When James Cummins started working over 25 years ago to restore forested wetlands in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, more than 80% of the natural habitat had been converted to agriculture. It was far from certain that the seedlings being planted then would ever grow big enough to make a mark on the landscape.
But this month, James is joining private landowners, government agencies and fellow conservationists to celebrate an unsung environmental success story – the revival of bottomland hardwood forests across the lower Mississippi River valley.
On thousands of parcels of privately owned land – from a few acres to several thousand – stands of oak, sweetgum, cypress and hickory trees have replaced marginal, frequently flooded cropland.
A quarter century after Congress authorized the federal Wetlands Reserve Program and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (Wetlands Reserve Easements), more than 700,000 acres has been restored and permanently protected in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.
“When you see what happens over five, 10, 15 years of watching those seedlings grow and seeing a forest emerge, it’s really gratifying,” says James, executive director of Wildlife Mississippi , one of several nonprofit organizations working with landowners and federal agencies to support habitat restoration.
The federal programs, administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, compensate farmers for voluntarily removing low-lying cropland from production and returning their property to a more natural state to benefit water quality, wildlife habitat and recreation.
It’s been a big job.
Just a century ago, the Mississippi Alluvial Valley was home to 24 million acres of forest and swamp. Over time, the trees were cut and the land drained for agriculture. First the best land – the highest and driest – was cleared for cotton and corn. Then the wetter land was cleared for soybeans and rice. The most rapid deforestation occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, when high commodity prices created skyrocketing demand for more cropland.
“You had millions of acres of bottomland hardwoods being pushed up. There were literally bulldozers running around the clock,” says James.
“They weren’t even harvesting the timber because people were frantically trying to clear the land up and plant it for soybeans.” Prices eventually crashed. Agricultural input costs rose. And farming on those formerly swampy, forested lands became far less profitable, particularly when the Mississippi River and other rivers flooded out crops.
Agriculture dominates the landscape in the lower Mississippi River alluvial valley – it’s one of the flattest places I have ever seen.
But a mere 12 inches of elevation change means everything. It’s the difference between agricultural ground that is consistently dry and productive – and ground that is frequently inundated by rising waters, where a farming investment feels more like an annual gamble.
“A lot of this low-lying land wasn’t meant for farming,” James says. “It was meant to be bottomland hardwoods. Many agricultural producers know this.”
Wetlands Reserve has been a game changer – producing environmental and economic benefit as land has been reforested.
Fewer agricultural nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous are being washed into the Mississippi River that eventually end up in the Gulf. Restored wetlands also help remove nutrients that are lost from the ongoing agricultural production in the valley.
The wetlands programs have been a boon for wildlife species, as well.
More than 40% of North America’s migratory waterfowl use the Mississippi Alluvial Valley as a stopover, making it one of the premier duck hunting regions in the country. The Louisiana black bear was recently delisted as a federal threatened species and is now living and reproducing in the reforested lands.
But the economic benefits have matched the environmental ones.
Private landowners are voluntarily enrolling their low-lying, less productive lands into federal reforestation programs. In addition to the conservation easement payments they receive, landowners can generate additional revenue from reforested tracts of land through leases for hunting and fishing.
“We’re not trying to convert all acres of cropland,” says Ron Seiss, lower Mississippi River conservation program director for The Nature Conservancy.
“This is marginal cropland from the standpoint of making a profit – 99% of the time, it’s an economic decision for a landowner to take the land out of production.”
Federal taxpayers also reap the benefit of placing marginal cropland into a conservation easement, because the cost of acquisition and reforestation is cheaper than paying for ongoing federal crop and disaster assistance programs.
The Walton Family Foundation is supporting bottomland hardwood reforestation as part of efforts to improve water quality throughout the Mississippi River basin, partnering with NGOs such as The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, Wildlife Mississippi and Mississippi State University on habitat restoration and outreach to private landowners.
Since 2009, the foundation has helped reforest more than 70,000 acres of bottomland hardwoods and is well on its way to meet its 2020 target of 100,000 acres.
As James and other supporters of the wetlands reserves and easements mark 25 years of success, they are also working to ensure Congress’s support for these conservation programs continues in the new Farm Bill due for reauthorization in 2018.
“If we can impact policy and really have good programs that strike a balance between economics and the environment,” he notes, “we can put a lot of habitat on the ground – and do a lot of good for landowners.”