Roegniks sell Buffalo River land to Nature Conservancy to protect land and wildlife

Wednesday, February 9, 2005

BOXLEY, Ark. -- On a recent sunny day, Marty and Elise Roenigk of Eureka Springs drove their Jeep down a steep, gravel road to a 1,225-acre tract of land they owned until December of 2004.

Waiting for them at the bottom of the bluff-lined valley, alongside a creek that flows into the Buffalo National River just a little more than a mile downstream, were several staff members of The Nature Conservancy.

After greetings were exchanged, the Roenigks began leading a tour of the land they have sold to The Nature Conservancy for $400,000, far below market value.

As they walked upstream along Smith Creek, the Roenigks told the group of their previous explorations.

The land, they've learned, lies above one of the largest cave systems in Arkansas -- one that also serves as a hibernaculum for the largest colony of Indiana bats (a federally endangered species) in Arkansas.

"There's a fantastic sinkhole right alongside the road," said Elise.

When the group looked into the moss-lined hole that's about 3 feet in diameter, she continued.

"I was here the day after Thanksgiving with members of the Boston Mountain Grotto, a caving club, and I was told you can enter that hole and come out at the main opening of the cave, about one mile away."

As Marty pushed the group farther upstream, he explained why he's so enamored by the property.

"Three things," he said. "I love the water and boulders and the play between the two. The waterfalls here are amazing.

"And the thought of the cave beneath and the wildlife in it, especially the bats, makes this land special.

"And, third is the fact that it's between the Buffalo River Wilderness Area and the Ozark National Forest. This property now serves as a connection between the two and creates a much larger, contiguous block of protected land."

Elise tells the group that she and Marty first became interested in purchasing the property after hearing it might be developed.

"It's just such a pretty piece of land that it deserves to be preserved," she said. "All you have to do is take a walk here to see that."

When asked what prompted them to work with The Nature Conservancy, Elise said they wanted to ensure the property was well-preserved for future generations.

Marty added, "We've known of The Nature Conservancy for years, and we just know they are a great organization. And we know about the Conservancy's projects and programs in Arkansas, and it gave us comfort knowing an organization of this scale and strength would be managing it."

"Conserving Smith Creek has been a dream of the conservation community for a long time,' said Scott Simon, director of The Conservancy in Arkansas.

"This important valley was conserved because of the foresight and generosity of Marty and Elise Roenigk. All of us in the conservation community appreciate their work in conserving this very special place -- truly a special piece of property."

There are several reasons why The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas and its partners have long wanted to ensure the conservation of Smith Creek.

The Nature Conservancy is planning a dinner to support the purchase of the Smith Creek tract. The dinner will take place April 29 in Eureka Springs at the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa, which the Roenigks own.

The dinner will also include an art auction featuring the works of renowned Ozark Mountain artists.

According to Tim Snell, Ozark Karst program director for The Conservancy, the purchase of the Smith Creek tract and an easement on adjacent property where the main entrance of Sherfield Cave is located is significant because it will immediately limit potential distractions to the Indiana bats during their winter hibernation.

If disturbed during hibernation, Snell said, the bats are prone to expend precious energy, which can ultimately lead to their death.

While the purchase of the easement should curb inappropriate visitation through the cave's main entrance, acquisition of the 1,225 acres farther upstream on Smith Creek will help ensure the water that flows through and seeps into Sherfield Cave is protected.

"Had we not acquired this land," Snell said, "it probably would have been developed and most likely subjected to incompatible agriculture or forestry practices which would have negatively affected the cave and the bats."

Snell also said conserving the surrounding forest at Smith Creek is as important to the bats' survival as conserving Sherfield Cave.

"The Indiana bats raise their young in tree cavities. They hibernate in the cave but need mature timber with defects or dead timber snags for roosts. And they need the healthy, mature hardwood forest to forage for food, too."

According to Snell, a 1981 survey calculated there were approximately 5,000 Indiana bats at the cave.

Researchers counted about 1,000 during a 2001 survey.

To increase the bats' population, Snell said studies to gather more information about roosting needs will be conducted, and a forest plan designed to enhance the maternity roosting needs of the Indiana bats will be based on these findings.

"This tract is truly a special piece of property for a lot of different reasons," Snell said. "Because Smith Creek is a tributary to the Buffalo River, conservation practices at the property will also help ensure the protection of the first national river in the U.S."

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