The Fayetteville-Springdale area around Lake Fayetteville Park in Arkansas is surrounded by tall grass prairie and oak savanna, first encountered by early travelers and settlers more than 2 centuries ago. The historic Butterfield Trail—a 2,800-mile mail route connecting St. Louis to San Francisco—runs through the park. Waterman Ormsby, a correspondent for the New York Herald, wrote about his experience on the trail in 1858: “Even among these hills you do not lose site of the prairie nature of the West; for just after leaving Fayetteville, you see a fine plain, surrounded by hills—in fact, a prairie in the mountains.”
In 1949, the city purchased the property to create a lake as a municipal water supply. Prior to obtaining the land, the area was converted to non-native pasture and used extensively for agricultural purposes. Today, the parks and recreation department has used it as a natural area with minimal maintenance. As a result, the prairie and savanna plant community was badly degraded by invasive species, including eastern red cedar, honeysuckle, tall fescue, and Sericea lespedeza. In addition, fire exclusion for an extensive period has led to brush encroachment and a dense thatch that has suppressed native plants.
In 2009, the parks and recreation department began discussing the possibility of partnering with the Fayetteville Natural Heritage Association (FNHA) and the EnvironmentalStudyCenter to restore the prairie. Both groups provided volunteers to help remove invasive-plant species on approximately 39 acres, and the city provided manpower and funding to create fire lines, conduct prescribed burns, apply herbicide as needed, and seed native plants.
Substantial areas of the project are now predominately composed of native grasses, including Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indiangrass, and Split Beard Bluestem. Many of these native grasses have been established from existing seed banks that have long been dormant. When the highly competitive invasive species were removed, the seeds germinated and thrived. It is anticipated that once native grasses and wildflowers have re-established themselves, use of herbicide treatments will be reduced, and control of invasive species will be primarily achieved utilizing periodic prescribed burns and timely mowing.
Attracting All Types Of Residents
Public response to this project has been outstanding. The prairie has become a popular spot for bird watchers, outdoor enthusiasts, and history buffs. The EnvironmentalStudyCenter has incorporated the prairie into part of its curriculum, and classes from the University of Arkansas have used the prairie to conduct field labs and plant-identification exercises. Nearby trails also introduce residents to the prairie, as the city’s trail system borders the perimeter of the site on three sides, and part of the Razorback Greenway—a regional trail—routes along the west side. Recent trail-count results show that an average of 673 people use the trail daily.
The return of prairie grasses has also encouraged the return of indigenous wildlife. One example is the recent sighting of Bobwhite Quail. These ground-dwelling birds require bunch grasses (native grasses) to move about. With the decline of habitat and the dominance of invasive-plant species, quail had all but disappeared from the area. Their recent sighting is affirmation that park patrons and the public are not the only ones appreciative of the restoration.
This project has already been a great success, and future plans include installing interpretive signs that describe the restoration process and relate the importance of tall grass prairie/oak savanna to the environment.
The project continues to raise awareness of the rich history of the area, especially the historical Butterfield Trail. Since the project’s initiation, a book has been written about the history of LakeFayetteville, and the National Parks Service has begun the process of determining if the Butterfield Trail should be designated as a National Trail. Because the prairie restoration is in a natural area of the park, visitors are drawn to the trail system and further introduced to new forms of recreation and park use. It is hoped this project will encourage and inspire others to pursue similar activities that restore native grasses and link citizens to the historical heritage that helped shape the country.
Byron Humphry is Parks Maintenance Superintendent with the Fayetteville Parks and Recreation Department in Arizona. Reach him at email@example.com.