Updated: Dec 8, 2020
“Let us be done with a wilderness preservation program made up of a sequence of overlapping emergencies, threats, and defense campaigns.” - Howard Zahniser, Author of the Wilderness Act of 1964
The American black bear (Ursus americanus) is an Arkansas icon. Black bear inhabit most of our state, widely distributed throughout the Interior Ozark Highlands and parts of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain in the Delta region. They are the most widespread of the three bear species in North America (the other two are the brown bear and polar bear), and the only one found in Arkansas.
It’s hard to imagine “the bear state” without it’s iconic black bear, but that’s exactly where Arkansas was headed in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The primary threat then was unregulated overhunting and intensive logging. The implementation of hunting restrictions and habitat improvements, followed by an effort to reintroduce and reestablish populations of black bear in the state led by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, has been tentatively successful, but today, a growing threat exists - the loss and fragmentation of habitat due to rapid urban development.
The black bear is only one example of local biodiversity impacted by the increasing loss of suitable habitat. Urban development, roads, highways, and other forms of human intrusion are among the factors reducing the natural spaces these animals require to survive. The home range of an individual black bear is large - between 5-30 square miles (3,200 – 19,200 acres), depending on the quality of the habitat. They have been known to travel up to 100 miles. That is, the black bear, and many other species, must have expansive natural space and safe corridors through which to travel to find suitable food, water, shelter, and mates.
“In the race to fund gray infrastructure to keep pace with the encouraged rate of an exploding population in Northwest Arkansas, there is little appetite if not capacity within most ranks of our local and regional leadership to dedicate the time and funding necessary to implement a truly forward-thinking green infrastructure approach to smart growth.”
When land protection efforts are scaled to meet the needs of wide-ranging species like the black bear, mountain lion, or elk, we achieve a range of benefits for our communities that extend well beyond the preservation of biodiversity. These species are critical to a balanced ecosystem, but a proactive, landscape-scale preservation approach also saves our scenic views, helps protect clean water, contributes to carbon sequestration and climate resiliency, and preserves our sense of place.
The key words in this critical effort are “proactive” and “landscape-scale”.
Howard Zahniser, author of the Wilderness Act and the source of the opening quote, was the executive director of the Wilderness Society for two decades in the mid 1900’s. According to historical accounts, by 1955, he had “grown disillusioned with piecemeal attempts at preservation.” He then sat down and composed the first draft of what later became the Wilderness Act, finally signed into law after an 8-year effort that included 66 revisions and 18 congressional hearings, by President Lyndon B. Johnson on September 3, 1964. Zahniser died four months earlier, not living to see his dream signed into action.
More than 50 years later, we find ourselves grappling on a regional scale to avoid the very same emergency-driven and piecemeal preservation that Zahniser so wisely fought against on a national level. Urban development is a fast moving train in Northwest Arkansas, forging full steam ahead with powerful influences stoking the firebox.
So how do we implement a landscape-scale preservation vision before it’s too late?
In the race to fund gray infrastructure to keep pace with the encouraged rate of an exploding population in Northwest Arkansas, there is little appetite if not capacity within most ranks of our regional leadership to dedicate the time and funding necessary to implement a truly forward-thinking green infrastructure approach for smart growth. That’s the bad news, and a fact we can remain vigilant to change and influence with our votes, and by running for office and becoming active on citizen boards at all levels.
Until and in the meantime, it falls largely upon those of us in the nonprofit sector to fill agency gaps, and upon private landowners and donors who care enough to be part of the solution. The Northwest Arkansas Land Trust has put forth and is actively pursuing a four-county, strategic land protection plan. This data-driven plan highlights the most critical landscapes to save in our region for wildlife connectivity, water quality, and climate resiliency. At the same time, we continue to encourage all hands on deck to implement the Northwest Arkansas Open Space Plan, which is a critical plan for the high urban growth areas of Benton and Washington counties where land prices are soaring, and must be led by our local and municipal leaders.
Donors make it possible for the land trust to save land, including our most recent acquisition, Blackburn Bluffs Preserve (above), which is a 300-acre keystone property in a landscape we’ve identified as the Boston Mountain Scenic Wildlife Corridor. Landowners who voluntarily place conservation easements on their properties or donate land for preservation are the real heroes, having the most power to effect change on a rapid scale.
It takes all of us, and there are many ways to help. Donate to the land trust. Reach out to discuss protecting your land. Run for office. Serve on a citizen board. Show up at planning meetings and stakeholder input sessions. Let your elected officials know that proactive land protection is important to you and that your vote will follow. Vote also with your dollars. And help spread the word.
After all, who cares about the black bear? I hope we all do. To save them is to save our future.