GEORGETOWN — Crews and contractors with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission recently planted roughly 40,000 red oak seedlings in Henry Gray Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area to continue alleviating damage seen on the WMA’s greentree reservoirs in 2018.
More than 3,600 acres of bottomland hardwoods have suffered the effects of excessive flooding in the WMA in the last five years. Willow oaks, Nuttall oaks and many other trees beneficial to mallards and other wildlife were gradually being replaced by more water-tolerant and less desirable species, which was cause for alarm itself. But even those tree species saw a massive die-off in 2018 when nearly every tree in more than 200 acres suddenly died. Since that time, the deadening has expanded to well over 800 acres, but it was the catalyst for an immediate response by AGFC habitat biologists and wetland managers to speed up changes in infrastructure on the WMA and initiate plans to recover forest health in the area.
In addition to many projects to increase drainage on the WMA when the White River allows water to flow out of the old GTRs, habitat biologists led an effort to focus on reducing competition for the few remaining red oaks in the affected bottomland hardwoods to try to save them and enable their acorns to sprout naturally in the open areas left behind.
“We’ve conducted variable retention harvest on roughly 650 acres on the WMA in some of the heavily stressed areas,” AGFC habitat biologist Drew Green said.
Contractors removed undesirable species and some red oaks that were marked and checked by registered foresters working for the AGFC. Oaks that were removed were assessed as either past the point of recovery or were competing heavily with each other, not allowing proper growth.
“In those cases, we make a decision on one or two trees that will be most beneficial and clear out their competition so they can reach their potential,” AGFC Habitat Program coordinator Rob Willey said. “These are the trees that will produce acorns for wildlife and produce the next generation of forest.”
AGFC isn’t hedging all their bets on natural regeneration. Green led a crew of contractors to collect red oak acorns in 2021 and 2022 and, with the help of Baucum Nursery, grew oak seedlings that were from the original stock found at Hurricane Lake.
“Baucum Nursery really helped us out,” Green said. “They gave us our own bed to keep our trees separate from others they were growing. All of the trees we planted came from Hurricane originally.
Conditions weren’t favorable last year for planting the trees, but this summer’s dry spell enabled AGFC contractors to plant 168 acres with the propagated saplings. Approximately 40,000 saplings were planted, with 8,200 of those young trees being 2 years old.
“Those 2-year-old trees were chest high,” Willey said. “They should have a good jumpstart to get established.”
Green says he oversaw crews to cut out competing trees and shrubs that have begun to grow since the deadening earlier this year to prepare the area, and workers completed the planting fairly quickly.
“The herbaceous growth is still fairly thick in there, but these trees have a good chance of becoming the next forest,” Green said. “We also prepared another 164 acres of the area for planting next year and are budgeting the money to prep another 133 acres to be planted in 2026 if conditions allow.”