By Andi Cooper
Imagine leaning against an oak in a flooded bottomland hardwood forest, hiding in the shadows as a huge flock of mallards flutters down through the treetops, or picture yourself in a pit blind in a flooded rice field as waves of pintails circle overhead, warily inspecting the decoys. The lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley (MAV) boasts some of the most storied waterfowl hunting in the nation. This cherished tradition—and the waterfowl and wild places on which it depends—is what Ducks Unlimited's America's River Initiative seeks to preserve for future generations.
The Mississippi River is the heart of the Mississippi Flyway, a migration pathway followed by millions of ducks and geese each year from their northern breeding grounds to their southern wintering areas and back. An estimated 4 million to 8 million waterfowl winter in the MAV each year, including up to 40 percent of the midcontinent mallard population. Many more waterfowl continue migrating to the Gulf Coast or to Latin America, but they all rely on resources in the MAV to see them through their journey.
Encompassing 25 million acres in the floodplain of the lower Mississippi River, the MAV was once a vast wilderness of bottomland hardwood forest and other wetlands supporting an incredible abundance and diversity of wildlife. During the past century, however, the majority of these habitats were cleared, drained, and converted to other land uses. Today, only about 20 percent of the region's original bottomland hardwood forest remains, and much of the floodplain has been significantly altered.
Conserving the MAV's most important waterfowl wintering habitats is the goal of the America's River Initiative. Through this effort, DU will protect, restore, and enhance at least 42,000 acres of wetlands in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. A top priority will be to conserve key waterfowl habitats on public lands. To date, DU and its federal and state agency partners have conserved 137,000 acres on public lands in the MAV, a large proportion of which is open to waterfowl hunting and other forms of outdoor recreation.
Since nearly 80 percent of the MAV's remaining bottomland hardwood forest and other wetlands are privately owned, DU works with landowners to protect waterfowl habitats with conservation easements. These legally binding agreements restrict land-use activities that would degrade the property's value to waterfowl and other wildlife. The protections that conservation easements provide remain in effect forever, even if the property is transferred to other family members or sold to an unrelated buyer. By donating conservation easements to DU's landholding arm, Wetlands America Trust, private landowners have permanently protected wildlife habitat values on more than 170,000 acres in the MAV alone.
In addition, DU partners with farmers to enhance waterfowl habitat on working agricultural lands. For example, rice fields provide vital food resources for wintering waterfowl in the MAV, as well as along the Gulf Coast and in the Central Valley of California. In these rice-producing regions, DU helps farmers implement best management practices to enhance waterfowl habitat on rice lands and improve farm profitability, water quality, and other environmental conditions.
As in all of DU's work, public policy will play a key role in meeting the objectives of the America's River Initiative. DU's top policy priorities include a five-year Farm Bill with adequate funding for conservation programs such as the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), legislation that would make enhanced tax incentives for donated conservation easements permanent, and reauthorization and full funding of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA).
These policies have direct impacts on DU's conservation delivery. Through WRP, Ducks Unlimited has worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service and private landowners to reforest and restore hydrology on 239,000 acres of flood-prone former cropland in the MAV. In addition, NAWCA-funded projects have helped improve more than 729,000 acres of waterfowl habitat in this region.
Sound science and conservation planning round out the America's River Initiative. Using the latest geospatial data and analysis tools, DU has mapped the MAV's remaining forested wetlands and created a regional flood frequency model. The resulting landscape assessment has identified approximately 2.4 million acres of flood-prone agricultural land and another 5.4 million acres of frequently flooded bottomland hardwood forest. While these landscapes have little value for agriculture or other commercial uses, they provide important habitat for wintering waterfowl and other wildlife. DU is using this flood frequency model and other conservation planning tools to carefully target wetland restoration and land protection efforts throughout the MAV.
In keeping with DU's continental conservation objectives, donations to the America's River Initiative will also support important waterfowl breeding habitat conservation work in the Prairie Pothole Region and Western Boreal Forest. The majority of North America's waterfowl are raised in these high-priority breeding areas, including many of the mallards and pintails that duck hunters pursue in the MAV. Contributions to DU's America's River Initiative will help ensure that flocks of greenheads and sprig—and the incomparable experience of hunting them in the MAV's iconic flooded timber and rice fields—can be enjoyed for generations to come. For more information about how you can support the America's River Initiative, visit the DU website at ducks.org/DUinitiatives.
Andi Cooper is a communications specialist at DU's Southern Regional Office in Ridgeland, Mississippi.
Orrin Ingram: Supporting a Long-Term Approach to Waterfowl Conservation
Like all Ducks Unlimited Major Sponsors, Orrin H. Ingram II believes deeply in the DU conservation mission. His vision for the future is based on a deep understanding of what helps DU achieve its goals. He recognizes that waterfowl habitat conservation must be delivered on a continental scale. He also understands that today's conservation progress will mean nothing without tomorrow's waterfowlers, conservationists, and DU supporters.
Through a generous gift, Ingram has invested in three areas crucial to the future of waterfowl and waterfowling. The first part of his contribution will support DU's land protection program in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley (MAV), which will help permanently protect some of the most important remaining waterfowl habitat in this region. The second portion of his gift will support efforts to recruit, educate, and inspire the next generation through DU's youth and education program. Finally, the third part of his gift will support DU's efforts to conserve wetlands and grasslands in the Prairie Pothole Region, where many of the waterfowl that visit the MAV are raised.
Ingram is president and CEO of Ingram Industries Inc., based in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also a trustee of DU's Wetlands America Trust, and he and his wife, Lee Ann, are DU Diamond Legacy Sponsors and President's Council members. In 2010, Ingram endowed a chair in cancer research at Vanderbilt University, and he is chairman of the Board of Overseers of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.