Research Learning Center at Steel Creek Campground Expands Unique and Important Research Opportunities for UCA Students
Out of the many natural treasures that can be found in the state of Arkansas, there are few that can compare to the beauty and popularity of the Buffalo River. The Buffalo River, which winds more than 150 miles long through northern Arkansas, attracts thousands of visitors every year for camping, float trips, sightseeing and hiking. In 1972, Congress designated the Buffalo as America’s first national river, which protects it from commercial or residential development, damming, and gravel mining in order to preserve its scenic beauty and natural state forever. Recently, the Buffalo River has been seeing an increase in visitors from the University of Central Arkansas as well.
In December 2016, UCA, North Arkansas College and the Buffalo National River partnered in a transfer agreement to establish a Research Learning Center at the Steel Creek Campground, located near Ponca.
“A lot of classes and departments plan to use the facility, everything from aquatic ecology to history to plant taxonomy, from the Honors College to herpetology,” said Dr. Ginny Adams, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics associate dean and biology professor. “I’m teaching a fish biology class in the spring, and we’ll go and stay a few days up there then as well.”
The facilities include a main house with two bedrooms and a large living room, as well as additional yurt-style structures to accommodate overnight guests. There is a garage-type structure on the property that can be used as an outdoor classroom, with easy access to the river for field research and sampling.
“Eventually, the park service’s vision is to have an artist-in-residence program and incorporate lots of difference facets of the University,” said Adams.
UCA history professor Dr. Kim Little has been taking her classes to the Buffalo River for years, giving students the opportunity to participate in waterfall hikes and learn how to build trails, while qualifying for service-learning.
“The students worked with Ken Smith, who in 1959 started the drive to save the Buffalo River from damming and ended up turning it into a national park himself, and they got a chance to build trails with a living legend,” said Little. “He’s teaching them a skill and talking about history the entire time, while we are building trails for the Buffalo and volunteering.”
Now her classes have a place to stay for overnight trips, and they can take advantage of the weather during summer for classes in the field.
“I grew up in Ozark, Arkansas, but we see less and less of an awareness of what’s going on outside in the younger generation,” said Adams. “It’s just amazing that we have access to a facility like this, and I’m not just speaking research-wise, but really getting students up there and exposing a wide spectrum of students to witness one of the treasures of the state.”
Various research projects have been conducted on the Buffalo throughout the years, ranging on a broad spectrum on the biological scale. And the research doesn’t just benefit the students.
“It’s a good way for the National Park Service to get some detailed biological data about what’s going on in the park,” said Adams. “They are very limited in their funds on what they can give to research. They are very reliant on people that are getting grants and doing research,
In Adams’ research and classes, a growing interest sparked in the Buffalo River by way of a large project dating back to the 1970s. A set of master’s theses were completed at Arkansas State University and Northern Louisiana University in which graduate students would pick a stream to sample and learn about, and then provide intensive coverage of that single system using standardized methodology.
“Nobody has ever gone back and replicated those studies,” said Adams. “There were a few of the systems that were done again in the ’80s but then there is a huge gap.”
Ginny Adams and her husband, Dr. Reid Adams, associate chair of the UCA Department of Biology as well as a professor, wrote a grant proposal to acquire funding to sample some of the systems in the Ozarks and the Ouachita Mountains.
“There was a thesis on the Buffalo and that’s one of the ones we added to our project that we are working on now. If something happens now, like the construction of a hog farm, a catastrophic drought or a chemical spill… if we don’t have the baseline data, we won’t know how to say what has changed,” said Ginny.
According to Reid’s current research, Arkansas ranks fifth in the nation in fish biodiversity, yet the current status of many of our species of greatest conservation need is often unknown or incomplete.
“With access to the Steel Creek research facility, we’re filling in data gaps in research from 30 years ago. We’ve identified specifies that weren’t on anybody’s radar because they’ve always been common, but they’re starting to decline. It’s just not something that’s being caught,” said Ginny.
Research in Stability of the Fish Community of the Buffalo River
When the research team arrives to the site, they first check to make sure the water conditions are right for sampling, depending on rainfall amounts. Then, using a standard seining method and a crew of at least four people, they begin intensive sampling of transects of the river, as shown in the middle left photo featuring Chelsey Sherwood and Dr. Reid Adams. In the top photo, research students Chance Garrett and Sherwood take a seine and set the net down into the river. The team will then kick into it to ensure that rocks, dirt and fish enter the net, then pull it back onto the bank. In the middle left photo, (from left to right) Aaron Burgad, Dr. Reid Adams and Jennifer Main take the collection back to the lab to identify everything, including habitat and water quality. In the bottom photo, the research crew works through the night to identify and collect while the water conditions are working in their favor. The end goal is to identify the stability of the fish community, including persistence, relation to forest coverage, urban land usage, and stream habitat variables.