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The Big Woods of Arkansas

William Faulkner was among those who wrote about the majestic Big Woods of the Mississippi River Delta.

The Big Woods once stretched down both sides of the Mississippi River in parts of Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri.

When DeSoto arrived in the region in the 1500s, the Big Woods made up the largest expanse of forested wetlands in North America.

There were 24 million forested acres in the Big Woods in the 1500s.

Today there are fewer than 5 million acres remaining. During the past 200 years, the vast majority of that land has been drained, cleared of trees and converted to row-crop agriculture.

Since the 1930s, meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has eliminated 16 curves in the Mississippi River, shortening the stream by 150 miles.

There are locks and dams on all of the river’s major tributaries. Those tributaries also have been straightened and channelized.

There are dikes. There are levees. There are giant pumps and diversion canals.

Of the remaining 5 million acres of forested Delta land, almost 1 million of those acres are in Arkansas.

The Big Woods of Arkansas is a national treasure — an international treasure, in fact, since in 1989 these remaining bottomland forests in east Arkansas were recognized by the 49 countries of the U.N.’s Ramsar Convention as a “Wetland of International Importance.”

A stretch of about 550,000 forested acres in east Arkansas is the largest corridor of bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the Delta north of the Atchafalaya River in south Louisiana.

The Nature Conservancy sums up the situation this way on its website ( “As forests continue to be broken into smaller fragments by roads, ditches, urban development and gravel mines, the number of plants and animals that can survive in those patches decreases. Water quality also is declining as sediments, fertilizers and pesticides wash off cultivated fields with no streamside forest to trap and filter them.

“The rivers of the Mississippi River Delta and the Big Woods are vital to the health of their surrounding bottomland hardwood forests. Without naturally functioning rivers, the ecosystem changes dramatically. The forests are no longer wetlands.

“Dams, levees and irrigation projects along the Mississippi River have virtually eliminated flooding along the river’s main stem, and tributary flooding has been reduced by 90 percent. Unable to disperse among the forests, water runs faster and stronger in straightened river channels, thus accelerating erosion. As riverbanks erode, forest vegetation loses its foothold and is swallowed by the river.

“Ultimately, the forest is cut off from the river entirely by steep riverbanks, and the risk of devastating floods downstream increases. Additionally, steeper riverbanks and structures such as levees isolate trees from the life-giving power of the rivers.”

I ate fried catfish for lunch yesterday at Gene’s in Brinkley on my way home from Memphis, and I noticed that the large poster of the ivory-billed woodpecker is still on the wall of the main dining room there. While many people now seriously doubt that it was an ivory-billed woodpecker that was spotted near the Cache River, the national excitement generated by the search did open a lot of eyes to the birding opportunities in the Big Woods of Arkansas.

The Nature Conservancy joined forces with Audubon Arkansas, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Wildlife Federation and others to form the Big Woods Conservation Partnership and even set up a Big Woods birding opportunities website.

Maps were published to show hiking trails and canoe access points. More people than ever before discovered the charms of the Big Woods.

When soybean prices soared in the early 1970s, tens of thousands of acres were drained and cleared in east Arkansas. Since then, much of that marginal cropland has been replanted in hardwoods.

The conservation effort of the past four decades in east Arkansas truly is a remarkable story with expansions of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, White River National Wildlife Refuge, Dagmar Wildlife Management Area, Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area, Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area and Benson Creeek Natural Area.

Long before the reported spotting of an ivory-billed woodpecker, the Nature Conservancy was hard at work in the Big Woods.

“Arkansans are fortunate,” Nancy Delamar of the Nature Conservancy wrote in a piece for Arkansas Business way back in 1994. “Our wetland-rich state still has a substantial amount of floodplain forest intact. Conservation and restoration of a long corridor of forested wetlands has already started in Arkansas. Wildlife management areas and refuges exist in the Big Woods as well as several large tracts of sustainably managed, privately held forested land. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are planting hardwoods as well as the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and the Arkansas Forestry Commission.

“The Conservancy and other private landowners and companies are also planting native hardwoods in the bottomland — whether the trees are for a natural wildlife habitat, future duck hunting, timber harvesting or ‘I just like to see these trees grow’ philosophy.

“Wetlands of the Big Woods include the bottomlands of Bayou de View, the Cache River, the lower White River and the lower Arkansas River. … The lower 41 miles of the Arkansas River have been listed in the Registry of Arkansas Natural and Scenic Rivers. It is the single remaining stretch of undisturbed ‘big river’ in Arkansas.

“Several rare plants and animals find shelter in the Big Woods, including the federally listed endangered interior least tern. The Big Woods contains nesting sites for bald eagles, and parts of the Big Woods have tracts large enough to provide habitat for native black bear. The Big Woods is vitally important as a migration route for neotropical songbirds, giving food and rest; and the region provides the single most important mallard wintering area in the lower Mississippi Valley.”

Some of the wildest, most remote areas of the Big Woods can be found in the White River National Wildlife Refuge, which was established in 1935 for the protection of migratory birds. The refuge is three to 10 miles wide and almost 90 miles long. There are more than 300 natural lakes and potholes in the refuge along with slow-running streams, sloughs and bayous.

A good place to start any exploration of the Big Woods is the White River National Wildlife Refuge visitor center just off Arkansas Highway 1 near St. Charles. The visitor center was constructed in 2003 and covers 10,000 square feet.

The center’s website describes it this way: “The foyer is home to a 28-foot-tall replica of a cypress tree. In addition to the birds and other wildlife that inhabit this symbol of the swamp, the tree houses two bear families. A cross section of a bear den illustrates the unique denning habits of black bears on the refuge. Another scenario includes a female cub encouraging her older cubs to leave the den. The base of the tree is surrounded by an underwater diorama showcasing flora and fauna typical of the refuge’s oxbow lakes.”

Of the two small theaters at the center, the website states: “One educates the visitor about the importance of flooding on the refuge while broadcasting images on the floor and the wall. The other highlights nature at night. Inside this theater the visitor experiences the refuge on a typical night. As the light dims, a narrator discusses the common sounds of nocturnal wildlife such as frogs, owls, insects and fox. As each call is played, an image of the animal calling is backlit on the theater wall.”

Looking for a different type of spring outing?

Try the Big Woods of Arkansas, a state treasure that far too many Arkansans have never explored.

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