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Entrance to Sherfield Cave Entrance to Sherfield Cave © Ethan Inlander/The Nature Conservancy

Stories in Arkansas

Arkansas

Shaping Conservation in The Natural State. What happens on the surface directly impacts fragile karst ecosystems below.

Ozark Cavefish
Ozark Cavefish Because karst -- or cave terrain -- is porous and fractured, what's on the surface directly impacts the fragile ecosystems and groundwater below. Recently, the Conservancy created a map that gives NWA city planners and developers the tool they need to avoid sensitve areas or plan developments in ways that won't harm karst species or groundwater. © The Nature Conservancy

As Gary Brandon walked through Otter Creek Estates, a residential project his company developed at Cave Springs in Benton County, he points out a bordering natural area.

“Homes were originally planned for that space,” he says. “After we learned that piece of property was directly above Cave Springs Cave and that developing it could affect the cave’s rare animals and the area’s groundwater, we donated 32 acres to the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission.”

While the land was valued at more than $1 million, Brandon says the donation has more than paid off. In addition to receiving a tax break, the value of the properties he developed increased, particularly the value of those parcels adjacent to the green space.

“We designed Otter Creek around the donated land,” he says. “We included walking trails, parks and two small lakes in the areas we developed. Having that natural area next door is a really nice enhancement to Otter Creek.”

Brandon, who grew up fishing in Northwest Arkansas, also says it was the right thing to do. “This was a win-win situation for us, Otter Creek residents and those wanting to protect the cave.”

Others who developed land near Cave Springs – Collins and Hunter Haynes of Haynes Limited and Brett Hash and Pat Demaree, who own Northwest Land Development and The Creeks Golf Course – provided similar donations. In all, 80 acres were donated to help protect Cave Springs Cave and its special residents, endangered gray bats and Ozark cavefish. The largest population of the extremely rare Ozark cavefish, which is known to live in Ozark caves and nowhere else on Earth, is at Cave Springs Cave.

Conservation and Keeping Pace with Development

The Ozark ecoregion, which covers Northwest Arkansas and stretches into southern Missouri and eastern Oklahoma, is the largest karst landscape in the United States. The same area is also home to one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the nation.

Because karst, or cave, terrain is porous and fractured, what’s on the surface directly impacts the fragile ecosystems below. Working to ensure the opposite is also true – that what’s below affects what’s on the surface – The Nature Conservancy’s Ozark Karst Program recently unveiled its Karst Area Sensitivity Map, or KASM, which shows underground areas in the Ozarks most sensitive to surface pollution.

“The KASM gives city planners and developers a tool they need to avoid sensitive areas or plan developments in ways that won’t harm karst species or groundwater,” Conservancy Karst Program Manager Mike Slay says.

Green highlights on the KASM represent areas less sensitive to surface pollution. Red highlights, which in many cases identify faults or streams that flow underground, represent karst areas most sensitive to above-ground activities. In some cases, dye-trace studies revealed that streams miles away impact priority caves; such watersheds were marked with red boundaries.

For years the Conservancy and its partners have systematically explored Ozark caves, monitoring the locations and populations of threatened and endangered species. More than 60 karst species are found in the Ozarks and nowhere else on Earth.

“The KASM is the latest tool we’ve created to help protect karst species and groundwater,” Slay says.