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Into the woods: a century ago, the federal government cleared the way for Mississippi's prospering system of National Forests.

Did you know that Mississippi is home to more National Forests than any other state east of Colorado? With six of these living national treasures encompassing some 1.2 million acres, only the vast western states boast more separate allotments of our nation's prestigious woodland bounty.

The Bienville, Chickasawhay, Delta, DeSoto, Holly Springs, Homochitto, and Tombigbee National Forests enrich the lives of us all every day and are invaluable to our health and well-being. Our millions of trees produce fresh air, clean water, and abundant resources. These towering stores of wealth do exactly what the good Lord created them to do: the leaves and needles emit oxygen, the roots serve as a filter system giving us clean water, the trunks furnish building materials, and many species produce nuts and berries. Food, water, pure air, and shelter--not a bad result from a plant. What more could we ask? Clothing? You may recall that it is written that at least on one occasion the leaves of a fig tree were used for clothing. More recently, scientists have rediscovered ways to use timber fibers to manufacture clothing.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service. On July 1, 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt--no stranger to our state--signed documents establishing the new agency to oversee the nation's shrinking grasslands and forests. Even though his passion for the agency and for its mission was understood to be urgent, the wheels of government turned very slowly. It wasn't until 1930 that Pennsylvania native Ray Conarro was appointed to serve as the first National Forest Supervisor in Mississippi. Conarro was the right man at the right time. The decisions he made and the programs he initiated set the stage for Mississippi to benefit from what is in place today--a system of independent National Forests held canopy-high as a model for other states to emulate.

Once Conarro placed his feet on Mississippi soil, he went to work to achieve his goal of providing a sustainable supply of timber for the nation. His first land acquisition on August 1, 1933, became what is now the 192,000-acre Homochitto National Forest. Spread over portions of seven southwestern counties with the ranger station housed at Meadville, this forest is still considered the "prize" it was 72 years ago.

The name of this sportsman's paradise of a forest, like the name of our state, is of Indian origin and means "Big Red." It comes from the sometimes reddish-hued river of the same name, which winds through this thickly wooded forest. The color, of course, comes from the high iron content found in the sandy clay soil.

Chock-full of amenities for hunters, fishermen, hikers, and campers, the Homochitto now has yet another one--the 1,000-acre Lake Okhissa (Choctaw for "gatekeeper"). When asked if the massive lake was full yet, Homochitto public affairs officer Mary Bell Lunsford replied, "Not yet, but it is coming along nicely;" the "Bill Dance Signature Lake" is set to be ready in about a year.

Located due south of Laurel in portions of Jones, Wayne, and Greene counties is the 150,000-acre Chickasawhay National Forest. Technically, this tract isn't a separate forest at all but is rather a ranger district of the DeSoto National Forest. The name Chickasawhay is of Chickasaw origin and means "I am a Rebel." Ironically, the man who administers supervision of this dense forest is Ranger Robert E. Lee. Lee, like his namesake, is a natural leader and is characterized by those who know him as a Christian man among men. Knowing this, it will come as no surprise to learn that the "Chick," as it is affectionately referred to by locals, is a textbook forest. One of the most popular attractions is the Gavin Forest Education Tour, a 12-mile self-guided drive designed to give a rare opportunity to compare a managed forest with an unmanaged one simply by looking from one side of the road to the other. It is amazing how much larger the similarly aged trees of the managed forest are. Even the wildlife prefer the managed area for its broader variety of food.

Way up north, beginning at Oxford and reaching to within a shadow of the Tennessee line, lies the evergreen Holly Springs National Forest. Dating from August 30, 1933, this forest--like several of the others--is the result of planting done by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression. A visit to this sprawling 155,000 acres of pine green is a feast for the eyes. The fact that the ranger station's address is 1000 Front Street in Oxford is indicative of the close relationship between the government and the university. When Faulkner wrote of Mississippians' dependency on Mother Nature's gifts, he probably had the Holly Springs forest in mind.

The Bienville National Forest, named for Jean Baptiste LeMoyne de Bienville, the French explorer who governed the first permanent European settlement on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1699, dates from 1934. This 180,000-acre primarily loblolly pine forest, with its ranger station located at the aptly named city of Forest in Scott County, is not unlike Mississippi's other National Forests in that it enjoys a long partnership with the area citizens. In addition to the well-managed timberland, the Bienville maintains trails, camping spots, and two fishing lakes, Marathon and Shongelo. The smaller spring-fed, cool-water Shongelo is a magnet for swimmers. Another attraction is the 23-mile Shockaloe Horse Trail, which parallels U.S. Highway 80 between Forest and Morton and is listed on the National Register of Trails.

There are numerous stories about the friendly Bienville, but perhaps the best illustration of this forest's desire to be a good neighbor is found in James L. Dickerson's book Piece of My Heart. Several years ago, the folks from the ranger's office sponsored a public event near Raleigh in Smith County. There were 3,000 people in attendance when a "16-year-old girl..tall and lanky, with pencil-thin arms and legs--and metallic braces on her teeth--and with the face of an angel" stepped forward to sing. "When someone said to her, 'You're next,'" she strode out onto the back of a flatbed track and "lifted her arms sweetly to the heavens and began in a cotton-soft voice what she knew to be Elvis Presley's favorite hymn: 'Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me ...'" The year was 1983, and the unknown singer was Faith Hill.

In 1934, funds provided by the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt were used to buy three land parcels in the south, central, and northwestern sections of the state. The majority of these, basically timberless at the time, were described on the deeds as "cut-over land." This description was most aptly applied to the "Biloxi Purchase Unit" north of Biloxi. Almost all of the timber had been cut from this property during the early 20th century, and by the time of the government's purchase, much of the land was grown up in undesirable weeds and grasses. No effort had been made by the logging companies to reforest or manage the land, so for all practical purposes, the once-virgin forests of Harrison, Stone, Forrest, and Perry counties were gone and in their place was a virtual wasteland. The exception was a 377-acre reserve of mature live oaks bordering the city of Biloxi that was protected as a "natural reserve forest." The giant oaks, growing in what some called a "park setting," had been set aside by the U.S. Department of the Navy from the days of the wooden warship--"in case sudden war should break out, there would be a reserve from which to cut oak timber." As a good will gesture, the government gave this forest to the city of Biloxi, and it quickly became popular with tourists, picnickers, and campers.

Forest Supervisor Conarro played a leading role in not only purchasing the "Biloxi Unit" but also in naming it for Spanish conquistador Hernando Mendez DeSoto Gutierrez Cardenoza. Today, the 380,000acre DeSoto National Forest is a beautiful example of how a yellow pine forest should look, smell, and sound. There is no mistaking the refreshing pine scent, the swishing needle sound, and the military-like bearing of the dark brown-barked trees. Crisscrossed by the Biloxi and Leaf Rivers plus other smaller streams including the picturesque Black Creek, the DeSoto is a treasure. The 17-mile Tuxachanie Trail, which begins where the majestic live oaks line state Highway 49 and ends at an old World War II prisoner of war camp site, offers a panoramic view of long-leaf forests, savannahs, swamps, and wildlife galore.

The 60,000-acre Delta National Forest, located in Sharkey County with its ranger station at Rolling Fork, has the distinction of being the only bottomland hardwood forest in the U.S.D.A. Forest Service system. It is an ecological wonderland that is home to an uncommon number of birds, butterflies, and other wildlife such as the Louisiana black bear. During my first visit three years ago, I got out of my car to photograph a giant sweetgum tree, and within a minute or two, I was enveloped in a fluttering cloud of tiny brown butterflies. They lit on my arms, my camera, my head; they were all around me, hundreds of them. Then, just as quickly as they appeared, they disappeared. I remember having the sensation that these friendly little fellows must be awfully curious, and then it occurred to me that maybe this was their way of welcoming me to "their" forest.

The Delta is home to numerous bald cypress trees, some of which are 1,000 years old. And the aforementioned sweetgum trees are so big and so tall. The one I photographed, which is close to the road so visitors don't even have to get out of their cars, is tall and straight like a pine and must be 50 feet to the first limb. This extraordinary forest is home to 30 acres of these 300-plus-year-old trees.

The Delta all but echoes its rich heritage. It was here--in what has been described as an "unbroken wilderness" of oak, ash, gum, cypress, and "an undergrowth of bud vines as thick as the hair on a dog's back"--in 1902 that President Theodore Roosevelt made history when he refused to shoot a bear captured for him by guide Holt Collier. The incident was made famous by Washington Post cartoonist Clifford Berryman, who depicted the president "drawing the line in Mississippi" by refusing to shoot the brain. This is the place and that is the story that gave rise to the world-famous teddy bear. Three years ago, near a boat landing on the Sunflower River, Forest Service officials from Washington erected a bronze marker to commemorate the event.

The newest of our six National Forests is the 67,000-acre Tombigbee (the Choctaw word means "box-maker"), with its ranger station at Ackerman in Choctaw County. Although land acquisition for this forest began in 1934, it did not gain National Forest status until 1964. Located near the Natchez Trace Parkway and consisting of dense tracts of hardwood and pine, it is nothing short of Mississippi scenic. The 200-acre Davis Lake and the 100-acre Choctaw Lake, combined with several ancient Indian mounds, make the Tombigbee a popular place to visit.

The U.S.D.A. Forest Service, with its veritable army of land and forest managers, is one of the most worthwhile arms of government ever devised. If Teddy Roosevelt could see it today, he would surely grin and, through his big teeth, shout, "Bully!" Yes, he would brag about it.

Here in Mississippi, for more than 70 years, Roosevelt's dream--millions of seedlings placed in the soil by a caring team of forest stewards--has been growing and maturing under their expert care. Today, a million acres, much of it once eroded and unattractive, is now inviting and beautiful. Unfortunately, for the past three generations, the National Forests in Mississippi have been virtually unknown to the majority of our state's citizens. Now that the secret is out, take a day or two and visit a National Forest near you, and see, in the words of hymnist Maltbie D. Babcock, "... my Father's world, I rest me in the thought of rocks and trees, of skies and seas; His hand the wonders wrought."
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Title Annotation:LOOKING BACK
Author:Cooper, Forrest Lamar
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 2005
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