NWTF and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Cooperative Forester Sid Munford highlights the importance of the agency’s Wetland Reserve Easement program and how it is having a landscape-scale conservation impact in the Natural State .
The Mississippi Alluvial Valley, a huge swath of land stretching from Ohio to the Gulf of Mexico, once supported 24 million acres of floodplain forest, swamp, marsh and riparian habitat. However, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the area is now considered the most deforested region in the Southeast, with more than 75% of the forest lost to development.
To turn the tide on habitat loss, the NWTF continues its multi-year partnership with the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission and NRCS to return the Mississippi Alluvial Valley to its former glory in Arkansas. This work is made possible by a grant from the National Wildlife Foundation’s Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley Restoration Fund.
The Wetlands Reserve Improvement Association facilitates essential work taking place on private land within the Mississippi Alluvial Valley in Arkansas. The WRE is a voluntary program through which NRCS enters into agreements with partners, in this case, the NWTF, to leverage resources to carry out the protection, restoration, and enhancement of high-priority wetlands and to improve the habitat of the wild life. The program is a component of the agency’s Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.
Since 2014, NRCS in Arkansas has enrolled and restored 278,000 acres of wetlands and lowland forests under the ACEP-WRE program. Sid Munford is the Cooperative Forester doing much of this critical work for the NWTF and NRCS.
“A lot of my job as an NWTF Cooperative Forester is working with private landowners and explaining how the WRE program can benefit their property for wildlife,” Munford said. “Most property owners I have worked with are interested in doing everything they can to attract and retain wild turkey populations on their property. I develop project plans to guide management activities and monitor the progress of field work to ensure best management practices are observed on our privately owned properties.”
As a Cooperative Forester for NWTF and NRCS, Munford performs a variety of duties, including:
- Development of reforestation design in WRE restoration projects.
- Coordination and monitoring of tree planting operations.
- Inspect older plantings to assess seedling survival.
- Marking timber harvests for habitat improvement.
- Evaluation of older plantations to determine management needs.
- Consult with landowners in the WRE program to help them meet management objectives.
The overall ecological value of the landscape is increased through this work and bridges the connectivity of a healthy ecosystem with public and private lands. For example, one of the main focuses of the WRE program is to strengthen the health of water and water systems in the Mississippi alluvial valley.
“As surface runoff water enters a property restored and managed through the WRE program, sediment accumulated on the site is retained by plant roots,” Munford said. “Up to 90% of the sediments in runoff can be removed if the water passes through wetlands, as well as removing contaminants in runoff, resulting in cleaner groundwater. It really shows what active management can achieve for ecosystem health.”
Another important component of the WRE program is the restoration of lowland hardwoods, where floodplain-adapted oaks and associated hardwoods are planted for their impact on water quality and wildlife habitat. Munford said the general rule of thumb is to plant at least 60% oak for hard pole production and 40% for soft seed to diversify habitat for as many wildlife species as possible. In Arkansas, reforestation efforts have been highly successful, restoring several thousand acres of lowland hardwood trees. This has a direct benefit in increasing wild turkey habitat.
“Existing wild turkey populations in the Mississippi alluvial valley are relegated to lowland tracts along major riparian corridors,” said Jeremy Wood, AGFC’s wild turkey program coordinator. “WRE has a significant focus on these areas, balancing mature-growth trees and early successional habitat, so as work progresses, there is great potential to increase available turkey habitat in the region through development. program. In addition, work through the WRE has the potential to improve habitat conditions for other species of concern, such as Swainson’s warbler, Bell’s vireo, and American woodcock.”
From explaining ecological importance to landowners to managing forests, work done through the WRE program is having a landscape-scale impact in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley in Arkansas, and landowners are noticing the difference.
“Owner feedback has been positive,” Munford said. “I have reports of increased deer activity in reduced stands and one property owner said more mallards entered some of the managed areas on his property to feed around the felled tree stacks in his stands flooded in more significant numbers. than in previous seasons. Creating grassy openings, open lanes, and encouraging mast production will help increase turkey populations in this region. If the turkeys find the resources they need, they will stay.”