SNOWBALL - Picturesque property near the National Park Service's Buffalo National River has been renamed to honor a former commissioner with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. It will be known as the Sonny Varnell Richland Valley Elk Conservation Area.
Varnell was appointed to the Commission by former Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2003; his term expired June 30, 2008. The Richland Valley property is part of the Gene Rush Wildlife Management Area.
In July 2007, the AGFC purchased about 2,800 acres in northwestern Searcy County from the Lunce Cash family. The Cash property was incorporated into adjacent Gene Rush WMA, which increased the WMA to 19,947 acres. The land is southwest of St. Joe, near the Woolum Access on the Buffalo River.
The property includes about 1,100 acres of fields that have been managed for cattle production. Most of the fields are within Richland Valley, west of Richland Creek. Richland Valley has a rich history, including American Indian settlements, at least one Civil War skirmish and intensive agricultural production and a cotton gin.
Since the AGFC bought the property, some fields have been turned into a combination of high-quality forage for elk and native, warm-season grasses for small-game species, including quail. About 550 acres of fields have been intensively managed, with plans to continue throughout the valley.
Habitat management has been successful - elk, deer, turkey and bear have become common. More than 100 elk were seen in Richland Valley during the 2010 aerial winter elk survey.