REX NELSON: Creating a natural state
by Rex Nelson
In a place that likes to refer to itself as the Natural State, I can think of no more important project right now than the quail restoration efforts that I outline in a story on the cover of today's Perspective section. That's because this program will benefit other types of birds that are in decline, along with pollinators such as honeybees and monarch butterflies.
Such initiatives are crucial to the future of American agriculture. And agriculture still represents the largest segment of the Arkansas economy.
The value of honeybee pollination to U.S. agriculture is estimated at $18.9 billion annually. About 75 percent of flowering plants rely on pollinators for reproduction. Ideal pollinator habitat must have native flowers with a variety of colors, shapes and heights that bloom throughout the growing season.
How do we get back there as a state?
"We just have to get people used to these controlled burns," wildlife biologist Austin Klais told me. "We also need to help them come to the realization that you can manage your land for wildlife and still make money off it."
As Michael Widner wrote in this newspaper two weeks ago: "While landscape changes after the Civil War helped quail numbers greatly, mechanized agriculture introduced about the era of World War II resulted in profound changes to land ownership patterns, field size and vegetation control using herbicides. Pasture grasses, land fertilization, commercial timber production methods and many other facets of forestry and farming were introduced. These changes parallel the decline in quail numbers because modern agricultural and forestry practices have destroyed most quail habitats."
If Arkansas is to be the Natural State--increasing the quality of life for current Arkansans while attracting new residents--three additional efforts must take place to complement the quail habitat restoration initiative:
• The first is a concerted push to make the Keep Arkansas Beautiful program the strongest entity of its type in the country. The Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission is a division of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism and is one of the state agencies that shares proceeds from Amendment 75 to the Arkansas Constitution.
The one percent that Keep Arkansas Beautiful receives from that one-eighth-of-a-cent sales tax provides an annual budget of almost $700,000. Keep Arkansas Beautiful is the certified state affiliate of Keep America Beautiful Inc.
Keep Arkansas Beautiful recruits people to join the Keep America Beautiful network as members of certified local affiliates. There are affiliates at Bryant, Camden, El Dorado, Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Little Rock, North Little Rock, Ozark, Sherwood, Van Buren, West Memphis and Pine Bluff. The number of affiliates needs to at least triple in the next year.
It's time for people across Arkansas to step up in this place of great natural beauty that's unfortunately where residents litter roadsides on a regular basis and use illegal dumps. I love my native state, but as someone who has been in all 75 counties the past two years, I can say this with certainty: We're a trashy place. Let's clean up Arkansas and give the hardworking folks at Keep Arkansas Beautiful some help.
• The second effort is a significant expansion of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission's Stream Team program. There are more than 90,000 miles of rivers, creeks and bayous in Arkansas. The state has lost thousands of miles of free-flowing streams to dams, industrial pollution and agricultural pollution. The quality of many smallmouth bass streams is declining at an alarming rate.
There has been an increased focus on stream quality in Arkansas in recent months due to the battle over the C&H Hog Farms in the Buffalo River watershed. During the administration of Gov. Mike Beebe, the state allowed C&H to house more than 6,500 swine on land along Big Creek, which flows into the Buffalo.
In June, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that state funds would be combined with funds from The Nature Conservancy for a $6.2 million buyout of C&H. Funds were transferred in August, and the farm's owners have started to sell their hogs.
"We still want to have a long-term effort to make sure the Buffalo River is pristine for generations to come," Hutchinson said.
Along those lines, it was announced last week that The Nature Conservancy and the Buffalo River Foundation have pledged $1 million for the newly formed Buffalo River Conservation Committee to give out for conservation projects. Hutchinson will add $1 million from his discretionary fund, pending legislative approval.
The current momentum must be seized. It's time to recruit additional Stream Team members who will adopt hundreds of streams across the state. These members are allowed to plan projects along streams with landowner approval and technical assistance from program sponsors.
Projects can include litter reduction, water quality monitoring, erosion control such as stream-side tree plantings, and more. Volunteers already have repaired hundreds of miles of eroding stream banks in the state, but that number should be in the thousands.
• The third thing that's needed is a massive expansion of projects that are replacing marginal farmland in the Arkansas Delta with hardwood trees. Two years ago, I accompanied Kyle Peterson, who at the time headed the Bentonville-based Walton Family Foundation, on a tour of Delta initiatives funded by the foundation. One program returns farmland to bottomland hardwood forests in conjunction with Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy and other organizations.
In the quarter-century since Congress created the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program, more than 700,000 acres have been protected in Delta regions of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. These programs allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service to compensate farmers for removing cropland from production and returning land to a natural state.
For decades, Delta farmers cleared and drained bottomland forests when soybean prices were high. Much of that land was marginal at best for row-crop agriculture.
In the words of James Cummins of Wildlife Mississippi: "You had millions of acres of bottomland hardwoods being pushed up. There were bulldozers running around the clock. They weren't even harvesting the timber because people were frantically trying to clear the land and plant it with soybeans. A lot of this low-lying land wasn't meant for farming."
The Walton Family Foundation has played a direct role in helping restore 75,000 acres. It would be wonderful to see that number quadrupled. From bike trails to education initiatives, the foundation has had a positive impact on Arkansas. But if Walton family members really want to see Arkansas thrive decades from now, the biggest bang for the buck will come from hardwood restoration.
One of the largest expanses of forested wetlands in the world was once the 24 million acres of hardwoods along the lower Mississippi River. Fewer than five million forested acres survive in the area once known as the Big Woods. The most extensive remaining tract of the Big Woods is the White River National Wildlife Refuge and the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge of Arkansas.
We're talking about planting trees on marginal cropland from the standpoint of farmers making a profit. It's past time to pick up the pace of Big Woods restoration.