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Restoring Wetlands and Protecting History at the Same Time

Great Blue Heron uses restored wetland habitat near a significant archeological site in Yell County, Arkansas

Great Blue Heron uses restored wetland habitat near a significant archeological site in Yell County, Arkansas

A USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) project designed to alleviate crop losses from flooding and restore wetlands along the Arkansas and Petit Jean Rivers is also protecting a significant archeological site in Yell County, Arkansas.

This work was made possible when the landowner enrolled more than 600 acres into a permanent easement through NRCS’ Emergency Watershed Protection Program – Floodplain Easement. The project restores approximately 200 acres of cropland to wetlands and associated uplands and permanently protects the property from development.

The Floodplain Easement program takes flood-prone farmland out of production through conservation easements, beginning the process of restoring these lands to their original function as floodplains and reducing the costs incurred by farmers and local governments when cropland floods.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the Recovery Act) funded the project. The Recovery Act was created by the Obama Administration to boost the nation’s economy, in part by developing and improving infrastructure like flood controls. (Floodplains and other wetlands are natural flood controls.)

The restored wetlands will provide wildlife habitat and restore ecological functions such as the filtering of runoff water. The restoration work includes establishment of native bottomland hardwood trees, native grass and de-leveling of precision-leveled fields.

The land is also the site of a 500-year-old Native American village and cemetery. NRCS and the landowners worked closely with the University of Arkansas and the Oklahoma tribes whose ancestors lived and are buried there to preserve the remains and protect the site.

One tool they had was remote sensing. Using satellite imagery and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), NRCS employees were able to identify gravesites and plant 300 trees in a 16-acre upland area as far from the remains as possible.

According to NRCS archeologist John Riggs, the site offered a unique chance to partner with University of Arkansas archeologists to study how Native Americans from the Mississippian Period lived.

“So far, the floors of two houses are fully excavated and a modest array of pottery shards, animal bone and stone tools were found…remote sensing indicated the remnants of many more houses. Numerous trash pits and other associated features were also excavated,” Riggs says.

The picture emerging is one of a vibrant society just before European contact, he says.

Before European settlement, Arkansas had an estimated 9.8 million acres of wetland habitat, which has been significantly reduced, to about 2.8 million acres.

Find out more about the Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) Program.

Check out more conservation stories on the USDA blog.

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