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Saving the Big Woods

The rediscovery of the ivory-bill is a call to action

"Since the first sighting of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, this has consumed us. We have dedicated our time and our dreams to protecting and conserving this area. These woods are my church."

?John Fitzpatrick, director, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

It's quite fitting that John Fitzpatrick refers to the Big Woods of Arkansas as his "church." For certain, the habitat serves as a sanctuary for literally thousands of species of plants and animals. A population of native black bears inhabits the Big Woods, as do the largest wintering population of Mallards in the world and more than 265 other species of birds. The rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, sometimes called the "Lord God bird," most assuredly confirms the sacredness of the place, which former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt referred to as "the Amazon of North America."

There was a time when this sanctuary and its most exceptional?yet unknown?resident, the ivory-bill, were in grave danger. The species may have been saved by actions taken in the late 1970s. A group of hunters and fishermen filed a lawsuit that stopped a channelization project on the Cache River.

Then, when The Nature Conservancy's Arkansas office opened in 1982, its initial focus was to work with partners to conserve the state's wetlands. In fact, the Conservancy's first purchase of land in the Arkansas Delta was a 380-acre tract in 1985, which was transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and became the first acquisition of the newly-authorized Cache River National Wildlife Refuge?where the ivory-bill was rediscovered.

Gene Sparling in the Big Woods
Kayaker Gene Sparling's initial sighting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Big Woods led to a year-long search and helped galvanize conservation efforts in the area.

Photo by Mark Godfrey/The Nature Conservancy

Conservation-minded individuals, organizations, and state and federal agencies have since had many successes in the Big Woods, including a land exchange in 1992 that brought 41,000 acres into conservation ownership and connected the Cache River and White River national wildlife refuges. In all, The Nature Conservancy and its partners have safeguarded more than 120,000 acres in the Big Woods of Arkansas. At 550,000 acres, these woods are the largest corridor of bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the Mississippi Delta north of the Atchafalaya River. Since the rediscovery, more than 20,000 additional acres have been brought into conservation management, and The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas hopes to conserve 200,000 more acres.

Although many have said that the "bottleneck" in loss of bottomland forest habitat has been overcome, the Cache and White rivers, which serve as the lifelines for the Big Woods, continue to face threats. Dams, levees, and irrigation projects along the Mississippi River have virtually eliminated flooding along the river's main stem, and its water level has dropped some 15 feet, causing its tributaries to dig deeper to match the water level in the Mississippi.

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. Water quality also is declining, as sediments, fertilizers, and pesticides wash off cultivated fields with no streamside forest to trap and filter them.

The story of the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is indeed a story of hope. Actions taken long ago by individuals and organizations contributed to the survival of this iconic species. It is now our responsibility to make sure the species has the habitat and public support to secure its survival into the coming centuries. Much remains to be learned about the species, including its habitat needs and range.

In an area that covers 550,000 acres and is a densely forested bottomland hardwood swamp, research will be time-consuming and difficult. The same commitment and determination that has already been required to find the Ivory-billed Woodpecker will guide the coming months and years.

Many individuals deserve much credit for working tirelessly toward a shared goal. For birders and outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes, this rediscovery is a call to action, a time for celebration, and a time to roll up our sleeves and do what needs to be done.

It is sometimes said that faith requires the suspension of belief. In this case, belief has been rewarded with reality. The fact is, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker survives. What a great outcome for decades of faith, hope, and prayers.

Scott Simon is director of The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas and co-leader of the search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Visit The Nature Conservancy's web site at


For permission to reprint all or part of this article, please contact Laura Erickson, editor, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd., Ithaca, NY, 14850. Phone: (607) 254-1114. email:

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