The 550,000-acre Big Woods in eastern Arkansas is the Mississippi River alluvial plain's largest remaining corridor of bottomland forest north of Louisiana. It encompasses portions of the Cache, Arkansas and White rivers and Bayou DeView.
The Big Woods shelters more than 70 distinct natural plant communities and contains abundant fish breeding and nursery areas and large mussel shoals that include globally rare species. Fully 80 percent of all aquatic species that occur within the Mississippi River's alluvial plain can be found within the Big Woods. A genetically distinct population of American black bears roams the Big Woods' cypress-tupelo swamps and other habitats.
The area's forests provide critical habitat for more than 265 species of birds, including the world's largest population of wintering mallards and neotropical songbirds that use the woodlands as nesting grounds and migratory rest stops. Moreover, the world's first confirmed sightings of an ivory-billed woodpecker in six decades occurred in the Big Woods in 2004.
These are among the reasons why The Nature Conservancy has designated 3.5 million acres in and around the Big Woods as a priority conservation site.
Strategies and Progress
The Big Woods is among the nation's largest remaining blocks of bottomland hardwood forest because of decades of work by conservation-minded landowners and citizens working with governmental agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and with nonprofit organizations such as the Conservancy, Arkansas Wildlife Federation and Ducks Unlimited.
More than 320,000 acres now under public ownership in the Big Woods area include the Cache River and White River national wildlife refuges; Dagmar, Rex Hancock/Black Swamp, Trusten Holder and Wattensaw wildlife management areas; and the Benson Creek and Cache River natural areas. In addition, another 60,000 acres are protected by voluntary conservation easements under such incentive-based programs as the federal Wetlands Reserve Program.
Efforts to preserve and restore the Big Woods have gained new impetus from the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker. The Conservancy, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, and many other partners have formed the Big Woods Conservation Partnership with the aim of conserving 200,000 acres of Big Woods forest habitat and rivers over the next decade.
Despite these conservation successes, the Big Woods' ecosystems still face numerous threats. Forest fragmentation threatens mammal and bird species that depend on large, undisturbed forest blocks to survive. Alterations to area streams such as dredging, channelization and the construction of levees, undertaken for worthy purposes such as limiting flood damage and enhancing navigation, have also adversely affected natural flooding cycles that nourish the Big Woods' wild habitats. Runoff carrying excess sediments, nutrients and other pollutants is affecting water quality as it flows into the Big Woods from adjacent areas where unsustainable agricultural and forestry practices occur.
In response to these threats, the Conservancy is:
- working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to restore more natural stream flows in order to sustain the Big Woods' bottomlands,
- continuing to form new partnerships and strengthen existing ones so that collaborative approaches to conserving the Big Woods can be achieved,
- conducting research to advance the scientific background needed to devise and implement effective conservation measures,
- working with local communities to promote sustainable ecotourism, and
- working with area landowners to encourage sustainable land uses and participation in conservation programs that provide incentives to landowners.