It's the first truly cold day of winter. We're just across the Mississippi River bridge from Helena, standing in the back of the parking lot at the Isle of Capri casino. I'm with Kyle Peterson and Daphne Moore of Bentonville-based Walton Family Foundation.
We're not here to gamble. Instead, we're listening to James Cummins, executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, as he points out spots in the adjoining wetlands where his organization has used Walton Family Foundation grants to plant hardwoods. It's part of an effort the foundation supports on both sides of the river. The goal is to return farmland to bottomland hardwood forests.
In Arkansas, the foundation works closely with the Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, and similar organizations. In the quarter-century since Congress created the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program, more than 700,000 acres have been protected in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.
These programs allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service to compensate farmers for removing cropland from production and then returning the land to a natural state.
For decades, Delta farmers cleared and drained bottomland forests when soybean prices were high. Much of that land was marginal at best for row-crop agriculture.
"You had millions of acres of bottomland hardwoods being pushed up," Cummins says. "There were bulldozers running around the clock. They weren't even harvesting the timber because people were frantically trying to clear the land and plant it for soybeans. A lot of this low-lying land wasn't meant for farming. . . . When you see what happens over five, 10, 15 years of watching those seedlings grow and seeing a forest emerge, it's really gratifying."
There's no doubt that attitudes are changing in the Delta.
"In the modern era, there has been a great deal of rethinking on the issue of levees and drainage districts," Donna Brewer Jackson writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "The fertility of the soil surrounding the Mississippi River and its tributaries has, for millennia, depended upon cyclical flooding of rivers.
"Levees have effectively prevented that flooding for the sake of stability. Modern land draining and clearing equipment, along with intensive farming practices, are slowly exploiting the Delta, one of the richest agricultural regions in the United States, to the point of degradation."
There are now almost 2,200 federal easements on private lands. The Walton Family Foundation has played a direct role in helping restore 73,728 acres.
One of the largest expanses of forested wetlands in the world was once the 24 million acres of hardwoods along the lower Mississippi River. Fewer than 5 million forested acres survive in the area once known as the Big Woods. Vast expanses of cypress, oak, hickory and sweetgum trees that were hundreds of years old provided habitat for everything from deer to bears.
At the same time the forests were being cleared, streams were being channelized for flood control and irrigation. That altered the natural cycle of flooding. The most extensive remaining tract of the Big Woods is in Arkansas, along the lower White River in the White River National Wildlife Refuge and the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.
"A mere 12 inches of elevation change means everything," Morgan Snyder, an environmental program officer for the Walton Family Foundation, wrote last fall. "It's the difference between agricultural ground that's consistently dry and productive and ground that's frequently inundated by rising waters."
Snyder says that reforestation means that "fewer agricultural nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous are being washed into the Mississippi River that eventually end up in the Gulf of Mexico. Restored wetlands also help remove nutrients that are lost from the ongoing agricultural production.
"The wetlands programs have been a boon for wildlife species as well. More than 40 percent of North America's migratory waterfowl use the Mississippi Alluvial Valley as a stopover, making it one of the premier duck hunting regions in the country. The Louisiana black bear was recently delisted as a federal threatened species and is now living and reproducing in the reforested lands."
Landowners have found that utilizing federal incentives to take marginal cropland out of production can be a cost-effective strategy. In addition to conservation easement payments, the landowners can earn money from hunting leases as the prices duck hunters are willing to pay continue to grow.
"We're not trying to convert all acres of cropland," says Ron Seiss of the Nature Conservancy. "This is marginal cropland from the standpoint of making a profit. . . . It's an economic decision for a landowner to take the land out of production."
In addition to reforestation programs, the Nature Conservancy in Arkansas has worked to reconnect parts of the Cache River to its natural channel. It's obvious the river is getting healthier because mussels are increasing in diversity and number.
Another example of the work being done is in Prairie County, where the NRCS and the Nature Conservancy partnered with landowner Charlie Proctor to restore 165 acres along Wattensaw Bayou. Water was rerouted from an old drainage ditch to a newly built stream channel. That slowed the water and meant that less soil was being carried downstream. Trees were planted along the stream to hold the soil in place and provide wildlife habitat.
We need more programs such as this in the Delta. The region never will be the unbroken landscape of rivers, bayous, swamps and bottomland forests that it once was. There is, however, a balance that can be reached.
Cummins puts it this way: "If we can impact policy and really have good programs that strike a balance between economics and the environment, we can put a lot of habitat on the ground and do a lot of good for landowners."
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 01/21/2018