White River National Wildlife Refuge
Southeast Region
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"Time to Change"

by Matt Conner, Park Ranger White River NWR

Location of where Little White Lake used to be. Credit: USFWS

Location of where Little White Lake used to be. Credit: USFWS

One of my favorite movies is “Grumpy Old Men.” Perhaps this is due to the brief time I spent living in Minnesota, where the movie was filmed and written about, but I’m confident that my affinity for this film has more to do with one of its major themes; Change.

In several scenes Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon stated, “I hate change; things never change for the better!” I have always been intrigued by these types of statements as change is always occurring, especially in the complex management of natural resources.

Most hunters will tell you that areas showing disturbance and new growth will benefit species such as deer and turkey by providing thick cover and a food source of young vegetation. Other species like woodpeckers and some owls prefer older trees where they can hunt and feed on insects and animals that are drawn to these areas. The Refuge uses forest management to meet the needs of many types of plants and animals. By providing a resource full of various ecotypes and stages of succession means having food, shelter, and space for a wide diversity of wildlife to benefit from. A well managed forest is a “buffet” for wildlife in which there is something to fit the taste of everyone coming to supper.

One change we have seen this summer has been water level on the Refuge. Many lakes have gone dry this summer and smaller streams and creeks have retreated, awaiting rain and seasonal flooding to resuscitate their existence.

This drying is part of a natural cycle that is needed to allow other species a boost in their own survivals and reproductions. The colossal cypress trees have seen many wet and dry seasons pass under their mature branches, wait for their turn to replenish the forest with young cypress trees for the future. The cypress trees are well adapted to growing in wet environments, however, a new tree is unable to germinate in standing water. This limits the reproduction of these trees until a drying out of the lake allows the young trees a chance to take root and prepare for future flooding.

As some of the lakes desiccated, dozens of bears, eagles, raccoons, and other critters where seen at these dry lakes feasting on fish and other unfortunate aquatic species left exposed by the absence of their protective habitat. These animals certainly saw change as a positive this season whereas fishermen had to try their luck at deeper lakes and rivers during this sultry summer.

One of the lakes that have gone missing this summer is Little White Lake. Only a couple of miles from the Visitor Center off the “Wildlife Drive,” this lake has been temporally replaced by grasses and a new species not commonly seen in this area, cattails. I asked several staff at White River National Wildlife Refuge and nobody can remember ever seeing cattails on any of the lakes on the Refuge before. So, why are they here now?

Being a potential future “Grumpy Old Man” I initially petitioned that we go in and remove the cattails before the lake refills this winter from flood waters. I saw the cattails as a change that would adversely impact wildlife by limiting food production. I was reminded by our biologist that this represents new opportunities for additional wildlife that would otherwise not benefit from the pre-existing conditions.

The cattails on the lakes would offer cover for secretive marsh birds and protection from raptors flying overhead. Species like Night Herons and Bitterns would use this change to their advantage in offering a screen from the world around. I am still baffled as to why it was cattails and not another plant type that is more commonly seen. Not to mention that the number of cattails that have grown in the lake in just one summer is nothing short of amazing. It started as just a few plants but now covers almost half of the area of the lake.

I thought this might be due to the tenacity of the cattails, but after further reflection, the soil conditions are probably a better rationalization for their success. The bottoms are some of the richest soils available from the silt and soil deposited by the river and the rapid decomposition of organic plant material making this a rich and fertile soil for any plant to thrive in.

This is not the first time the lake has dried up and returned. The Civilian Conservation Corp had camps at White River National Wildlife Refuge from 1935-1942. The CCC built many of the facilities, structures, and improvements for wildlife still seen on the Refuge today. It has been said that Little White Lake dried up when the CCC was here and several of the men planted turnips in the dry lake bed to see if they would grow. And grow they did! One of the CCC members reported the soil produced turnips the size of basketballs.

Driving this route from the Visitor Center you have a chance to hike several trails that demonstrate the unique bottomland traits, including one trail that has some potential state record Nutall oak trees identified along the way. These gigantic specimens are identified with signs stating their species, age, and height. At first view one might think these trees were several hundred years old, however, our foresters have determined the ages to be closer to 130 years. Young trees when comparing these to the cypress of similar size. A similar size cypress may be 500 years old having grown in a relatively harsh environment.

You also want to pay close attention to the forest floor looking for light penetrating from a recently fallen tree, regeneration of vegetation in “gaps” in the trees, and the undulations of the forest floor that serve as markers to past floods and changes in topography. Other trails offer a great vantage point for viewing wildlife at an observation deck and you can walk in the footsteps of the Civilian Conservation Corp on a trail where they installed a water control structure that a boardwalk now passes over.

Following the trail to the White River and standing on its mighty banks, I am reminded of how much life in the bottomland hardwoods depends on the rising and falling of this river. Many lakes are dry now, but the river will revive these areas turning the balance back in favor of other species. Small coffee shops will always hear the echo of “Grumpy Old Men” talking about the days before change. I too will someday join their ranks, but for now I see that change, although different, can be for the better!

Last updated: September 10, 2008