On any given day at the Woods & Wildlife hunting club near Onward, Miss., visitors will find 87-year-old Jack Branning riding in the cab of his John Deere 4555 tractor, or driving his side-by-side ATV among the verdant stands of cypress, ash and oak that fill the 3,500-acre property.
Chances are, Jack will be smiling.
“This is what makes me sleep good at night,” Jack says. “I can ride half a day and think I’m in heaven.”
It’s no wonder why. This is the forest that Jack built – a woodland paradise full of deer and ducks, where trees grown from seedlings now tower over a landscape once planted to wheat and soybeans.
Twenty years ago, the Vicksburg businessman purchased the land in Sharkey County – on the southern end of the Mississippi Delta – and quickly determined the low-lying land was ill-suited to farming.
Backwater flooding from the Sunflower River, which borders his property, regularly destroyed crops.
“If all weather conditions were good, this old gumbo did a good job of producing a crop. But probably one out of three years when the floods came or the water came early, the crop wasn't even harvested,” he says.
Jack decided to return the land to its natural state, as bottomland hardwoods and wetlands, with the idea that it would be a good place to pursue his passion for hunting. Through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Wetlands Reserve Program, Jack placed his property under permanent conservation easement.
But he went further – steadily creating a complex preserve with myriad marshes amidst the forest.
“At one time, I thought I could count all the trees I planted. Now I don’t believe I’ll be able to do that,” Jack says.
"We have nuttall oak, we have overcup oak, we have cypress and persimmon, green ash and willow oak. We have pretty much everything on here that this part of the world grows.”
Jack’s efforts are part of a larger conservation success story that is transforming the lower Mississippi River basin. A quarter century after Congress authorized the federal Wetlands Reserve Program and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (Wetlands Reserve Easements), more than 715,000 acres has been restored and permanently protected in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.
The Walton Family Foundation has helped restore more than 85,000 acres since 2009 in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. The area was once dominated by 24 million acres of forest and swamp, but large tracts were cut and drained for agriculture in the mid-20th century.
Farming lost a lot of its lustre in lower-lying lands when commodity prices crashed and crops were lost to high-water floods of the Mississippi and tributaries like the Yazoo and Sunflower Rivers.
As land has been reforested, the wetlands preserve program has produced environmental benefit in addition to the economic gain for landowners. There is reduced agricultural nutrient runoff into the Mississippi and its tributaries and increased habitat for species like the Louisiana black bear, recently delisted as a threatened species, and dozens of bird species.
“The goal is to target the most marginal acres, the unproductive acres,” says Ron Seiss, lower Mississippi River conservation program director for The Nature Conservancy, a Walton Family Foundation grantee. TNC works with landowners like Jack to identify property suitable for conservation and enroll it in the federal programs.
“You’re taking land out of production and restoring it to native vegetation, whether in wetlands in shallow-water areas or actually in trees where it’s reforested,” Ron says. “You are decreasing the farming influence from fertilizer and chemicals. You are decreasing erosion. There is an immediate impact on water quality.”
For Jack, the benefits of reforestation are both tangible and intangible. He loves to bring friends and business associates to Woods & Wildlife to hunt. And he takes pride in contributing to a legacy of conservation in the Delta.
His property borders the 61,000-acre Delta National Forest, the country’s only bottomland hardwood national forest. Local legend has it that John James Audubon once camped along the Sunflower River, on what is now Jack’s property. And it was near Jack’s land at Onward, Miss., that President Theodore Roosevelt, in 1902, famously refused to shoot a black bear that his guides had captured and tied to a willow tree.
“When I get up in the morning, and ride across the property, I have a feeling that I might be in the same spot that Teddy Roosevelt was or James Audubon was, and that's pretty significant,” Jack says. “Makes you feel good about yourself.”
In 2004, Jack was awarded a National Wetlands Award for his conservation work. The NRCS described his property as a “wetland showplace” and a model for restoration.
“I suppose I wanted do my part. I believe in what we do daily on the property,” Jack says.
“We're conserving water – we don't have a runoff from a farm any longer. We're growing trees. We're bringing in wildlife habitat. We provided a place for wading birds, all kinds of shore birds. We taking in the carbon out of the air. I'm doing my little part in a little part of the world where I live, where generations coming can look back and say, ‘That guy really did a lot of good work.’ ”