Like many lifelong duck hunters, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Chairman Bobby Martin got his start hunting just about every Wildlife Management Area or river bottom that would hold a duck in east Arkansas.
Since age 9, Martin has chased his quarry on public land and these days, enjoys a slice of private green timber legacy at Greenbriar Hunting Club, one of the most historic and elegant in the entire Grand Prairie.
But for Martin, the passion goes much deeper than the hunt and lands on devotion to conserving waterfowl and their most critical habitat. A skill refined through years of stewarding one of Arkansas’ famed private greentree reservoirs.
Martin and AGFC Director Austin Booth have taken the helm of the state’s lead conservation agency at a pivotal time in the battle to save Arkansas’ storied bottomland hardwood forests. Martin is among the most outspoken of commissioners on the subject and when he speaks about duck habitat, people listen. And he’ll fervently tell you, there has never been a more dire time for that than now.
“There’s no other way to say it: We are clearly in a serious fight to save one of the most vital wildlife habitats that we have. And that is our bottomland hardwoods,” Martin said. “They’re very much critical and key to the migration and wintering of mallards and other duck species. And so much of it is already lost.”
Martin doesn’t stand alone in his resolve to wrangle this issue. Martin is quick to state every current and former commissioner stands along with staff as deeply committed to this issue and all continue to devote time, energy, influence and resources to ensure we do all that we can to preserve Arkansas’s green timber legacy.
Arkansas’ outdoor amenities are not only a collection of natural jewels unlike any to be had in the United States, they are marketable commodities. And market them we have. Arkansas Money & Politics reported in February that outdoor recreation accounts for roughly 96,000 direct jobs, $9.7 billion in consumer spending, $2.5 billion in wages and salaries, and $698 million in state and local tax revenue. Hunting and fishing alone generate an economic impact of more than $1.6 billion annually.
Waterfowl hunting is a pillar of outdoor tourism in Arkansas. From its epicenter in Stuttgart, where duck season famously brings in over $1 million a day per the local chamber of commerce, duck hunting grounds radiate to nearly every region of the state. As Joel Shead gushed for Realtree.com, “Going duck hunting in Arkansas borders on going to heaven.”
He writes, “Although Stuttgart might be one of the top destinations in duckdom, it might be harder to pick places that aren’t good duck hunting locales in the Natural State. Wherever you are in the state, you’re never far from good duck hunting. Heck, even the worst duck hunting in Arkansas is better than the best fowling in some states.”
The choicest cut of this prime resource lies in a north-south band of the state’s eastern shore, parallel to the Mississippi River. This stretch lies under the esteemed Mississippi Flyway, the largest of four migratory routes for birds in North America. According to Audubon.com, more than 325 bird species make the round trip each year, including millions of ducks that take off from Canadian and northern U.S. breeding grounds and haul south to ride out the winter.
Arkansas provides a prime winter resort for greenheads, given the state’s traditional preponderance of woodlands, ample water and since 1904, rice cultivation that combine to form the ideal habitat for migrating waterfowl. Before civilization reached east Arkansas, the landscape was blanketed by thick oaken forests skirting the natural Grand Prairie. In her wisdom, Mother Nature wrought seasonal flooding among the trees at a depth that allowed ducks to paddle and feed (dabble), gorging themselves on fallen acorns and other grub at the bottom.
Over time, settlement and agricultural interests would eat up huge segments of the hardwoods and initiate steps to tap rivers for irrigation and control flooding. According to data supplied by Garrick Dugger, assistant chief of the AGFC wildlife management division, bottomland hardwood forest that once covered 8.5 million acres was down to 2.4 million acres in 2016. While still a sizable number, the overall acres tell only part of the story.
A few decades after its inception, the AGFC began accumulating land that it would set aside for public sporting use. The first of these wildlife management areas was Bayou Meto in Arkansas County, which was acquired in 1948. Today, more than 100 other areas have been similarly protected, including duck-rich Dagmar (Monroe County), Hurricane Lake (White County), Big Lake (Mississippi County), and Black River (Clay, Greene, and Randolph counties). Additionally, private landowners and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service played and continue to play a major role in forested land protection that benefits waterfowl.
Ducks still return to these places just as generations before have done, as do the hunters in the footsteps of their forefathers. But as Martin points out, they’re doing so in increasingly fragile ecosystems, especially bottomland hardwood forests.
Greentree reservoirs – GTR – are tracts of bottomland hardwood forest equipped with levee systems and water-control structures that make up a large portion of the scattered blocks of remaining bottomland hardwood forest in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley,” he said. “These GTRs allow land managers to artificially mimic the natural flooding patterns of traditional bottomland hardwood forest and are primarily cultivated for duck hunting and are a crucial component for wintering mallards, other duck species, and numerous other wildlife.”
Over time, AGFC built a system of infrastructure in WMAs to emulate the natural ebb and flow of bygone seasonal flooding. The problem with these structures is that they have stood still while understanding of the science behind tree health has marched on.
As Dugger noted, decades of misaligned water and tree cycles — getting water on too early, too deep, or leaving on too long — has degraded forest health at the cost of optimal species, which are replaced by trees not as well-suited for duck habitat.
“It’s not just that trees are dying, although they are. Trees are falling over, and we are losing large stands where we have persistent water issues,” he said. “But with that, we’re also seeing a major shift in the composition of our bottomland hardwood forest. We’re going from red oaks, Nuttalls, and willows that are falling out and being replaced by more water-tolerant species like green ash and overcup oak.”
Why this matters is twofold: One, the acorns produced by trees that can tolerate prolonged flooding are generally too big for the ducks to get down their gullets and, therefore, not a suitable food source. And two, the proliferation of the less desirable trees creates the illusion of healthy forests, which complicates public awareness efforts.
“Most people don’t care as long as there’s a tree to hunt by, but from a duck’s perspective, there’s a huge difference,” Dugger said. “What we see as the forest composition shifts to water-tolerant species is there’s less food available for wildlife, particularly waterfowl. Not every oak tree is equal in the sight of a duck.”
Arresting these trends is an expensive and time-consuming proposition for AGFC, but Dugger said it’s one that is upon us. Fortunately, the agency finds itself with the right staff and an invigorated leadership team in Booth and Martin. The agency is focused on building support and momentum for a sustained multi-year effort to raise the necessary resources to rehabilitate the forests in several of the state’s hardest hit WMAs. After years of scientific research, AGFC has created plans by which infrastructure will be amended to better move water to maintain quantity and depth in sync with the growth/dormant seasons. Reforestation with desirable tree species will also occur, followed by management to help ensure overall forest health.
“Our focus, when we designed all 40-plus GTRs, over 50,000 acres worth of this habitat, was holding water for waterfowl and for waterfowl hunting,” he said. “What we’re seeing 50 years later is something that we’ve learned, not something we did on purpose. By holding water early for waterfowl hunting, based on waterfowl season dates, it’s caused stress on our trees.
“We’re shifting our focus where we’re going to design infrastructure to move water April through November, in a way that maximizes water flow in the growing season. Holding water is easy; it’s going to cost us some money and modifications to get the right depth at the right time.”
Given the scope of the project — Dugger estimates Bayou Meto alone is a multi-year proposition despite being just one of the WMAs needing rehab — the question of funding becomes a primary concern. Ducks Unlimited and the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation have partnered in the initial funding effort, helping to solicit private and corporate contributions and then using those funds to secure matching federal dollars through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act.
“We’ve been able to match our dollars 10 to 1,” said Corey Dunn, Ducks Unlimited’s Arkansas director of development. “For every $100,000 DU puts in with the help of our private donors, we get $1 million in NAWCA dollars, and we’ve done that five times. That alone offsets the cost of this project by $5.5 million.” But there is a lot of work yet to be done, and this match will meet its limitations before the larger network of GTR renovations is complete.
AGFC has embarked on an initiative to elevate the condition of GTRs and the magnitude of the effort to state lawmakers, community leaders, and business professionals through guided GTR tours. Among the former commissioners who have joined the call is George Dunklin. Dunklin, whose name is enshrined with Bayou Meto WMA, is a passionate conservationist, lifetime duck hunter, and successful farmer and eco-entrepreneur. He’s been involved with the business of duck habitat for decades both privately and publicly as a former AGFC commissioner.
“The goal of the AGFC GTR tours is to show influencers the poor health of the woods so they could see it firsthand,” he said. “They get to listen to the scientists and GTR managers who describe exactly what is happening and why. They get to see it and touch it. They’re able to see the trees that are leaning because the soil has been saturated for so long they are starting to lose their ability to stand straight, and that will eventually fall and die.”
The agency recognizes a stiffer challenge is taking the message to the masses, particularly among citizens who are not hunters and enjoy other outdoor recreation or who have moved here from other places. Arkansans must understand that the issue is one that affects everyone, not just those who hunt.
Martin insists that preserving the remaining bottomland hardwood and GTRs is pivotal to the economy, outdoor recreation and is an ecological necessity.
“The early settlers of Arkansas just about wiped out everything that made the Natural State,” he said. “Yet through generations of private landowners, legislators and conservationists, we’ve been able to bring back a lot of what we lost. But the work of conserving our wildlife and wild places is never done. As we balance recreational use with sustaining the resource, each generation is met with new challenges. Working together to invest in Arkansas’ green timber legacy will certainly be one of the greatest challenges this generation of conservationists and the AGFC has encountered.”
The current commission includes Martin, vice chairman Bennie Westphal of Fort Smith, Stan Jones of Walnut Ridge, John David Neeley of Camden, Anne Marie Doramus of Little Rock, Rob Finley of Mountain Home and Philip Tappan of Little Rock. Martin believes it may soon be faced with taking action on a set of difficult decisions in order to have the chance to save and restore this vital habitat for the future.
“But it is our collective responsibility to effectively respond in support for all generations,” he said.