One of the rarest landscapes on Earth lies in the heart of central Arkansas, among Alcoa's retired bauxite mines in Saline County. Nepheline syenite rock outcrops form a mosaic of interwoven glades and woodlands that are home to plant communities found in only a handful of places.
In 1995 Alcoa invited The Nature Conservancy to assess the company's property for conservation significance and develop stewardship recommendations for the natural areas. The Conservancy identified 1,054 acres of high quality habitat and in 1996 entered into a cooperative management agreement with Alcoa for the management of these lands.
The nepheline syenite ecosystem suffers from multiple stresses, including decades of fire suppression. Without its natural fire regime, woodlands have become unnaturally dense and have crowded out sensitive species adapted to open, fire-dependent glades. The fragmentation of wildlife habitat through conversion of land to human use, and the spread of aggressive, non-native plants such as kudzu and privet also threaten the area's biodiversity.
Sparsely vegetated glade communities form on the massive nepheline syenite rock outcrops with extensive areas of colorful lichens, mosses and algae mats. Grasses such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and forbs such as fameflower (Talinum calycinum) and the sweet-smelling calamint (Satureja arkansana) occur in areas of shallow soil. Woodlands and forests consisting of shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata), oaks (Quercus spp.), and hickories (Carya spp.) occur on deeper soils.
Among the rare plant species found at the Bauxite Natural Areas are the small-headed pipewort (Eriocaulon kornickianum), small yellow lady's slipper (Cypripedium calceolus), and bottle gentian (Gentiana saponaria).
This unique landscape also provides vital refuge for a diverse array of breeding and wintering birds, including the rare Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperi) and sharp-shinned hawk (A. striatus); more than 75 species of butterflies, among them the rare diana fritillary (Speyeria diana); and a variety of other wildlife.
Alcoa, The Nature Conservancy and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission have teamed up with conservation and community leaders to create a master plan for the divestiture and long term use of some 12,500 acres of Alcoa land in Saline County. A revised cooperative management agreement expands the partnership to conserve, restore, and interpret the property's natural areas and reclaimed mine sites. By reestablishing the natural balance of ecological processes (such as fire and hydrology) and native species, the ecosystem can sustain its full array of biological diversity.
Alcoa staff, Conservancy stewardship crews and volunteers have established a prescribed fire program, removed non-native plants, installed erosion control devices, and monitored rare species populations to track the success of the restoration activities. The Conservancy has begun a native plant restoration project that includes plans to build a nursery to supply seeds for ongoing restoration.
Currently the Bauxite Natural Areas site is closed to the public due to safety requirements governing the former mines. Future plans call for parts of the property to be opened to the public for recreational activities such as hiking, hunting, and fishing. In addition, educational displays will tell the story of how aluminum products from the Arkansas mines supported the nation's defense efforts in World War I, World War II, and the Korean conflict, and highlight Alcoa's ongoing work in land stewardship and reclamation.