In last Saturday's column, I wrote about a swampy area of 18,000 acres in southwest Arkansas near where the Little River empties into the Red River. The area is mostly owned by five exclusive hunting clubs, one of which dates back to 1897.
In a March 2011 story distributed nationally by The Associated Press, Jeannie Nuss focused on the legal battle between members of those clubs and Southwestern Electric Power Co., which at the time was constructing what's now the John W. Turk Jr. coal-fired power station. The station provides electricity to SWEPCO customers in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas.
David Foster, a professor of biology and environmental sciences at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, said of the pristine property: "If it was my land, I'd argue too, especially if it was virgin cypress. That's pretty special."
Nuss wrote: "Legend has it that a hunting club started in the late 1800s when a timber baron stumbled upon trees so beautiful he couldn't bear to cut them down. He bought up nearly seven square miles and wrote a charter to preserve it forever. The club is a wonderland of cypress groves, winding paths and a lake so thick with plants that unsuspecting dogs still think they are walking on land, not water.
"Yet poverty and blight are never far away. Car parts, propane tanks and washing machines are abandoned on dry grass between trailers. Some people throw their trash on the side of the road. Others burn garbage in their backyards, fouling the air with acrid smoke and the unmistakable smell of waste. On the other side of the fence, litter is unknown."
While this area is widely recognized as a duck-hunting paradise, many people don't know that it contained by far the largest population of alligators in the state during the 1960s. In the early 1800s, the American alligator had an estimated population of 3 million in this country. Commercial hunting and the draining of swamps for row-crop production caused those numbers to plummet by the 1900s.
In a 2002 article, the Journal of the Arkansas Academy of Science reported: "The American alligator was listed as an endangered species throughout its range in 1967. At that time, the alligator population was estimated to be only in the thousands. Concern over the fate of the alligator stimulated strong interest in its conservation and biology. In January 1977, it was down-listed to threatened status. In 1987, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service removed the American alligator from the endangered species list and announced the animal as fully recovered throughout its range."
A 1973 survey found that most of the state's remaining alligators--an estimated 1,900--were in Hempstead, Miller and Lafayette counties in southwest Arkansas. The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission conducted an extensive restocking effort from 1972-84 to supplement this native population that was confined to the Little and Red River bottoms.
Almost 2,800 alligators were released across south Arkansas. About 80 percent of them were stocked on private lands at the request of landowners, many of whom were looking for ways to control beaver populations.
A few alligators were relocated from Grassy Lake in southwest Arkansas, but most were transported to Arkansas from two national wildlife refuges in Louisiana. Alligators have since thrived with potential habitat in 47 of the state's 75 counties.
For those my age, the most famous alligator of them all came from these southwest Arkansas swamps. Big Arkie was 13 feet long and was the main attraction at the Little Rock Zoo for 18 years. Weighing 500 pounds when captured, he was considered to be the largest alligator in captivity in the Western Hemisphere.
"Big Arkie was spied by a boy in a flooded pasture by Yellow Creek, west of Hope," Elizabeth Hennelly writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Ed Jackson, caretaker of a local hunting club, was alerted. With some companions, he wrapped Big Arkie in a 50-foot-long cable attached to a tractor. The alligator spent one night in Hope's public swimming pool, encased in chicken wire. On the following day, he was delivered to the Little Rock Zoo, doubled up in a crate.
"When the truck containing Big Arkie arrived, it took seven men 45 minutes to unload him. Raymond Gray, then director of the zoo, measured Big Arkie at nearly 13 feet long. No one was sure how old Big Arkie was since he was grown when captured. On the first day of Big Arkie's showing at the zoo, about 3,000 people came to see him. ... Zookeepers occasionally fed him by hand. When Big Arkie was at the height of fame, several people wanted to buy him."
Gray made clear that Big Arkie wasn't for sale at any price. The alligator weighed 346 pounds when he died July 30, 1970.
"At the beginning of 1962, Big Arkie had a serious bout with a fungal infection around his jaws, caused by a vitamin D deficiency," Hennelly writes. "The alligator was cured with the help of sun lamps, cod liver oil and medicinal aerosol. Before he died, Big Arkie was not eating well. He was force-fed in the last years of his life. The Big Arkie Memorial Fund paid $815 for him to be stuffed, mounted and put back on display at the zoo. He was exhibited in the reptile house for several years.
"Because preservation conditions there were less than ideal, Big Arkie was moved to the lobby of the new Arkansas Game & Fish Commission building in Little Rock. Big Arkie later became part of the herpetology collection at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro."
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.