, include blazing star, pale purple coneflower, compass plant, gum plant, wild petunia and ironweed.

“The blackland region of Arkansas has been badly degraded,” the Nature Conservancy website states. “Because of its high- and medium-quality native prairies and woodlands, Terre Noire was identified as critically important to conserving the blackland ecosystem. With its close proximity to the city of Arkadelphia, the site required immediate protection from urbanization. … Stewardship at Terre Noire includes restoring the mosaic of prairie openings within oak/pine forest and maintaining the assemblage of naturally occurring blackland prairie species.

“Prescribed burning, cedar cutting, prairie seeding and erosion control by staff and volunteers have ridded the prairie of much woody vegetation and have boosted populations of native prairie plants. The conservancy will continue to conduct burns, closely mimicking a natural fire regime, to promote natural species diversity.”

After visiting Terre Noire, get back onto Interstate 30 and head west toward Hope. Follow U.S. Highway 278 for two miles west after exiting the interstate and then turn left onto Arkansas Highway 73. Go 14 miles to Columbus and then turn north onto Hempstead County Road 35. It’s two miles from there to the front gate of one of Arkansas’ hidden jewels — Grandview.

The Grandview Plantation had a reputation dating back to the 1800s for producing valuable crops. The area later was managed as a cattle ranch and as a prestigous private hunting club. Cattle ranching, however, led to the introduction of nonnative vegetation. Overgrazing was common.

The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission has worked hard during the past 14 years to restore the natural prairie at Grandview. The site also has an education center, two small lakes, a nature trail, a shooting range that’s open by appointment and two lodges that can be rented by groups.

You can move on from Grandview to the Columbus Prairie, which is managed as a nature preserve with regular prescribed burns and constant cedar removal. In 1998, just one eared false floxglove plant was recorded at Columbus Prairie. More than 50 were recorded the following year following a prescribed burn.

Columbus Prairie is almost adjacent to Grandview. You go about a mile on Hempstead County Road 35 until spotting the Columbus Prairie sign on the left.

To reach the Saratoga Blackland Prairie Natural Area, get back on Arkansas Highway 73 and continue west to Saratoga. Turn north at Saratoga onto Arkansas Highway 355. You’ll quickly merge onto Arkansas Highway 32. Continue to Chapel Hill Road and turn right. The natural area is at the end of Chapel Hill Road.

“The ocean bottom material left by the Gulf of Mexico usually formed the rolling hills and sandy, acidic soil typical in the Gulf Coastal Plain natural division,” according to the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission website. “The blackland prairie region of Arkansas is located within the Gulf Coastal Plain, but it is atypical. Confined to the southwestern corner of the state, the region consists of several distinct areas of alkaline soil characterized by chalk outcrops, black soil and cuestas — long, low ridges with a relatively steep face on one side and a long, gentle slope on the other. It is on the steep sides of these cuestas that we find the blackland prairie communities. … Historically, fire played a major role in controlling woody vegetation and in maintaining the open, grass-dominated understory characteristic of these natural communities. This unique mosaic of landscapes in southwestern Arkansas supports a wide variety of plants and animals that specifically require an open, fire-maintained habitat.”

By bringing back fire, numerous plant and animal species are returning to the remaining remnants of the blackland prairie.

It’s a piece of our state that’s well worth a road trip on a spring day.

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