Arkansans will soon have a new wildlife management area in Calhoun County, thanks to a conservation easement several state agencies and The Nature Conservancy are purchasing from one of the state’s largest timber companies. On Nov. 21, officials from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, Arkansas Forestry Commission and the Conservancy announced they will purchase the easement from Potlatch Forest Holdings, Inc., on land the company owns in south Arkansas between Hampton and El Dorado. Covering about 16,000 acres, it will be the largest conservation easement ever established in Arkansas.
(A conservation easement is a voluntary, legal agreement placed on a piece of property that limits certain types of uses or prevents development from taking place now and in the future, but enables the landowner to retain ownership.)
The partners signed an agreement for the Moro Big Pine project during the announcement and said they expect to close on the purchase by the end of the year. Scott Henderson, director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, said his agency and the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission will manage public access and activities, including hunting, at the new Moro Big Pine Wildlife Management Area. The area is expected to open in July 2007.
"This is a great opportunity to create a wildlife management area in south Arkansas," Henderson said. "There is a long and rich heritage of hunting and other outdoor recreation in this part of the state. This deal is good for the people of Arkansas, good for wildlife and good for conservation."
As a condition of the easement, the project partners developed a forest management plan for the property that includes a wildlife section and guidelines for harvesting timber.
"This is a ‘working forest’ conservation easement – one that allows for traditional forest uses, such as timber operations and hunting, that are both ecologically sustainable and economically viable," Henderson said. "Basically, the forest will be managed in a way that continues to provide forestry jobs, wood products and also protects the environment for future generations of Arkansans."
Jim Newberry, Arkansas regional resource manager for Potlatch, said his company is proud to play a significant role in protecting Moro Big Pine’s loblolly-shortleaf pine flatwoods, one of the least-protected plant communities in the United States. The site also supports a population of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
"This beautiful land is invaluable for many reasons," said Karen Smith, director of the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. "It is certainly an ecologically significant area, but one that faces immediate threats. Conserving this area means saving a part of Arkansas’ heritage."
Smith said that across the South, forests are being subdivided and developed at an accelerated rate. Her agency plans to eventually include Moro Big Pine in its system of protected natural areas.
"This project ensures the land will remain forested, provide habitat for wildlife and be open to the public," said Scott Simon, director of The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas. "This is a great conservation achievement made possible by the cooperation of state agencies, non-profit organizations and Potlatch."
The project is being funded by the state agency partners and the Conservancy, and will benefit from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council grant program. Federal funding is also being sought through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Legacy program and the Habitat Conservation Plan Land Acquisition grant program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Potlatch owns 469,000 acres in southern Arkansas, and 1.5 million throughout the U.S.
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The 16,000-acre Moro Big Pine WMA will go a long way towards achieving landscape-scale conservation. The WMA is less than five miles from Moro Bay State Park and the 65,000-acre Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge, which provides protection for migratory waterfowl and the threatened American alligator.
A conservation easement is a restriction placed on a piece of property to protect its ecological or open space values. It is a voluntary, legally binding agreement that limits certain types of uses or prevents development from taking place now and in the future, but enables the landowner to retain ownership. In a conservation easement, a landowner voluntarily agrees to donate or sell certain rights associated with his or her property, such as the right to subdivide, and a private organization or public agency agrees to hold the landowner’s promise not to exercise those rights.
A conservation easement at Moro Big Pine will ensure the forests are managed in a more open structure suitable for increased game species like deer, turkey and quail as well as endangered species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker. Land management plans will include the use of prescribed fire to maintain the open habitat. Botanists say the resulting increase in grass cover will also improve water quality in the Ouachita River watershed.
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission manages a total of 59 state-owned wildlife management areas and 57 cooperative wildlife management areas – covering more than 2,869,326 acres – throughout the state. WMAs are designated areas purchased by the Commission and distinguished by certain markers and considered a separate zone with regard to wildlife regulations. To learn more about WMAs, visit www.agfc.com.
Potlatch is a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) with 1.5 million acres of forestland in Arkansas, Idaho, Minnesota and Oregon. Through a taxable REIT subsidiary, the company also operates 13 manufacturing facilities that produce lumber and panel products and bleached pulp products, including paperboard and tissue products.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.