Bayou Bartholomew, once a swampy afterthought and a tire dump, was resurrected as a wetlands eco-center through decades of cleanup, education and an unwavering devotion to its cause. Walking and kayaking trails were paved, millions of trees planted and land bought for a wetlands interpretative center. A few days ago, one of its staunchest advocates was named Water Conservationist of the Year by the Arkansas Wildlife Federation.
Even so, with William "Bill" Layher's death this past spring at age 68, the Bayou Bartholomew Alliance has lost much of its forward momentum, and the future of the world's longest bayou is unclear.
The Alliance's roots date to 1990.
In performance of his duties as Monticello School superintendent, Curtis Merrell crossed Bayou Bartholomew "thousands of times" during his 17 years on the job. "I wondered why someone didn't clean it up," he said in a 2006 interview. But Merrell, who died in 2014, decided it was up to him, so in about 1990, he invited a group of concerned individuals to meet, including Layher.
The result was the formation of the Bayou Bartholomew Alliance in 1995 and as a nonprofit it focused on the problems of the 359-mile bayou that starts about 10 miles north of Pine Bluff and twists through six Arkansas counties and two Louisiana parishes before emptying into the Ouachita River in northern Louisiana.
Merrell was the Alliance's first president, and after its first coordinator quit, Layher took the job in 1995.
He had recently left the U.S. Geological Survey to start his own research company, Layher Biologics. From his office near Sulfur Springs, he and his crew traveled around the Midwest and the South collecting water samples and undertaking fish counts for various government agencies. He also coordinated the bayou's cleanup and educational efforts, and taught at Southeast Arkansas College in Pine Bluff from 1994 through 2018. The college has established a scholarship in Layher's honor.
From the start, Layher shared Merrell's vision, and in 2002, said, "We look for workable and practical solutions; instead of working toward imposed governmental regulations of protected land status."
It was more than a job to him.
Arkansas' slow-moving bayou with its sticky, stinky mud, its half-true myths and larger-than-life legends, its wildlife and its very survival -- soon became Layher's obsession. Saving the bayou got him up in the morning and was what he dreamed about at night.
"To be honest, I love rivers ... I grew up fishing, swimming, hunting and trapping around the Republican River [in Oklahoma]. I feel comfortable and appreciate what rivers do ecologically. I'm happy to work on the restoration of the bayou," Layher said in a 2014 interview.
Early on, the Alliance established specific long- and short-term goals, including cleanup, easement endowment acquisitions, logjam and beaver dam removal, education and native tree restoration.
The Alliance has estimated that volunteers picked up more than 189 tons of trash over the years, a tractor-trailer load at a time, from the bayou and along its banks.
Layher's wife, April Layher, a biologist, said, "We picked up a lot of trash in several key locations around Pine Bluff." Trash pickup continued south as the bayou wound its way to Cane Creek and beyond.
As a result of these cleanup efforts, Bill Layher organized what would be the state's first Stream Team, said Steve Filipek, a retired Arkansas Game and Fish Commission biologist and current Arkansas Wildlife Federation secretary. Layher's program was adopted by Game and Fish and now there are approximately 800 Stream Teams working around the state.
The Alliance's team cleared so many jams and dams that the flooding that had plagued certain areas of Pine Bluff for decades stopped.
Fluted cypress and other native woods such as oak, hickory and pecan once flourished along the bayou's banks, but had been felled by loggers long ago. Layher made it his mission to repopulate the bayou with the same species. Volunteers planted trees in every county that touched the bayou from Pine Bluff to Arkansas' southern border.
In all, they planted more than 2.5 million trees by about 2015 and raised about $2.5 million through state and federal grants and private donations with which to do their work.
In turn, fish and water plants thrived, according to their research.
"Wildlife habitat benefits, but most importantly trees improve water quality by reducing sediment and nutrient pollution flow from runoff into the bayou, it also helps provide an overhead canopy that cools the water," April Layher said.
They also built boat ramps, walking trails and weirs, and acquired about a dozen easements from landowners whose property touched the bayou, remembered Scott Donaldson, who worked for the Alliance for two years.
"You would be hard-pressed to find two people more passionate about the bayou than Doc [Layher] and Curtis," Donaldson said.
Zack Hale was employed by Bill Layher and the Alliance in 2010 soon after college graduation and described him as "brilliant, creative ... For most, the bayou is an afterthought but not for Doc."
Layher believed it could be better utilized for canoeing, kayaking, fishing and birding in the future, Hale says. There are at least three bayou water trails, including the Dr. Curtis Merrell, at Cane Creek and inside the Little Bayou Wildlife Management Area, and two walking trails, including the Bill Layer Bayou Bartholomew Nature Trail.
Jodi Morris remembered traveling a section of Bayou Bartholomew near Cane Creek State Park with Layher by boat in 2002. At that time, she was the park's assistant supervisor. She recalled Layher pointing out an eagle's nest built high in the top of a dead cypress tree. They spotted four American bald eagles circling overhead.
The bayou is part of the Mississippi Flyway and it's not unusual to see native eagles, great blue herons, osprey, wild turkeys and owls nesting there, along with a gaggle of migrating birds dropping in for a drink on their trip south or north.
April Layher said the bayou may contain as many as 117 native fish and 35 mussel species, and more than 150 local and migratory bird varieties, from as far away as the Amazon rain forest and the Arctic Circle. In fact, the bayou in Pine Bluff is one of bird photographer John Redman's favorite spots. He has photographed hundreds of birds in Jefferson County alone and his work has been used by the state, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the Audubon Society.
In 2014, Mitchell Pruitt, then Audubon Society membership chairman, described the area as an "unappreciated bird paradise."
April Layher said, "Bayou Bartholomew stands out as one of the most diverse streams in fish and wildlife richness in North America. It's worth saving."
But it's so much more.
"Water quality is critical to our survival and protecting the bayou is essential to this area. The trees and the soil act as filters as the water, filled with road and farm runoff, percolates from the bayou down to the water table. We depend on this natural filter for drinking water and agricultural purposes," April Layher said.
Morris said, "It wasn't just lip service. Bill cared deeply about the preservation of the entire bayou and felt it was about protecting the 'lynch point' of southeast Arkansas' entire water eco-system."
The bayou is the only Delta waterway that has not been channelized or redirected, and Merrell and Layher stood up against the state's attempt to connect the bayou to the Arkansas River. This measure would siphon off the bayou's water and in turn, share its non-native, destructive species like Zebra Mussels and Silver and Asian Grass carps, Layher said before his death. Without the Alliance, April Layher said she believes this is an idea that could again take hold.
It would also put the fish in danger because, Filipek said, "a certain amount of in-stream flow [water level] has to be maintained to sustain a healthy wildlife and fish population."
Unlike in the past when Bayou Bartholomew was a main means of moving product into and outside the area, it is of little commercial value today, but there's no way to measure its true value, its real impact on the region, Donaldson said.
The Alliance's work has earned recognition for its efforts. The Environmental Protection Agency Region VII awarded the Alliance its Administrator's Award of Excellence for Wetland Protection in 1996. It was named Forest Conservationist of the Year and received a Daughters of the American Revolution Conservation Award in 2004.
The Alliance also has received recognition from the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the Arkansas Watershed Advisory Group, and Keep Arkansas Beautiful. In 2007, it was named Arkansas Wildlife Federation's Conservationist Organization of the Year, and Layher has been named their 2019 Water Conservationist of the Year.
Filipek, with a nearly four-decade working relationship with Layher, said he is being honored for his work with the Alliance, as well as his work on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's Arkansas's Water Plan and more.
"He was instrumental in gathering and putting the information for the plan together ... . Not only was he a scientist and researcher but he trained generations of biologists to put our water resources first," Filipek said.
By late November 2018, it looked as if Layher was winning his battle against Hodgkin lymphoma. But on March 5, the doctors told him "there is nothing more we can do for you," April Layher remembered. Instead of remaining in the hospital, he went home and died the next morning.
During the months when the couple thought Layher was getting better, they discussed the Bayou Bartholomew Alliance at great length and what was next.
There was the possible establishment of an endowment that would allow for the continuation of its mission for decades to come and the construction of an education center on the 37 acres the Alliance bought near Pine Bluff in 2013.
But his time was cut short and these goals would be left undone.
Gibbs Ferguson, a McGehee lawyer and the Wallace Trust Foundation administrator, was involved with the Alliance from the beginning. Nearly two decades later, the Wallace Trust partially funded the 2013 AETN documentary Bayou Bartholomew. He was also a friend of Merrell, one of the organization's original nine board members and remains a strong supporter.
Ferguson said, "The Alliance accomplished their early goals ... Their work was critical to the preservation of the bayou, and when Curtis died, Bill kept it going but then he got sick."
The Alliance's future is uncertain but Ferguson believes there are two choices: One is to keep the Alliance alive and hire April Layher as coordinator and look for new board members and recruit more volunteers.
Already, Filipek said, "She [April Layher] is working hard to keep it going, and he suggested looking for funding, spreading the word through social media.
"I would definitely like to see it keep going ... It's an important example of how a community can come together to protect their resources," Filipek said.
Ferguson's other suggestion is to turn all Alliance properties and acquired easements and right-of-ways over to agencies such as the Game and Fish Commission, the Nature Conservancy or the Arkansas Natural Heritage Foundation with the resources and expertise to preserve and continue the Alliance's work.
"It would be a real asset to any of those agencies," Ferguson said. However, "certain aspects of the Alliance's work might be lost," such as cleanup and planting trees outside of those protected areas.
"Everything that can be done should be done to preserve the bayou and the Alliance but it's a big challenge," he said.
With the help of others, April Layher said she plans to continue her husband's work as coordinator until she can find someone to take over the role.
She feels she has no choice but realizes it will not be easy, and already, the Alliance's Natural Trail on the north side of Pine Bluff isn't being maintained.
Their work is in jeopardy of coming undone, Hale said.
Going forward, Donaldson said, "I want the bayou to be there for a long time. I don't want us to screw it up."
Style on 07/28/2019
Print Headline: A shaken Alliance