The Big Woods of Arkansas: An Imperiled National Treasure

An aerial view of Bayou DeView.

Saving the last home of the Ivory-billed woodpecker

At 550,000 acres, the Big Woods of Arkansas is the largest corridor of bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the Mississippi Delta north of the Atchafalaya River. The Big Woods encompasses Arkansas’ remnant floodplain forests lining the Mississippi, White, and lower Arkansas rivers, as well as the Cache River and its main tributary, Bayou DeView.

Today, less than 10 percent of Arkansas’ original 8 million acres of forested wetlands remain — mostly small forest islands surrounded by a vast sea of agricultural fields. As forests continue to be broken into smaller fragments by roads, ditches, urban development and gravel mines, the number of plants and animals that can survive in those patches decreases. Water quality also is declining, as sediments, fertilizers and pesticides wash off cultivated fields with no streamside forest to trap and filter them.

In 1989, Arkansas’ remaining floodplain forests were recognized by the 49 countries of United Nations’ Ramsar Convention as a “Wetland of International Importance.”

The rivers of the Mississippi River Delta and the Big Woods are vital to the health of their surrounding bottomland hardwood forests. Without naturally functioning rivers, the ecosystem changes dramatically: The forests are no longer wetlands.

Dams, levees and irrigation projects along the Mississippi River have virtually eliminated flooding along the river’s main stem, and tributary flooding has been reduced by 90 percent. Unable to disperse among the forests, water runs faster and stronger in straightened river channels, thus accelerating erosion. As riverbanks erode, forest vegetation loses its foothold and is swallowed by the river.

Ultimately, the forest is cut off from the river entirely by steep riverbanks, and the risk of devastating floods downstream increases. Additionally, steeper riverbanks and structures such as levees isolate trees from the life-giving power of the rivers.

Nearly half of the Southeast’s bottomland hardwood forests were found in the Mississippi River Delta spanning seven states. Today these Delta forests have shrunk to less than one-fifth of their original 24 million-acre extent.

It is in these vastly diminished forests of the delta that the ivory-billed woodpecker was rediscovered in Arkansas in 2004.