Dispatches, November 1998
More than 45 years ago, when John Price was a Southern boy pursuing squirrels, deer, and ducks with his L.C. Smith shotgun, the Arkansas lowlands where he hunted were little different from the primeval forests that William Faulkner once described — in words as jungly as the landscape itself — as an "impassable density of briar and cane and vine interlocking the soar of gum and cypress and hickory and pinoak and ash." True, most of the woodlands of the Mississippi Delta, the seemingly limitless plain of over four million acres stretching from Memphis to Vicksburg, Mississippi, had been clear-cut by cotton planters in the late 1800s. But patches of the old wilderness eluded the sawyers — most notably the soggy, flood-prone bottomlands such as Price's old hunting grounds, where the line between earth and water was a whimsical one and where the creamy soil, locals liked to say, was "too wet to farm and too thick to drink."
Alas, by the early 1970s most of those holdouts were gone too: Bullish crop prices and bounteous farm subsidies had goaded landowners to clear most of the remaining bottomlands for soybeans — an ecological transformation made possible only by the vast flood-control and drainage projects of the Army Corps of Engineers, long hailed as the guardian angels of southern agriculture. Recently however, some residents of the Delta have been questioning the wisdom of this approach and suggesting that it may be time for a change.
"This is land that should have never been anything but timber," declares Price, 58, who unwittingly finds himself in the front ranks of a budding insurrection. Last winter, when a 1,000-acre section of his farm in Arkansas's Drew County flooded, he opted to let nature take its course by abandoning his soybeans and planting more than 300,000 oak, pecan, and ash seedlings. In 10 years, revenue from timber sales, hunting licenses, tax concessions, and conservation easements could net Price tens of thousands more than the soybeans would have yielded.
Price's decision reflects a pattern repeating itself in pockets all across the Delta — a change that ecologists welcome as a first step toward restoring a portion of the nearly 20 million acres of Southern flood-forest lost since 1780. "The Delta is a bottomland hardwood floodplain, and that is all it ever can be," says T. Logan Russell, head of the Delta Land Trust, a non-profit conservation group in Jackson, Mississippi, that is spearheading a two-pronged campaign to bring key areas back: working with farmers such as Price while waging a frontal assault on the Corps's flood-control policies.
What is remarkable about Russell's crusade is that he and his cohorts preach their heresy in an area where the Corps has spent tens of billions of tax dollars over the last 50 years on massive flood-control projects designed to do exactly the reverse — programs Russell now castigates, in the fiery tones of a backwoods Bible-thumper, as "jury-rigged hocus-pocus." Although small, the crusade is attracting powerful allies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Sierra Club, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Though the Corps dismisses the effort as quixotic, Russell and his allies seem to be having an impact. This month, for example, the Corps is expected to issue a revised plan for its immensely controversial $250 million hydraulic-lift pumping station, the largest of its kind in the country, in Steele Bayou, Mississippi. Russell et al say this is only a token concession, however. Their ultimate goal is to restore four million acres of the Mississippi River Valley to its original, swampy, Faulknerian state by forcing Congress to revise the Corps's original mandate in a way that requires it to adopt ecologically sustainable methods of flood control. "We're up against a lot of powerful interests who want to see this land planted in crops," says Russell. "But sooner or later, the river's going to win."