Along the Cache River

It begins along the Arkansas-Missouri border and meanders through east Arkansas until emptying into the White River near Clarendon.

The Cache River.

This Delta stream played the lead role in one of the great environmental battles in American history.

“Though the Cache River area was an important source of timber, the area was not as extensively cleared as were other parts of eastern Arkansas due to the river’s reputation for flooding, and major stands of native hardwood survived,” Guy Lancaster writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Because the Cache moves at a slow speed due to its low amount of fall per mile … the Cache River can overflow its banks after only a few inches of rainfall.

“Work on the river in northeast Arkansas in the 1920s and 1930s straightened the channel, even splitting the river into two separate ditches between Bono and Egypt. … During the flood of 1937, the Cache River was one of a number of eastern Arkansas rivers that spilled across agricultural land. Planters, landowners and businessmen long advocated for some form of flood control along the Cache, which had no well-developed system of levees.

“The Flood Control Act of 1950 authorized the Cache River-Bayou DeView Project, which was a plan to dredge, clear and realign 140 miles of the Cache upstream from Clarendon, 15 miles of the upper tributaries and 77 miles of Bayou DeView, the river’s main tributary. However, initial funds for the project, projected to cost $60 million, were not approved until 1969.”

Bill Alexander, the Democratic congressman from the 1st District, fought hard for the project. His opponents included the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and conservationists statewide who realized that a large percentage of the remaining bottomland hardwoods in east Arkansas were along the Cache.

Leading that band of conservationists was Dr. Rex Hancock of Stuttgart, a dentist and avid duck hunter.

“Conservation needs more than lip service, more than professionals,” said Hancock, whose organization was known as the Citizens Committee to Save the Cache River Basin. “It needs ordinary people with extraordinary desire.”

Hancock was born in July 1923 in Laddonia, Mo., a small town northwest of St. Louis. His father was a dentist. Hancock served in the Navy during World War II and graduated from Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., in 1947. He then went to dental school in Kansas City.

The thing that led him to Arkansas was his love of hunting. He first practiced at Huntsville and then moved to Stuttgart in 1951.

A lawsuit was filed to stop the Cache River project, but U.S. District Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in favor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on May 5, 1972.

The Corps wasted no time. Clearing and dredging in the Clarendon area began in July 1972 even though Henley’s ruling had been appealed.

On Dec. 15, 1972, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case to Henley, ruling that the Corps had not met the requirements of the Enviromental Policy Act in preparing its environmental impact statement. The court ordered construction stopped in 1973.

The environmental impact statement was approved in 1976, but funding was stalled in Congress. In addition to blocking funding, opponents of the project worked feverishly to establish a national wildlife refuge along the lower Cache.

Congress reauthorized funding in 1977, and three more miles of the river were ditched. A year later, a government task force concluded that ditching the river would be the single most damaging project to waterfowl and floodplain forest in the nation.

Funding ended, leaving a seven-mile scar along the lower Cache.

The Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1986, covers almost 60,000 acres and is now considered to be among the nation’s most vital wintering areas for migratory waterfowl. It’s also among the country’s last remaining tracts of contiguous bottomland hardwood forests.

These east Arkansas wetlands were recognized in 1990 by the 61 nations of the United Nations Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for wetlands preservation, as Wetlands of International Importance.

The Cache River ranks right up there with the Everglades, the Okefenokee Swamp and the Chesapeake Bay as far as environmental importance.

Last fall, the Nature Conservancy held what it billed as the Save the Cache Bash at the home of Hanke and Cathy Browne in DeValls Bluff to draw attention to its efforts to restore 4.6 miles of the river that were channelized upstream from Clarendon before the courts could step in.

Working with the Corps, the city of Clarendon, the Game & Fish Commisson, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy hopes to make this a model for river restoration nationwide.

Mike Wilson of Jacksonville, who chaired the Nature Conservancy’s board in Arkansas, wrote in the organization’s 2011 year-end report: “We are opening a new and exciting chapter for the Cache River. The story of conservation in the lower Cache River and surrounding Big Woods of east Arkansas is one of ecological setbacks, protection victories and painstaking restoration.

“Many of you might remember the efforts in the early 1970s to prevent the channelization of the Cache River. We cheered when, after much hard work and a halt to the channelization that had already begun, the river was left to run its natural course. … It is up to us to carry on the extraordinary desire of so many conservationists who came before and to restore this iconic river.”

If you want to see what the Cache would have looked like if Alexander and the Corps had had their way, go north of Grubbs. It’s basically a drainage ditch.

In addition to its work to establish the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, the conservation coalition was instrumental in the addition of 41,000 acres of Potlatch Corp. lands to the adjacent White River National Wildlife Refuge.

There has been steady progress since then.

“Through the Wetlands Reserve Program, tens of thousands of acres were reforested,” the Nature Conservancy writes in its year-end report. “All told, the Conservancy and partners have reforested more than 50,000 acres and safeguarded more than 130,000 acres in the Big Woods.

“While conservation strides have been significant, the work on the channelized stretch of the lower Cache remains incomplete. Now we have an opportunity to begin restoring natural meanders of the channelized river, helping to fulfill the vision of those who originally worked to protect the river. If successful, this stretch of the Cache will once again enjoy thriving fish populations and flourishing habitat that supports waterfowl and hundreds of other resident and migratory bird species.”

The Nature Conservancy correctly notes that the Cache “pays homage to and helps sustain the deeply rooted Delta river culture so cherished throughout Arkansas.”

On Aug. 17, the city of Clarendon entered into a project partnership agreement with the Corps to move forward with the restoration project. The Nature Conservancy is working with the city to raise the funds needed to complete the effort.

The cost of the project is $7.3 million. The Corps is contributing $5 million. The Nature Conservancy must raise $2.3 million.

The Conservancy notes: “Timing is crucial. … While design work on the project has been completed, the Conservancy must be certain that we can deliver our share of the funding before we begin construction. After coming so close to losing the entire river, we now have a chance to put the Cache back on course for future generations.”

Why is restoration so important?

The Nature Conservancy responds: “With channelization, the Cache basin’s productive aquatic habitats and richly diverse bottomland forests have declined. This harms millions of wintering waterfowl that flock to this area, black bears that roam freely in surrounding woods and prized sport fish that define the Cache’s waters.

“Returning the lower Cache to its natural meandering condition will slow the river’s velocity and reduce the delivery of sediment that damages not only the Cache but also downstream rivers and habitats.”

Back to Rex Hancock: Later in life, he was instrumental in documenting the presence of dioxin — a toxin known to cause cancer and birth defects — in the Bayou Meto.

The Arkansas Wildlife Federation named him its Conservationist of the Year in 1968. In 1981, the Game & Fish Commission renamed the Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area in Woodruff County in his honor. His ashes were buried there following his death in July 1986.

In 1993, Hancock was inducted posthumously into the Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame.

He no doubt would be pleased with the current efforts to restore the lower part of his beloved Cache River.

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