TAHLEQUAH — Magic has happened this summer on a former cattle ranch that for 19 years has been home to one of Oklahoma’s largest, but lesser-known, nature preserves.
Following one of the wettest spring seasons on record, the 17,000-acre J.T. Nickel Family Nature Preserve is showing just what 19 years of intense habitat restoration work can accomplish, and a man who has worked the land since 2005 only sees improvement from here on.
“For me, I get excited when I see these changes since I’ve been here and I think what it’s going to be like 100 years from now,” said Jeremy Tubbs, director of the preserve for The Nature Conservancy.
Gone are cattle pastures and overgrown timber patches. Now the land resembles what existed 200 years ago. At sunrise on a summer day, the bird songs, the smells and colors of wildflowers, and the chance to see elk, black bear or white-tailed deer can feel like a magical step back in time.
The birth of the preserve goes back to one outstanding feature of the area. John T. Nickel, owner of Greenleaf Nursery Co. among others, said the sight of Goat’s Bluff, which is a high ledge outcropping above the Illinois River, stayed with him from the time he was 10 years old and he floated the river with his father and younger brother.
“We camped on a sandbar right below the bluff,” he said. “I’ve always had an emotional love for that part of Oklahoma. There is a special beauty and I wanted to see some of it preserved before it all got fragmented and torn apart.”
With his business success, he was lucky enough to find a 14,000-acre parcel to purchase in 1989. He turned it over to The Nature Conservancy in 2000. Purchases of inholdings have brought it to 17,000 acres in the Cookson Hills that feature several hollows (pronounced “hollers”) with spring-fed creeks.
Moving forward, the goal is to grow to 20,000 acres and to keep working to return the land to its natural state, which is an Ozark savanna mosaic — a mix of open prairie and post oak and shortleaf pine forest, Tubbs said.
“Their promise to me is it will remain undeveloped into perpetuity,” Nickel said.
Forty to 50 elk from a small herd transplanted in 2005 roam the area. Black bears are returning and other wildlife is more and more plentiful as the diversity of plant life grows, Tubbs said.
Wildlife watching and photography along the roads that surround the preserve and along 3 miles of trails near the preserve headquarters draws visitors, he said. Bathtub Rocks, formed by spring water flowing over a limestone outcropping, is a popular local swimming hole that is growing in popularity with tourists.
“People have sent me photos of elk that are standing right on the trails,” he said.
“Being from Oklahoma, I never really thought I’d see a bear in Oklahoma. To work in an area now that they’re returning is pretty amazing,” said Tubbs, who grew up in Shidler and graduated from Northeastern State University in 2006.
Herbicides were used to kill the old cattle pastures. They then were burned and native wildflower and grass seeds were planted. Chainsaws and herbicide worked to clear overgrown forest from 1,000 “sticks” per acre to 35 to 75. That meant sunlight could hit the ground and grass and flowers could grow beneath the trees.
Spot application of herbicides, chainsaw work and hand-pulling some weeds continues to keep non-native plants in check, Tubbs said. Fire does the rest.
A University of Missouri study of old trees and stumps from the area showed that from 1650 to 1925 the area burned an average of every three years, Tubbs said.
“Lightning strikes started fires and Native Americans used fire,” Tubbs said. “It burned in different ways and times and created this mosaic. That’s what we try to mimic.”
Fire breaks define 16 areas of the preserve. Some are burned every other year, some every three years, some every five or six, he said.
Preserve staff have collected by hand seeds and seed heads from native plants, dried them and processed them for supplemental plantings.
“It’s very tedious work,” Tubbs said.
In 2012 the staff collected, dried and screened 2,200 pounds of native seeds to create its own local-source seed mix.
“Some are these tiny, tiny seeds that ride on the wind,” he said. “Twenty-two hundred pounds is a lot of seeds.”
“What’s rewarding is you see this and you know you went out and actually, possibly, hand-collected the seed that plant is growing from,” Tubbs said as he looked over a prairie with patches of native big bluestem grasses towering 8 to 10 feet high and other areas with purple, yellow and white wildflowers dancing in the breeze.
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