By Jay Harrod, October 2005
About decade ago, Mel Harness got an idea to bring back to life that which had given his small community its name. A 30-year resident of Prairie View, Harness had become deeply interested in tall-grass prairies that had once been a prominent feature, covering more than 100,000 acres, in northwest Arkansas landscape.
Not long after these prairies had captured his imagination, Harness was dismayed to learn that all that remained of a 10,000-acre prairie that once surrounded his home were 71 acres, some four miles away at Harrison. Harness said he visited the site, Baker Prairie, many times and had even served as a volunteer there.
“I was very intrigued by it,” Harness said. “Certainly visiting Baker Prairie is what motivated me and my family to become interested in a restoration project. I thought it would be great if there could be some prairie restoration at Prairie View so that people could see what it looked like … or what it could look like.”
That thought led him to seek advice from the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and The Nature Conservancy, which co-own and manage Baker Prairie. While part of the same original and vast prairie, the 20 acres the Harnesses owned had been converted to farmland, whereas Baker Prairie is a “virgin” prairie, meaning it had never been tilled or developed in any way.
“Both organizations had a lot of excitement about doing this,” Harness said. “At the time, very little of this type of work had been done before. And because some of the Conservancy’s land does need restoration, they were very interested in helping me.”
Besides offering encouragement and eventually helping him develop a maintenance plan for the plot he hoped to restore to its native condition, Harness said the Conservancy and the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission were most helpful in providing information about federal and state grants.
In the end, it would take more than $8,000 to turn 20 acres of tilled pasture back into a tall-grass prairie, and Harness said he didn’t have to invest any of his own money. The bulk of the grants came from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly the U.S. Soil Conservation Service), and the rest came from the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program administered by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
The federal money was primarily used for site preparation and seed. The first preparatory step was to kill exotic, or non-native, grasses with herbicides. Next Harness tilled the land so that he could seed it the following winter. Using a list of about 200 plants that had been identified at Baker Prairie, Harness went looking for seeds on the market.
“We found about 50 varieties of seeds that were on the list,” he said. “In addition to the ones I purchased, I went to some nearby areas where other native plant seeds were available and I collected these. This enabled me to get about 25 additional species.”
Last summer, Scott Simon, a biologist and director of The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas, visited the Harnesses’ prairie and was able to identify about 100 native plants.
“Of all the restoration projects I’ve seen, this one appears to be the most successful,” Simon said. “I was absolutely amazed to see how quickly the restoration is taking place. It’s hard to imagine this beautiful prairie was – just a few years ago – a common field with very little biodiversity. Mel and his family have been passionate about this project, and it shows.”
“When Mel Harness first called me several years ago, I had a feeling he would do a good job. And he has,” said Thomas Foti, chief researcher at the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. “Several state agencies and a few individuals have tried prairie restoration, but generally not on as large a scale as he has undertaken or with the number of species he has managed to propagate.”
Plants at the Harnesses’ prairie aren’t the only things that have become more abundant and diversified, though. Most of the money from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission was used to plant next to the fencerow surrounding the property trees that attract songbirds, such as dogwoods, redbuds and service berries.
“Once the natural habitat began to flourish, we also saw an increase in wildlife,” Harness said. “There are now songbirds that come here and nest that we’ve never seen before. One of the birds in some numbers is the Dickcissel. It’s a bird that requires a prairie-type habitat. There are a lot more hawks now. And we’ve seen an increase in insects and all types of butterflies and dragonflies. We have some grasshoppers that you don’t ordinarily see – ones that thrive in undisturbed prairies and meadows. And we now have a very large population of bobwhite quail on the prairie.”
Part of securing the grant from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service meant Harness had to assure the agency he’d continue to work towards improving the habitat and biodiversity at the prairie. With help from The Nature Conservancy, Harness developed a maintenance program, much of which revolves around the use of fire to restore natural conditions.
“I burn one third of the land each year,” Harness said. “I can also mow it as part of the plan, which would emulate the effects grazing animals might have once had. In some cases the grazing – or the mowing – can stimulate the growth of wildflowers even more than fire.”
Partnerships and cooperative projects in Arkansas make successes in conservation, such as the Harnesses’ prairie, possible, said Karen Smith, director of the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission.
“We applaud the work of Mr. Harness,” Smith said. “The abundance of the prairie species on his land is a testament for what can be accomplished with landowners, state and federal agencies, and private non-profits like the Nature Conservancy working together. On the Baker Prairie Natural Area site, we also benefit from the efforts of the Friends of Baker Prairie, Harrison High School, and our contractor, Ozark Ecological Restoration.”
According to Foti, virgin prairies should ideally serve as models for restoration of whole landscapes as well as models for species composition, interrelationships and disturbance processes. “Mel Harness has done that and taken an important step toward restoring an almost-vanished Arkansas ecosystem.”
Some seven years later, Harness said the work has been rewarding. “The beauty is indescribable. People that come and see the prairie and hear the story, fall in love with it. I guess our reason for opening it to the public is so that hopefully other people will consider doing the same with their property – restoring it back to its native state.”December 08, 2010