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President Teddy Roosevelt, that great champion of the American wilderness, issued the executive order that created what's now the Ouachita National Forest on Dec. 18, 1907. Gifford Pinchot, the man known as the Father of Forestry, noted at the time that the new national forest would be the only major shortleaf pine forest under federal protection.

This was during the period known as the Great Cut, an era from the 1880s until the 1920s when timber companies funded by Northern investors came to Arkansas, cut the virgin pine and hardwood timber and moved on. The investors pocketed the profits. Arkansans were left with abandoned mill towns, large cutovers, erosion problems and streams that were muddy and filled with sediment.

The federal acquisition was known as the Arkansas National Forest and included land south of the Arkansas River. In 1926, President Calvin Coolidge changed the name to the Ouachita National Forest and proposed extending the forest into eastern Oklahoma. President Herbert Hoover accomplished that extension in 1930.

The 1911 Weeks Law authorized additional federal purchases of forestland. That law was used to add thousands of acres of cutover land in Arkansas. Most of these purchases were made from 1933-41. The Great Depression had made a poor state even poorer, and thousands of men in need of work enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Many of them were put to work planting trees on the cutover lands. The Ouachita National Forest, the oldest and largest national forest in the South, now consists of 1.8 million acres.

In March 1908, Roosevelt signed a proclamation creating the Ozark National Forest from land north of the Arkansas River. At the time, the Ozark National Forest was the only big tract of hardwood timberland under federal protection. The first forest headquarters was at Fort Smith. It moved to Harrison in late 1908 and has been at Russellville since 1918. The forest now covers 1.2 million acres.

The 23,600 acres of the St. Francis National Forest atop Crowley's Ridge in Phillips and Lee counties were part of an initiative known as the Marianna-Helena Project. That project was managed by the U.S. Soil Conservation Service and was intended to control erosion on the ridge by re-establishing forests. In 1960, much of that land was designated as the St. Francis National Forest by President Dwight Eisenhower. A year later, the forest was placed under the administration of the Ozark National Forest.

When studying the history of the almost 3 million acres of national forest property in Arkansas, I'm reminded of a line that Arkansas historian Ben Johnson uttered during a recent speech. Johnson said that during the Great Depression, Arkansas was "a ward of the federal government."

Arkansas was the nation's problem child. The Great Flood of 1927 saw more Arkansas land inundated and more Arkansans displaced than in Mississippi and Louisiana combined. Two years later, the Great Depression began. Next came the Drought of 1930-31. That was followed by the Flood of 1937, a disaster Johnny Cash would sing about in "Five Feet High and Rising."

Cash's parents had been among those desperately poor Arkansans who came to depend on the government, leaving their home near Kingsland in south Arkansas and making the long trip to northeast Arkansas to be part of a federal resettlement project known as the Dyess Colony in Mississippi County.

Despite the government efforts, people continued to leave the state in droves. Arkansas lost a higher percentage of its population than any other state from 1940-60. What had once been a state with seven seats in the U.S. House of Representatives now had just four. What remained, thanks to seniority, was a powerful congressional delegation that was able to bring projects to Arkansas from the 1940s through the 1970s.

Many of the projects were overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Impoundments built by the Corps that are all or partly in Arkansas include Beaver Lake, Table Rock Lake, Bull Shoals Lake and Norfork Lake in north Arkansas. Further to the south are Greers Ferry Lake, Nimrod Lake and Blue Mountain Lake. In southwest Arkansas, there are Lake Ouachita, Lake Greeson, DeGray Lake, Gillham Lake, Dierks Lake, De Queen Lake and Millwood Lake.

The most notable Corps initiative was the $1.3 billion McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, conceived in the early 1940s and begun as a series of piecemeal flood-control projects. In 1960, Congress authorized a unified navigational development plan. From 1957-60, the Corps constructed 17 locks and dams on the river with 12 in Arkansas and five in Oklahoma. That made the river navigable from its mouth in southeast Arkansas to the Port of Catoosa near Tulsa, a stretch of 445 miles.

Construction of the various impoundments and the navigation system put thousands of Arkansans to work. The completed projects helped bring rural areas out of poverty thanks to flood control and cheaper electricity supplied by hydroelectric plants.

It was a bad start to the 20th century for this state, but Arkansas has been gaining population since the 1960s. The greatest benefits of our national forests and Corps-managed lakes these days, as I pointed out in Sunday's column, are the recreational opportunities they provide for residents and tourists. Just as Arkansas has changed, so must the U.S. Forest Service and the Corps change. For whatever reason, the recreational aspects of their missions seem to be on the back burner. It's time to correct that error.

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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.

Editorial on 02/05/2020

Print Headline: America's problem child

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