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Last updated 5:12AM ET
March 9, 2021
Nature Conservancy Buys Land Near Old Cahawba
(APR - Alabama Public Radio ) - The Alabama Chapter of the Nature Conservancy has signed an option to buy land next to the state-owned archaeological park at Old Cahawba and preserve what was once a common site in the state.

The 3,000-acre tract is left over from the days when rich-soiled tall-grass prairies covered 1,000 square miles in central Alabama.

"This land is one of the best half-dozen remaining blackland prairie sites in the entire Black Belt of Mississippi or Alabama," Chris Oberholster, executive director of the Nature Conservancy, told The Birmingham News in a Monday story.

The rich soil of similar prairie lands was used by early settlers to grow cotton. The land the Nature Conservancy plans to buy is next to the park at Old Cahawba, site of the state's first permanent capital. The town, which thrived on cotton, was abandoned after the Civil War.

Oberholster said only 1 percent of the original prairie still exists in its natural state.

Black Belt prairies exist in patches ranging from an acre to a square mile, and have the same tall grasses, wildflowers and animals and insects found in Midwestern prairies, plus species unique to the South.

"There are expanses of native, natural grassland with very few nonnative weeds and grasses. So it is as close to being a little slice of what Alabama used to be like that first attracted the settlers there," Oberholster said.

The land is owned by David Ward and his sister, Carole, who lease the land for hunting and timber.

The state's land preservation program, Forever Wild, had previously sought to buy the land, but no agreement was ever worked out.

The Wards recently reached a deal with the Nature Conservancy to sell the land at the appraised price of about $5 million, the newspaper reported. Oberholster said the nonprofit land acquisition and preservation group plans to buy the land with the understanding Forever Wild will buy it from the conservancy when it is able.

The land includes forests, the Big Creek Swamp, two miles of frontage on the Cahaba River and land along the roads leading into Old Cahawba.

The Nature Conservancy is interested in the land's biological value. The prairies cover a thin strip of land that goes from Phenix City to Cahawba to Livingston over a deep layer of chalk commonly called Selma chalk. The region is called the Black Belt after the relatively shallow layer of dark chalky topsoil.

The layer of soil in the prairies is too shallow for large forest trees, but supported smaller trees like Eastern red cedar, redbud and hackberry, as well as tall grasses more commonly associated with the Great Plains, like yellow Indian grass and little bluestem.

In addition to its biological value, the land would enhance the appeal of the state historical commission's site at Old Cahawba. Site director Linda Derry told the News the prairies are a big part of the story the historical park tells.

The Nature Conservancy bought land upstream on the Cahaba at Alabama 22 that has been used as an unofficial canoe launch. The group hopes to work with local partners to have an improved canoe launch ready for use by late spring.

Derry said a canoe float takes boaters on a four-hour drift past cypress draped in Spanish moss. She said the addition of the new land will make the overall site more appealing, combining nature, history and active exploration.

"This is the future for tourism right now," Derry said. "People are looking for authentic places and the stories that grow out of them."


Information from: The Birmingham News

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