Out There: River in peril

Anglers target catfish at the mouth of the White River, pre-Montgomery Point Lock and Dam. 

It's difficult losing a place you love. I know. It happened to me recently.

The place of which I speak, where two great rivers — the White and Mississippi — flow together in southeast Arkansas, was beautiful when I first visited 20 years ago.

The surrounding woodlands were a near-wilderness, full of bears, deer, eagles and other wildlife. Barely passable roads snaked through the bottoms, but visitors rarely came. The only people likely to be seen during a weeklong stay were residents of a few shantyboats, occasional hunters and fishermen, and men who worked on riverboats passing through.

It was a peaceful realm then, where one could find refuge from the modern world.

Fishing took me there. Few places offer better angling for giant catfish. The scenic oxbows along that stretch of river teem with bass, crappie and bluegills.

The last time I visited, however, I did not fish. I wept, instead.

On shore, bulldozers worked, clearing timber for a new road; they ravaged the area like a slow-moving tornado. Huge trees, some centuries old, toppled before their blades. Workers pushed them into rows and torched them.

So much for respecting your elders.

Across the river, cranes pivoted on floating platforms as they gouged at the river bottom. Huge pilings were taking shape. A network of monstrous pipes drained the flooded bottoms so men could work unhampered.

Fish gathered where one pipe spewed its dusky load into the Mississippi, feeding on small bottomland creatures being sucked from the swamp and vomited into the dark water.

This chaos originated with the construction of Montgomery Point Lock and Dam, the first on the lower White River.

When the river is low, barges have difficulty entering the mouth of the White, the starting point of the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came up with a solution: Build a dam at the river's mouth so the navigation system can function during rare low-water periods.

People hoping to preserve this remote island of bottomland habitat fought the project for years, to no avail. The work continues. The dam will soon be completed.

A paved highway now runs through the heart of my wilderness. A constant stream of traffic infests the once-peaceful woodlands.

There is no freedom from crowds of hurried, harried humans. Wild animals once commonly seen along the river have retreated to more remote areas. Hundreds of acres of trees have been cleared, or buried beneath mountains of sand heaped upon them by dredging operations.

Those of us who valued the area for its wildness consider it devastated. The landscape is gut-shot.

It's small consolation to those of us who loved this place, but the Montgomery Point project affected only one relatively small portion of the White River ecosystem.

Unfortunately, other projects proposed by the Corps of Engineers will have far greater impact on the river basin ecosystem. Let me try to explain, in the few words I'm allotted here, why that should concern you.

The lower White River basin encompasses the finest and last example of the immense floodplain forest ecosystem that once dominated the alluvial plain of the Mississippi River.

This unique area, which depends on seasonal flooding from the White River and its tributaries, supports interior least terns, pink mucket mussels and other endangered and threatened species; the largest concentration of wintering mallards in North America; the only remaining population of native black bears in the lower Mississippi Valley; and numerous species of neotropical songbirds and other non-game wildlife.

More than 100 species of fish swim the basin's rivers, bayous and oxbow lakes. Public lands here are world-renowned for their extraordinary hunting, fishing and wildlife watching opportunities. The hardwood forests are characterized by some of the richest and most diverse plant life in North America.

Much of the river basin was cleared and drained for agriculture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But in the 1920s, a period of heightened concern about decreasing numbers of ducks and geese, a committee of nationally prominent conservationists gathered to recommend locations for new federal waterfowl refuges.

Their unanimous selection as the most important area to be acquired was a large swath of overflow bottoms along the lower White River. Thus, in 1935, White River National Wildlife Refuge was established, and the early wave of destruction shifted to a tide of preservation.

Within the refuge were 100,000 acres of bottomland hardwoods, the largest remnant of an immense floodplain ecosystem that once encompassed 24 million acres between Cairo, Illinois and the Gulf of Mexico, an ecosystem William Faulkner called "The Big Woods."

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission continued the trend of wetlands preservation in the lower White River basin, purchasing and protecting tens of thousands of acres of valuable bottomland hardwood habitat.

Two new national wildlife refuges — Cache River and Bald Knob — have also been created, and more than 40,000 acres have been added to White River NWR. Together, more than 280,000 acres in basin have been acquired and protected.

That's only a tiny percentage of the original 24 million acres, but at least we've been wise enough — to this point, at least — to preserve that much.

Despite the gains we've made, however, those of us who value this important ecological treasure cannot afford to be complacent. Last year, sitting at Montgomery Point, watching the bottomland hardwoods being pushed into piles and burned, watching the wetlands being pumped dry, and the pillars of concrete going up, I realized that more than ever.

Several proposed Corps of Engineers projects threaten to cause even more damage in the river basin, including a massive irrigation project that will draw water from the river for farmlands, and a project aimed at maintaining a nine-foot-deep barge channel on 258 miles of the lower river.

If project proponents have their way, the lower White River will become nothing more than a barge canal lined with rock dikes and dredge spoil. And as I've noted, these people usually have their way. Montgomery Point provides a glaring example.

"The White River provides such a tremendous range of benefits for people and wildlife, it would be senseless to jeopardize it with yet another harmful Corps project for the short-term gain of a few special interests," said F.G. Courtney with the National Wildlife Federation.

"Any of the proposed projects, and certainly the cumulative impact, will forever change the unique character of this natural resource treasure and will negatively impact the ecosystem of the lower White River."

There was a time when I didn't think my actions could make a difference. I know now that's not true. All of us, collectively and individually, can make a difference. If you've read this far, I've made a difference already.

Please join in the fight to preserve what remains of this magnificent national treasure. It's time to tell our government officials, "Enough is enough." It's time to put an end to poorly planned projects that threaten the lower White River, one of our nation's most threatened ecosystems.

To learn more about the lower White River basin, visit the National Wildlife Federation website at www.nwf.org/lowermississippi/white.html. For additional information on how you can help protect this and other threatened rivers, log on to the American Rivers website at www.amrivers.org.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.