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

For generations the remaining 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.

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Over the years much of these "big woods" of legend have been reduced to the not-so-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, sweet-gum, sugarberry, and cane shading creatures ranging from timber rattlers to black bears.

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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 rains 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 in 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.

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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. Suddenly the Cache, the White River Refuge system, and other remaining bottomland hardwood forests in the Arkansas Delta became a "corridor of hope," with officials in high places announcing plans to purchase, protect, and replant as much of the swampy woodland as possible. What the ducks had saved, the ivory-billed promised to secure forever, with threats of potential dredging, draining, and 'dozing suddenly up against an illusive yet insurmountable obstacle with the voice of a toy clarinet and a passion for timber tall, dark, and deep.

Yet while the sudden discovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker gave instant international recognition to this newly proclaimed corridor of hope, we should remember that hope existed long before anyone dreamed this rare bird was still chiseling away cellulose in search of beetle larvae.

State and federal wildlife agencies have invested decades and millions in duck stamp funds to keep these bottomlands from becoming as extinct as the woodpecker was thought to be. Private organizations like AMERICAN FORESTS and The Nature Conservancy were either purchasing critical acreage or seeking to reclaim salvageable acres by restoring trees.

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The ivory-billed woodpecker hasn't survived in the Arkansas delta by accident. It is there because people with vision understood that bottomland hardwood forests are incubators of a rich diversity of life, whether it be feathered, furred, or scaled. And so they dedicated their intelligence, their training, their time, and their money to saving as much of this unique ecosystem as possible before commerce overwhelmed the vision and outweighed the concern.

The true heroes of the ivory-billed's discovery are the bird watchers and the bird hunters, the catfishermen and the conservationists, those who have fought for decades against the bulldozers, the bureaucrats and their dredge lines, the cut-and-run timber operations, those determined to plant another row crop when and where economics and geography wouldn't justify another furrow. Blessed, it seems, are those who have gotten their hands dirty and muscles sore by restoring native trees to their natural order, thus helping the unimaginable to fly among us once more.

Gary Lantz writes from Norman, Oklahoma.

Resources

AMERICAN FORESTS' efforts to help the Cache River watershed stretch back more than 10 years to 1994 when it planted more than 150,000 trees over two years in concert with the Arkansas Nature Conservancy. Another project, on Arkansas' Bayou Bartholomew, planted more than 300,000 trees to restore bottomland hardwoods for deer, turkeys, squirrels, and migratory birds. The trees also help stabilize sediment runoff.

It is the types of projects that restore and protect habitat that have made it possible for the ivory-billed woodpecker to survive. Without habitat, we are destined to lose many of this country's cherished and rare species. Although not all are as charismatic as the recently rediscovered ivory-billed woodpecker--the subject of much press and numerous books including The Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Phillip Hoose (pictured below)--each and every one has a place in keeping our ecosystems functioning.

AMERICAN FORESTS is helping protect other cherished species including monarch butterflies and Siberian tigers, raising funds to replant trees in hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast communities, and detailing the value of trees in urban areas. If you would like to help AMERICAN FORESTS with any of these projects--every $1 plants a tree--please visit www.americanforests.org or call 800/545-TREE.

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Title Annotation:ivory-billed woodpecker
Author:Lantz, Gary
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1U7AR
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Words:1172
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