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OPINION | REX NELSON: Arkansas' wildlife refuges

by Rex Nelson | August 22, 2020 at 10:09 a.m.

The Big Lake Wars erupted in northeast Arkansas in the decades following the Civil War.

The late Joe Mosby, a legendary Arkansas outdoors writer, described them this way: "The Big Lake Wars pitted local residents, who were mostly poor, against affluent Northerners, chiefly from St. Louis. Early Arkansas maps labeled the sparsely populated area between Crowley's Ridge and the Mississippi River as the Great Swamp. After the Civil War, the railroad boom included the building of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway from St. Louis to Texarkana, as well as the construction of the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, known as the Frisco. Both railroads built branch lines in northeast Arkansas to haul timber from the vast hardwood forests to meet the building needs of the nation.

"The post-Civil War period spawned hunting excursions as a pastime for the well-to-do. Groups chartered railroad cars to travel to the Big Lake area for extended hunts in a time when there were no regulations, state or federal, on the taking of wild game. The trains that took out timber also provided transportation for the products of the market hunters--deer, ducks and fish. Subsistence hunting for food became overshadowed by hunting that brought in money. Restaurants north of Arkansas often featured wild game from the Big Lake area."

Mosby writes about the iced barrels of "venison, ducks, fish and even frogs that went aboard the trains and headed north. The fish were usually largemouth bass and crappie, as catfish was disdained at that time."

What was known as the "St. Louis crowd" leased more and more land. There were fights and even shootings. Clubhouses were burned, and fraudulent titles to the land were rampant. There were dozens of court cases along with several laws passed by the Arkansas Legislature. And yet the conflict continued.

In 1913, Congress approved legislation putting the hunting of migratory waterfowl under federal control. Two years later, Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge became one of the first inland federal refuges. The refuge now consists of 11,038 acres near Manila in Mississippi County.

Created by the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, Big Lake is about as close as one can get in Arkansas to something resembling the Everglades. President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order on Aug. 2, 1915, to establish the wildlife reserve and hopefully put an end to the Big Lake Wars.

There are now 10 national wildlife refuges scattered across the state. The refuges, operated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, will be beneficiaries of recent congressional passage of the Great American Outdoors Act. The act, which was the subject of Wednesday's column, will provide $9.5 billion during the next five years to clear up a maintenance backlog at National Park Service facilities, national forests and national wildlife refuges.

The state's three national forests--the Ouachita National Forest in the Ouachita Mountains, the Ozark National Forest in the Ozark Mountains and the St. Francis National Forest on Crowley's Ridge (which provides about the only hills in east Arkansas)--protect upland habitats. The national wildlife refuges, on the other hand, are mostly devoted to the lowlands.

In far south Arkansas, Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1975 to mitigate the environmental impact of a navigation project developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along the Ouachita River. The refuge now includes almost 65,000 acres in Union, Bradley and Ashley counties in the area where the Saline River empties into the Ouachita. Felsenthal Lock & Dam on the Ouachita River impounds shallow Lake Jack Lee.

Dozens of creeks, bayous, sloughs and oxbow lakes are part of this wild area near the Louisiana border. There's Fishtrap Lake, Shallow Lake, Spring Bayou, Wildcat Lake, Mud Lake, Marais Saline Lake, Goose Lake, Wheeler Lake, Pereogeethe Lake, Buck Lake, Straight Lake, Eagle Lake, Blue Lake Slough, Deep Slough, Lapoile Creek and Lapile Creek to name a few.

Two other federal wildlife refuges are in far south Arkansas. In Ashley County, Overflow National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1980 to protect bottomland hardwood forests in the area. It's considered vital for maintaining mallard, wood duck and other waterfowl populations using the Mississippi Flyway. The complex consists of seasonally flooded bottomland forests, impoundments and croplands. It's within the Overflow Creek watershed. The refuge's Oakwood Unit, also in Ashley County, consists of managed impoundments and reforested farmland.

Overflow has 9,247 acres of bottomland hardwoods along with 2,620 acres of agricultural fields and about 200 acres of upland pine and hardwood. There's even an old-growth sugar maple and American beech forest.

In southwest Arkansas, Pond Creek National Wildlife Refuge was established in the early 1990s to protect more than 27,000 acres of bottomland habitats where the Cossatot River runs into the Little River near Ashdown. There are numerous oxbow lakes and sloughs in the refuge. The land was purchased from forestry giant Weyerhaeuser Co. following passage of the Omnibus Parks and Public Lands Act of 1986.

In the Arkansas River Valley near Dardanelle, Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge is bordered on one side by the Arkansas River and on other sides by an oxbow lake formed in 1954 by the Corps during efforts to straighten the river's navigation channel. The island that was created was transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1957.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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