Magazine article American Forests

HOPE Takes Flight

Magazine article American Forests

HOPE Takes Flight

Article excerpt

The world learned just how vital these remnant woods have become recently when the Lord God Bird arose from the dead.

For generations the remairnpg bottomland forests of the Mississippi River and its tributaries have survived as places where trees grow large, shadows grow deep, and sinuous rivers and streams move at a snail's pace. For those who like their landscapes bright, park-like, and manicured, these dank, vine-ensnarled woods can be uncomfortable, even unnerving. Yet for others who love wild places, there's a sense of the spiritual in the humidity, the buzz of insects, and the moaning limbs of big trees that like to live with their toes in the mud.

Over the years much of these "big woods" of legend have been reduced to the notso-big as accessible timber fell to the sawyers and bottomlands were cleared and plowed for rice and soybean fields. The best of what's left may be the remnant bottomland hardwoods bordering the White and Cache rivers of eastern Arkansas, where fragmented strips of flood-prone woodland linger in dense stands of cypress, oak, sycamore, tupelo, hickory, sweetgum, sugarberry, and cane shading creatures ranging from timber rattlers to black bears.

This bottomland forest serves as a beacon for birdlife, a refuge that ranks among the most important in the world. Millions of mallard ducks winter on the sloughs and oxbows that collect mast as winter rams cover the lowlands. Ducks gorge on the native produce of the forest and on waste grain in bordering fields. When continued clearing, channelizing, and draining threatened this remnant forest, state agencies, conservation groups, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service rushed to create Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in 1986, protecting what undisturbed tracts they could, purchasing others already converted to agriculture, and replanting trees.

Ducks and duck hunting are ingrained hi both the culture and the economy of eastern Arkansas, thus duck habitat has always been worth fighting for. And throughout the process, wild acres set aside for waterfowl have provided much-needed native places for songbirds, small animals, and amphibians often overlooked in the big picture of any state/federal conservation process. The remnant big woods of the Cache may be squeezed into corridors only four or five miles wide, but they are indeed vital to indigenous species rapidly disappearing as bottomland forests are tamed by cow and plow.

The world has learned just how vital these remnant woods have become recently when the Lord God Bird arose from the dead. On February 11, 2004, Gene Sparling of hot Springs, Arkansas, was kayaking in the Cache River Refuge's flooded timber, happy to be alone in an unspoiled place. He was lost in his thoughts when the mood was broken by the sudden presence of a ghost-a ghost bird to be exact, an ivory-billed woodpecker unseen for some 60 years and basically written off as extinct.

Sparling had his nature lover's epiphany right there in his kayak amid all the black water and cypress knees. The huge woodpecker came out of the shadows like Lazarus, appropriately enough staging a resurrection here amid some of the last, best remnants of prime ivory-bill habitat to be found in the continental U.S.

The sighting stirred the imaginations of ornithologists from Cornell University, the Nature Conservancy, and the University of Arkansas. They launched an intensive investigation and, after months of careful scrutiny, announced the startling news that the report was not a hoax: The furtive ivory-billed woodpecker was still alive. These damp woods, although fragmented and degraded, could still keep some secrets . . . including the world's most magnificent woodpecker, a critter that swamp dwellers once held in such awe that they uttered Lord God upon seeing it.

The news made headlines and brought tears to the eyes of many who had mourned its passing. …

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