Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex manages approximately 42,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forest in the Mississippi Delta region. Refuge staff have reforested an additional 25,000 acres of former agricultural land, bringing the Complex’s total acreage of bottomland forest to 67,000 acres.
Prior to European settlement, the Lower Mississippi Valley was covered with over 24 million acres of bottomland hardwood forest that supported a rich diversity of fish and wildlife species. Historically, the dominant forest type was oak-gum-cypress. Canebrakes covered the broader flats on slightly higher ground, forming extensive nearly pure stands beneath huge bottomland hardwood trees. Settlers began clearing the forest in the early 1800’s. Today more than 75 percent of the forest coverage has been lost to land clearing operations for agriculture, transportation, industrialization, and urbanization. The remaining 4.8 million acres of forest are isolated islands of habitat surrounded by cotton, corn, rice, and bean fields. Most of the surviving forests now occupy low ground dominated by water tolerant species.
Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge has an active forest management program. Refuge staff periodically conduct timber harvests to improve the forest composition and increase wildlife habitat values. Each timber harvest operation generates revenues that are returned to the U.S. Treasury. Ultimately, a percentage of the revenue from timber harvests is returned to the county where the timber was harvested. This is accomplished through the Service's revenue sharing program, as part of their "Payment in Lieu of Taxes" check to counties each year.
More than 60 species of trees are known to occur on the Complex. The lowest areas on refuge lands contain bald cypress, buttonbush, and water tupelo, except on Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge, where water tupelo does not occur. Other woody species in permanent or semi-permanent flooded areas include swamp privet, water elm, black willow and water locust.
A slight change in elevation across the landscape can make a vast difference in species occurrence. Slightly higher elevations support green ash, red maple, cottonwood, sugarberry, honey locust, American sycamore, bitter pecan, overcup oak, American elm and Nuttall oak. Extensive flats on Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge support scattered deciduous holly in the mid-story, while higher elevations are dominated by extensive stands of dwarf palmetto. Hardwoods on higher sites include willow oak, sweetgum, black locust, water oak and sweet pecan. Although willow oak is a predominant tree species on Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, water oak and sweet pecan are not as abundant as on the other refuges. Prominent vines include poison ivy, crossvine, Virginia creeper, muscadine grape and false grape in forested areas, and ladies’ eardrops, peppervine and trumpet creeper in more open situations.
Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge has distinctively lower ground with fewer areas that can support species found on well-drained soils. Yazoo has more topographic relief with distinct ridges and greater overall diversity. One ridge (<10’ high) on Yazoo has Shumard oak and bitternut hickory, both of which are rarely seen in the lower Delta.
The loess bluffs of Morgan Brake NWR support a completely different floral assemblage than the other refuges in the Complex. Some trees on the bluff, such as northern red oak, swamp chestnut oak, Florida maple, yellowwood and cucumber tree, seem geographically out of place. American beech, yellow poplar, white oak, red buckeye and hornbeam, among other species occupy the lower and middle slopes, with flowering dogwood, southern red oak, and black gum at the top. Refuge personnel recently conducted a cursory survey of woody plants on Morgan Brake National Wildlife Refuge, and found 44 separate species. Understory plants include abundant jack-in-the pulpit, Christmas fern and trillium.
Come by and visit the forests of Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex! Maybe you will see a tree that recalls the famous poem “Trees” written by Alfred Joyce Kilmer, in 1913:
“I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.”