Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Wildlife Management Division staff have been clearing debris in south Arkansas from last year’s hurricane season and will be for some time.
The cleanup is due to the combined effects of straight-line winds and years of overbank flooding at Beryl Anthony Lower Ouachita Wildlife Management Area on the Arkansas-Louisiana state line.
Two tropical storms that came through Louisiana caused wind events that toppled more than 40 acres of mature trees across a 5-mile section of Clear Lake Road, a popular road for hunters and anglers who use the WMA. Hundreds more mature hardwood trees lay dead throughout the forest.
The area has seen high wind events in the past, but biologists believe the devastation can be traced back to the tree’s roots — or lack thereof.
“Many of these trees were windthrown, but there’s much more to it than what you see on the surface,” Mark Hooks, AGFC wildlife management supervisor, said. “When you see the root systems of the trees that were blown down, they were in very poor condition from many years of overbank flooding.”
Hooks said the past few years have seen increases in the water flowing into the WMA through the Ouachita and Saline rivers. The Ouachita has had several periods of overbank flooding during the growing season, which likely helped cause the damage to the trees’ roots, particularly in the red oak species that are less tolerant to flooding and provide valuable food sources for wildlife.
“It goes further than the trees that fell,” Hooks said. “The health of a 4,000-acre swath of forest is seeing the impact of too much water. In the 1990s, this area was so productive that it was a collection site to gather Nuttal oak acorns for propagation. But if you looked at pictures of then and now, you wouldn’t even recognize it as the same area. What was once an open understory beneath bottomland hardwoods is covered in downed trees and limbs.”
Garrick Dugger, AGFC assistant chief of wildlife management, said the damage is similar to that seen in many of the bottomland hardwoods in WMAs experiencing sustained flooding in recent years.
“We saw damage like this at Dave Donaldson Black River WMA, Hurricane Lake WMA, and we’re seeing damage like this at Bayou Meto,” Dugger said. “Now we’re seeing it down here.”
The causes behind the increased water flowing through the Ouachita River into Beryl Anthony are not yet clear, but biologists have identified drainage corridors that have become clogged which could make the problem even worse.
Rob Willey, habitat coordinator who manages the AGFC’s forestry program, says a portion of the area had been marked for a selective harvest, but for four consecutive years contractors had to leave the area because the flooding saturated the ground and prevented their equipment from entering. More than 70 percent of the mature trees marked for removal to open up the canopy died and were on the ground by the time contractors could access the area.
“They were too far gone for even a salvage operation, and there’s not much we can do for it but allow them to deteriorate where they are,” Willey said.
According to Willey, there is hope for the future if the water issues subside.
“The flooding for the most part was not stagnant water, like what we saw on [Henry Gray Hurricane Lake], and we’re seeing some excellent regeneration in red oak seedlings sprouting up where the fallen trees have allowed sunlight to hit the ground,” Willey said. “Much like when we do a select cut, the trees removed from the system made room for the next generation of forest. We need to do whatever we can to help this next generation of the forest get established.”