Healing a Scar in the Big Woods of Arkansas

Learn how Rex Hancock led the fight to save the Cache River.

At some point in our lives, most of us question whether we can really make a difference in the world.

Rex Hancock, a salty-mouthed hunter and dentist from Arkansas, is an unlikely hero who achieved the impossible by fighting for what he loved. Through dogged determination and pure stubbornness, Hancock brought together a community, a governor and a future United States President to keep one of our nation’s greatest forests standing.

Hancock was born in 1923 in Missouri. After receiving his dentistry degree, he moved to Arkansas because of its reputation as a hunting and fishing paradise. He traveled as far as Alaska and British Columbia on hunting excursions, but Hancock’s heart was in the Big Woods of Arkansas, where diverse birds and other creatures lived among centuries-old bald cypress trees that had stood there since before Columbus first set foot in the Americas.

In 1970 this incredible landscape almost was lost. Congress approved a plan to ditch 232 miles of the Cache River and portions of Bayou DeView, a tributary of the Cache, that run through the Big Woods. Hancock knew this would mean the end of the ancient forest and wetlands—the hunting and fishing grounds he loved. So he set his sights on a new target and launched the Citizens Committee to Save the Cache River Basin.

His group signed on to lawsuits to stop the ditching plan, and Hancock spent years of his life as well as thousands of his own dollars to challenge the plan at every turn. Over the course of the 12-year courtroom battle, nine other states and notable politicians joined Hancock’s fight, including Gov. Dale Bumpers and Bill Clinton, who served as Arkansas’ attorney general at the time.

What ultimately stopped the ditching was the authorization that created the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in 1984—a result of public demand. Hancock’s fight to save the Cache River sparked a revival in conservation in Arkansas and across the nation. In the Big Woods, new federal and state wildlife refuges, including one named after Rex Hancock, were formed. And some say nationwide conservation programs like the Wetlands Reserve Program, which first appeared in the 1985 Farm Bill, resulted from the successful fight to save the Cache.

But in the Big Woods there remains a scar. In between court orders that stopped the work, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ditched seven miles of the river.

Now is the time to heal this scar and improve the health of the Cache River.

Today, The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas is working with partners, including the Corps of Engineers, to reconnect the Cache to its meanders that were cut off when the river was straightened. A restoration plan has been completed, federal funding has been allocated and the local partners are working to raise the private 25 percent match.

When Rex Hancock died in 1986, his ashes were placed along the Cache River that he loved and saved. During his fight for the river, Hancock said, “Conservation needs more than lip service… more than professionals. It needs ordinary people with extraordinary desire.”

We all have the power to make a difference. With your gift—your desire—you can help heal this scar.


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