Few of Arkansas’ natural places inspire duck hunters like the Big Woods. Majestic bald cypresses stand alongside towering oaks, and on crisp winter mornings beneath a radiant eastern glow, mallards filter through those trees to feed on acorns and bugs on the flooded forest floor. Even though man’s encroachment has diminished the forest from its historical splendor, it still retains the wild qualities that stir mankind’s passions.

And who knows where we’d be if it didn’t?

One man stands above all others when the discussion turns to the stirring of passions and the corresponding salvation of the Big Woods. His name was Rex Hancock, a Stuttgart dentist who became so much more to those of us who enjoy hugging flooded trees on cold winter mornings in the Arkansas Delta.

Hancock’s story is one of perseverance in the face of insurmountable odds. He fought the man and won. But victory wasn’t only his. It now belongs to our generation and to generations yet unborn, a conservation legacy to celebrate and pay forward.

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started turning the Cache River into a glorified ditch in 1972, threatening the Cache’s existence and by extension the second-largest corridor of bottomland hardwood forest in the entire Mississippi Delta, Hancock started a grassroots campaign to save the Cache that didn’t end until after his death in 1986. In fact, the latest chapter in Hancock’s battle to save the Cache River is being written even today.

This winter, the Corps of Engineers, in an ironic role reversal, will begin repairing the damage it did to the Big Woods landscape in the 1970s. Its plans call for restoring some of the natural meanders that were removed from the river’s lower seven miles during the channelization project. Crews will begin working about seven miles north of the Cache’s confluence with the White River, installing rock weirs and removing plugs to redirect the river’s flow back into its traditional serpentine channel. The work will return the Cache closer to its natural state and restore hydrologic functions sure to improve fisheries and wildlife habitat.

And a current generation of duck hunters will have another reason to celebrate Hancock’s enduring legacy of conservation.

“It’s the most important wintering area for mallards in North America,” said Luke Naylor, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s wetlands program coordinator. “When it floods, it appears to drive mallard distribution on a very large scale. When it floods over there, the whole world changes.”

(To see a timeline of the events that took place in preserving the Cache River, click here.)

Taming the Cache

To understand the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ restoration project for the lower Cache, you must first examine the river in historical context. The Cache rises in southern Missouri and flows southward through the Mississippi Alluvial Valley of Arkansas before joining the White River just north of Clarendon.

The river and its surrounding bottomland forests have harbored diverse species of plants and wildlife, including inestimable flights of ducks that swarmed the area when cold winter rains pushed the Cache out of its banks and into the vast acreage of hardwood trees.

Even as modern settlers cleared large tracts of forest to make way for agriculture, the Cache bottoms still drew the ducks each winter. But the march of progress tends to trample whatever is in its path, and soon the wild river was in the sights of some Arkansas citizens who saw the need to tame the beast.

The Cache River Channelization Project was authorized by Congress as part of the Flood Control Act of 1950. Its aim was reducing the Cache’s flooding of upstream fields by channelizing 232 miles of the Cache River and its tributary Bayou DeView. Congress authorized the expenditure of $60 million for the channelization project in 1970.

The Arkansas Wildlife Federation and several private landowners sued to stop the project in 1971, with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission joining the suit not long after it was filed. Despite the pending litigation, the Corps of Engineers fired up the draglines in 1972 and started the process of turning the Cache into a drainage ditch.

“The Corps basically cut a ditch next to the river,” said Roger Mangham, director of conservation programs in The Nature Conservancy’s Arkansas Field Office. “It steepened the river and destabilized the river. Channelization is a good way to make a river self-destruct.”

Enter Hancock. A Missouri-born dentist who made his home in Stuttgart, Hancock loved hunting and fishing in the bottomlands of the Big Woods and intuitively understood the natural connections that would be lost if channelization proceeded. When the Corps of Engineers refused to yield, he helped launch the Citizens Committee to Save the Cache River Basin.

He wrote letters to politicians, bent the ear of anyone who would listen, and generally rallied the sportsmen’s community.

Hancock and his allies won an early battle in 1973, when a federal court injunction stopped the Corps after four miles of Cache ditching had been completed. But it was a short-lived victory, and Congressional reauthorization of funding in 1977 led to three more river miles being ditched.

Wounded River

Hancock’s persistence paid off the next year. With the help of Arkansas politicians such as then-Sen. Dale Bumpers and then-Attorney General Bill Clinton, a government task force was formed. It concluded channelization of the Cache River was the single most damaging project to waterfowl and floodplain forest in the nation. Funding was cut off, but not before the Cache basin had suffered a seven-mile wound.

Hancock’s perseverance and the victory over forces of environmental degradation ignited a fire in Arkansas’ conservation and sportsmen’s communities. The Game and Fish Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked with groups like The Nature Conservancy, as well as local citizens, to conserve important habitat in the Big Woods. It culminated in the 1984 federal authorization to establish the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, a move that perpetually protected the basin from future channelization efforts.

The AGFC and Ducks Unlimited approached the Corps of Engineers about a restoration plan for the lower Cache River in 2004. Five years later, The Nature Conservancy signed on and began raising money for the local share of the cost.

“TNC is very interested in trying to stabilize rivers all over the world.,” Mangham said. “Once you change a river, you impact forests surrounding the river and you end up with destabilization and erosion and eventually it makes the rivers full of sediment.”

Group Effort

The Corps of Engineers, which has undergone a seismic shift in its corporate culture in recent years, is undertaking the project as a Section 1135 ecological restoration project.

“They’re going out of their way to get this thing built because it can be a demonstration project they can hang their hat on,” Mangham said.

The Nature Conservancy and local partners have raised about $2.5 million to fund the local share of the project. Because the Corps’ cap for Section 1135 projects is $5 million, however, it was clear restoring the whole seven miles of channelized river wouldn’t be feasible.

“We said, ‘Let’s figure out a project that’s less expensive but that’s still good for ecology,’ ” Mangham said.

The result is a project that will restore the upper 4 ½ miles of the channelized Cache. The project calls for the placement of three large rock weirs across the channelized portion of the river. The weirs will redirect flow into the old meanders cut off in the 1970s. Before that can happen, crews will remove plugs that were used to cut off the meanders.

Because of soft hydric soils in the area, engineers determined early that the best construction approach to move the massive tonnage of rock for the weirs would be to work from barges. Work most likely will begin this winter.

In addition to AGFC, DU and TNC, project participants include the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the City of Clarendon (population 1,300) whose mayor, Jim Stinson, is also an avid duck hunter and fisherman on the Cache River.

“Everybody around here is excited to see this happen,” Stinson said. “It’s going to make for better fishing and better duck hunting, and we might even get some tourism out of it.”

Systems Upgrade

Considering the damage, restoration project leaders say undoing it is a relatively inexpensive repair.

“Biologically, it’s a lot of bang for the buck,” Mangham said.

The project is expected to increase fish use of the river, increase mussel habitat, and improve the health of the surrounding floodplain forests, something that isn’t lost on duck hunters.

“All these systems like this are sustained by periodic flooding,” Naylor said. “The manipulation of the system with the channelization project broke that connection between the river and the floodplain wetland. The pattern has changed. But this will restore some of that.”

It will also restore another important piece of the Big Woods ecosystem, perhaps inspiring more duck hunters to follow Hancock’s lead and make a difference for conservation.