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Out of the Woods

Introduction to the
Out of the Woods Documentary

A brief overview

"Out of the Woods" is a video documentary that visits the diverse mosaic of forests in Arkansas. Descriptions of the forests of Arkansas over 150 years ago reveal the influencing factors of industrial forestry and the expanding population.

"Out of the Woods" emphasizes the balancing of ecological and economic values of the forest for the prosperity and recreational enjoyment of future generations. The video explores the Ozark and Ouachita National Forests, industrial forests and private timberlands. Forest conservation efforts in the state focus on replenishing the resources that we take "Out of the Woods."

Towns and areas of the state highlighted are Crossett, Warren, Gurdon, Fayetteville, St. Paul, the Ozark and Ouachita mountain ranges, the Mississippi River Delta bottom lands and the Illinois Bayou near Dover.

An Historical Perspective

The forests of Arkansas have not always been as they are today. At the time of statehood in 1836, nearly all of Arkansas was forested. In the Delta, bottom land hardwood trees covered the part of the state now dominated by farmland.

In the Gulf coastal plain of south Arkansas, where commercial pine plantations now grow, there was once a mosaic forest of tall pines and ancient hardwoods.

Thriving in the Ouachita mountains was the largest single expanse of shortleaf pine in the United States. In earlier times, buffalo and elk grazed on bluestem grasses that grew beneath these tall pines.

Giant white oak trees that once flourished in the Ozark mountains have virtually disappeared. In fact, most of the Ozark forest consists of trees younger than 90 years of age.

The Logging Boom Hits Arkansas Forests

When the early settlers arrived, the Ozarks were dominated by tall white oak trees, with their branches barely touching. The lowest limbs were at least 15 feet off the ground, so high that it was possible to ride a horse right through the middle of the woods.

The logging boom occurred very quickly and the majestic white oak forests were logged off in about 20 years. Dr. Kimberly Smith, Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas, says, "Those forests were owned by the railroads and in the late 1800s, the railroads decided it was time to lay track to the west and put railroads throughout the western United States. At that time, they clear cut the Ozark forest for primarily railroad ties. In one year, two million railroad ties left the railroad station in Fayetteville."

Some Ancient Forests Survived the Clearcutting

For a long time, it was assumed that no old trees survived. But recently researchers have discovered the existence of ancient forests. Dr. David Stahle, Ph. D., who runs a tree ring laboratory at the University of Arkansas and is one of the world's leading authorities on old growth forests, says,

Ancient forests still survive today because they were present there at the time of settlement and were not cut because they were not well formed, so they were ignored.

In the ancient forest of the Ozarks known as Weddington Gap, Dr. Stahle and his associates have discovered post oak trees that have been living since before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. These trees are natural archives of environmental history. Recorded in their growth rings are centuries of climate change.

Ancient trees can be found throughout the state. Dr. Stahle continues,

...if you go down into eastern Arkansas and into the alluvial flood plains of the White River and some of the oxbow swamps where cypress dominated, we still have very ancient bald cypress trees. Trees over 1,000 years old still survive in the Dagmar Wildlife Management Area. For example, trees on the Cache River at Black Swamp and on Bayou DeView and many other slow, meandering streams in southeastern Arkansas survived the lumberman's ax because they were too remote or the wood was not the perfect kind of lumber they were looking for.

Roosevelt Established the Ozark and Ouachita National Forests

The last virgin pine forest east of the Rocky Mountains once covered the Ouachitas. But at the start of the 20th century, large private timber interests logged out the Ouachitas and then left Arkansas for Oregon. This practice began to change with the formation of the Ouachita National Forest in 1907 and the Ozark National Forest in 1908. The national forests were set aside by President Theodore Roosevelt to stop wild fires that were burning out of control and to protect the land from timber companies that would move in, clear cut the trees, and then move away in search of more lumber.

Mike Curran, retired forester for the Ouachita National Forest, says

When the Ouachita National Forest was established, or proclaimed as a forest, it was known as the inaccessible burning and bleeding wilderness. It was the role of the forest service, in the early days, to protect these forests, and then to begin to manage the forests for their protective potential.

After the intensive harvesting of trees in the early part of the 19th century, the fight to prevent wild fires was necessary to allow the woods to regenerate. The trees on most forest lands eventually grew back, but by taking naturally caused fires out of the woods, and with harvesting selected species, the ecosystem was altered.

In the Ozarks, the once dominant white oak forest was replaced by the largest contiguous oak-hickory forest in North America.

In the Ouachitas, the suppression of fire had an even greater environmental impact. Hardwoods began to compete with short leaf pine, and blue stem grasses on the forest floor began to vanish. Many years later, fire was reintroduced in the form of controlled burns in an effort to maintain a productive forest and to help prevent large fires that had been so destructive in the past.

Early Cotton Farmers Came and Went

After the logging companies left the state, homesteaders arrived to attempt planting crops in the barren, stumpy fields left behind by the lumberjacks. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, land use patterns again began to change. In the Ouachitas, farmers began to leave the mountains, giving up on their cotton crops and moving to northern cities or on to the West Coast.

One enterprising timber owner who stayed behind was Hugh Ross of Arkadelphia. In 1941, Ross planted loblolly pine seedlings on a 36-acre abandoned cotton plantation near Gurdon. Most of the locals thought Ross was wasting his time, but almost 60 years later, the old cotton patch has grown into a pine forest with trees rising 120 feet above the ground. Mark Karnes, forest manager for the Ross Foundation, says,

The average visitor that would come here to take a look at this - when they see it, they think it's a virgin tract of timber in that it has never been cut, or managed or harvested. And then when you inform them that yes, you're looking at a 55-year-old stand of timber that 55 years ago was a row crop, they're taken aback by that thought.

The Timber Industry Brought Economic Development to Arkansas

For more than a century, the natural, renewable resource of the timber industry has been a base for the state's economic development. The statistics are quite impressive. Fifteen percent of the entire Arkansas work force is employed by the timber industry. That amounts to approximately 40,000 jobs and an annual payroll of $938 million. Since the turn of the century, generations of Arkansans have supported their families by logging and working in mills. The business of trees gave birth to, and continues to sustain, small towns throughout the pine belt.

According to Barbara Pardue for the Potlatch Corporation,

If you look at just a community like Warren, a town with 6,500 people, at the turn of the century you had two major sawmills there, Southern and the Bradley mills that were built in the early 1900s. Out of the acreage of timberland in the county, 250,000 acres are owned by Potlatch now that was formerly owned by those two companies. The community of Warren has a full-service YMCA, the smallest community in the country with a YMCA. Why is it there? Because there was economic support for it based on the timber industry and it's still there today, 75 years later. The impact all the way through the community, whether it's the logging community, the main street downtown is still vibrant, supported by paychecks from the forestry industry.

Nowhere has forestry meant more to the community than in Crossett, a town of 6,200 people, known as the "Forestry Capitol of the South." Crossett began in 1899 as a company town. Everything was built and owned by the Crossett Company - the mill, the company store and all the homes where the employees lived. The Crossett Company sold out to Georgia Pacific in 1962. And while Crossett is no longer a company town, more than half of the people that live there still work at the paper and plywood mills. Many others are subcontractors, who are paid to cut and haul logs to the plants. Doogie Darling, a retired forester from Crossett, says,

Crossett revolves around this industry, entirely ... It's the lifeblood of Crossett. It's a wonderful place to live. It's a small town atmosphere, and if you don't like small towns, you wouldn't like Crossett.

Arkansas' Private Land Owners Bring Intelligence and Passion to Their Land Management Decisions

Only 40 percent of the forests of Arkansas are owned by the forest products industry or the government. The majority of the woods are privately owned by individuals and families. For the most part, these owners can do what they want with their land, including cutting all the trees, manage the forest, or simply let nature take its course.

Dr. Rob Parkes makes his living as a dentist, but his passion is his 1100-acre tree farm that borders the Illinois Bayou near Dover. Parkes actively manages his land, which he hopes to someday leave to his twin daughters. He grows pine, hardwood and fruit trees, and when timber is harvested, he always replants more than he takes out. It's what Parkes calls, "sustainable forestry." Parkes says, "We don't ever take something out that we don't put back. And, we do a lot of selective cuttings and thinings and things like that. In our hardwood stands, we'll take a cull tree and use it for firewood to enhance the other hardwood trees around it. Parkes takes special care to manage his forest to benefit wildlife and protect the bayou from erosion. He has planted cypress trees in a wetland he is creating that has become the home for mallards, wood ducks, eagles and song birds."

Arkansas Has Historically Been a National Pioneer in Forest Research

Forestry management differs greatly depending on the owner of the woods. The national woods are managed for timber, water and wildlife. And, they are managed for the enjoyment of people. Some of the earliest research began in 1918. Pine seedlings were imported from Georgia, and the first commercial tree plantation was grown at Crossett.

Dozens of research projects are ongoing in Arkansas' national forests, located on small, permanent plots of land. One of the most ambitious efforts in the Ouachita National Forest is restoring the shortleaf pine and bluestem grass ecosystem that was wiped out nearly a century ago. This restored ecosytem is prime habitat for the endangered red cockaded woodpecker that makes its home by excavating roosts in pine trees at least 60 years old.

Larry Hedrick, wildlife biologist for the Ouachita National Forest, says, "Part of the reason I'm proud of the shortleaf bluestem restoration effort is because it's geared to restoring endangered species, which is part of our charge under the Endangered Species Act. It will benefit species like the Backman's Sparrow and the Brown-headed Nuthatch, which have become rare in our part of the state. It will also benefit a whole host of prairie flora - tall grasses, forbs - probably 40 species of native legumes. I think it integrates all of the laws and addresses all of the values that are so much at conflict on National Forest lands. That's why I'm proud of it."

Forestry Experts Agree: "Balance is the Key"

The forests of Arkansas mean something different for everyone. For the forest researcher, forests are the ecological history and environmental hope for the future. For the private land owner, trees are their riches - for themselves and their children. For the industrial forester, timber means jobs, income and a way of life.

With time, these values may change, but the demands placed on woodlands will remain high. Balancing these pressures is critical.

Barbara Pardue of Potlatch: "The careful balance has to be struck up again, to retain that public contract and to be able to support these industries and to make certain they have the wood and fiber. Then, we've got to do a better job of pleasing the public, as well as educating the public and informing them about how we can have both. How we can still be called the 'Natural State,' yet have a vibrant forest industry here. And I think that's the challenge."

Dr. David Stahle from the University of Arkansas:

We need a balance. You know we don't just need commercial woodlands. We can grow pine trees like we can grow corn, and we can grow super trees very rapidly, and indeed we should. But not on every square inch of our forest land, in my opinion. I think we should hold a diversity of forests.

Larry Hedrick from the Ouachita National Forest:

Our first goal, our first objective, our first priority is caring for the land, and making sure that is passed down, undiminished, in a legacy for future generations. We leave our signature on the land and, sometimes it's for a long time. And therefore, we need to be careful what kind of signatures we carve on the land.

Last Updated 01 Aug 2008