MS Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks

Celebrating 40 Years of Conservation on the Pascagoula River

Monday, October 10, 2016
By Becky Stowe


This summer, I spent a delightful day paddling the Pascagoula River with Graham Wisner and his cousin, Lex Lindsey. You may not recognize their names, but Wisner, his family, and the Pascagoula Hardwood Company, are undoubtedly champions of the Pascagoula River, and their role in Mississippi deserves special mention. The forest industry has always been important to Mississippi, and many of its leaders have contributed to wildlife conservation, so why do this family and company stand out? This family and company struck a historic agreement in the 1970s that more than doubled the size of state-owned public recreational land in Mississippi.

While I was on the river with them, I took the opportunity to revisit this important piece of Mississippi history. The family's relationship to Mississippi started when their ancestor, Silas Gardner, came down from Iowa with his brother, George, and brother-in-law, Lauren Eastman, in 1891 to open a large sawmill in Laurel. Other logging ventures followed, including the Pascagoula Hardwood Company, which was incorporated in 1928.

Fast forward to the summer of 1974. An idealistic Graham Wisner came down to George County from his home in Washington, D.C., to stay at his family's cabin on the bank of the Pascagoula River. Over the summer, he was befriended by Herman Murrah, the local conservation officer and caretaker of the company's lands. Herman had grown up in the Pascagoula swamp, and his father ran the river ferry in the tiny community of Buzzard Roost.

All summer long, Graham and his dog would swim across the river and eat fried catfish at Herman's house, and Herman would show him all the unique and wonderful places that his family's company owned. Even though they came from different backgrounds, both men shared the concern that the great swamp forest may disappear one day, so they brainstormed ideas about how to protect it for the future.

While he was back home in Washington, Graham explained to Dave Morine of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) how special the Pascagoula River was and sparked some interest there. At the time, Dave was interested in putting together a big conservation project in the South with a state wildlife agency, and it seemed the ideal opportunity.

Avery Wood was director of the Mississippi Game and Fish Commission, now known as  Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks. Wood was very concerned about how much forest land was being converted and closed off to the public. It seemed to him that unless something was done soon, the people of Mississippi would have fewer places to hunt and fish. Wood had big ideas, but the department only had a relatively small budget for acquiring land for public benefit was nearly unheard of at that time, and there was only a little more than 20,000 acres of state-owned lands across the state. Morine traveled to Jackson and visited with Wood about the possibility of the state acquiring the Pascagoula Hardwood Company land. During their meetings, they planned out an ambitious strategy to garner the necessary political support and funding.

Pascagoula2

Spend a day on the Pascagoula River and enjoy the benefits of conservation.

Realizing the Importance of the Pascagoula River

The first step in the plan was to prove just how important this tract of land was to the wildlife and people of Mississippi. They did this by creating the Natural Heritage Program. Similar to programs in other states, this group of biologists would record and track the unique and rare species across the state. It quickly became very clear just how special the Pascagoula River ecosystem was.

The 10,000-square-mile Pascagoula River watershed is home to 22 threatened and endangered species, as well as dozens of other rare animals and plants. The Pascagoula is one of the last large free-flowing rivers in the continental U.S.; and its waters and adjacent lands support literally thousands of species of freshwater mussels, fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, plants, and mammals. Its unaltered, undammed nature allows large diadramous fish (able to live in both salt and freshwater) like the Gulf sturgeon to swim unrestricted from the salty waters of the Mississippi Sound to its spawning grounds in freshwater streams near Hattiesburg.

Some animals, like the yellowblotched sawback turtle only occur in this river system and nowhere else in the world. This amazing watershed also supports a wide variety of habitats, including cypress-tupelo swamps, longleaf pine ridges and savannas, bottomland hardwood forests, oxbow lakes, and marshes that harbor over 300 bird species, many of which are considered international conservation priorities. In addition to its ecological significance, the river is culturally important as well, with villages and towns of prehistoric Native Americans, settlements of French, Spanish, and British colonists, and 19th century sawmill towns, all located on its banks.

Animals

Garnering Public Support

As MDWFP staff learned more, they enthusiastically shared the significance of the Pascagoula River with people across the state, resulting in a groundswell of public support. In a historic move, the Mississippi state legislature passed a $15 Million bond measure to buy the land. However, this monumental event almost did not happen.The bill became trapped in a long line of other bills with legislators trying to beat the midnight deadline on the last day of the 1976 session. With 25 minutes to spare before the clock struck midnight, in a generous gesture, the request was made to move the Pascagoula bill ahead in line so it could receive a vote. The request was granted and the bond bill passed with a landslide vote.

Closing the Deal

With public conservation funds now available, it was up to TNC to negotiate the terms of the agreement with the Pascagoula Hardwood Company. Most of the company's shareholders had hunted and fished these lands much of their lives, so they understood the river's significance and were sympathetic to the cause of conserving its lands for public benefit. However, not surprisingly, some of them did not want to sell. There were many hurdles to overcome, but after much back and forth, TNC was able to purchase most of the lands.

TNC signed the land over to the State of Mississippi exactly 40 years ago, on Sept. 22, 1976, establishing the Pascagoula River Wildlife Management Area (WMA). This was a huge conservation accomplishment for many reasons. It was the largest tract of land that the State had ever acquired, and at the time, it was the largest land conservation project that TNC had ever completed. The partnership's success demonstrated the concept of private conservation groups and state agencies working together to protect land for people and wildlife. During the 40 years since, TNC has successfully and extensively used this model in Mississippi other times, working with MDWFP to secure other important tracts of land including the Clark Creek Nature Area (Wilkinson County), Old River WMA (Pearl River County), Shipland WMA (Issaquena County) and Malmaison WMA (Grenada and Leflore Counties).

Pascagoula

The forests and wetlands of the Pascagoula watershed host waterbird rockeries and habitat for the yellow-blotched map turtle.

Conservation Benefits the Public

Since 1976, when the lands that became Pascagoula River WMA were transferred from Wisner's family's company and opened to the public, the people of Mississippi have enjoyed its beauty and richness of game. Now, MDWFP manages more than 50,000 acres on both the Pascagoula River WMA and the adjacent Ward Bayou WMA.

Using that first acquisition as the "anchor," MDWFP and TNC have worked with other state and federal agencies, non-profit organizations, corporations and local businesses, private individuals, and local governments to protect an 80-mile-long corridor along the Pascagoula River from the Mississippi Sound to its headwaters at the junction of the Leaf and Chickasawhay Rivers. A strategic approach of public land acquisition and conservation easements on private lands has linked up important habitats and buffered protected areas from encroachment. With the recent addition of the Leaf River Tract, which will be managed as a State Forest by the Mississippi Forestry Commission, those lands are now connected with the De Soto National Forest and the Leaf River Wilderness, making this the largest protected conservation area in Mississippi.

The Pascagoula River and the lands around it are important not only to the thousands of species of plants and animals that live there, but also to all Mississippians, those living on the Coast and upstream - for hunting, fishing, boating, and swimming; for clean drinking water, and to ensure our clean air. More than 50,000 individuals visited the Pascagoula and Ward Bayou WMAs last year not only to hunt and fish, but also to watch its hundreds of species of birds, paddle the streams, lakes, and bayous, and to photograph the picturesque scenery and wildlife that is found in abundance.

For more information on these WMAs, visit www.mdwfp.com. Visit www.conserve. ms to learn more about the work of The Nature Conservancy 



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