- The Washington Times - Monday, June 13, 2005

COTTON PLANT, Ark. — Nearly all of downtown is boarded up and the boards are rotting in the humid heat. The mayor is away, battling cancer. The superintendent of the waterworks works without pay, and the high school was closed a month ago and its students assigned to the school in a nearby town.

An incurable optimist would say Cotton Plant, population 960, has nowhere to go but up.

But things actually are looking up in this once-thriving little town at the edge of the Mississippi Delta, thanks to a scientific discovery a few miles away in the deep swamps of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, where cottonmouth moccasins, alligators and all manner of flora and fauna thrive.

Just a few week ago, federal and state officials, following the lead of Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology, announced in Science magazine definite sightings and photographs of one of the rarest birds ever seen in North America — the ivory-billed woodpecker.

No documented sighting had been recorded in the United States since World War II. The ivory-billed woodpecker — much larger and more ornate than less-appreciated woodpecker varieties — was considered extinct.

In the weeks since, this economically depressed region has received a shot of Adrenalin. “This is probably the most significant wildlife thing that has happened in this country in 150 years,” Sam Hamilton, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told a group of citizens recently at the Brinkley Convention Center in Brinkley, a dozen or so miles east of Cotton Plant as a woodpecker would fly.

“It was like finding Noah’s ark or discovering that Elvis Presley is still alive,” says David Carruth of Clarendon, president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation.

Gene Depriest, owner of a popular barbecue restaurant in Brinkley, says: “It’s going to change the whole life of this town.”

“It definitely will do some good,” says Thomas Jacques, 43, managing editor of the twice-weekly Brinkley Argus. “At the very least it will inspire some kids to take science and biology more seriously.”

Mr. Jacques envisions a visitors center and campgrounds from which visitors can initiate their own searches for the elusive woodpecker — and maybe even other woodpeckers. Nobody knows whether there are others, or even, in fact, whether the bird is still there.

This was once an important cotton- and rice-producing region but many of the young have departed for Memphis or Little Rock, each about 70 miles away in opposite directions, as farm and other jobs evaporated. Nearly every town has lost population over the past two or three decades.

“This might be a way to keep some of our youngsters here, actually add some jobs,” says William Jeffrey, a farmer near Clarendon.

“We sure need something to change this trend,” says Joanne Veazey, a city secretary in Cotton Plant.

Gene Sparling, a Hot Springs naturalist who first spotted the ivory-billed bird on a four-day kayaking trip in February 2004, agrees. “Your kids are likely to be more interested in staying here in your community,” he told a crowd in Brinkley last month. “We think this will be a big positive for all of us.”

Already, at Gene’s Bar-B-Que, owned by Mr. Depriest, a diner can order an “Ivory Billed Cheeseburger” or a T-shirt with a red woodpecker on it. In an hour last week, Mr. Depriest sold six T-shirts and posed with tourists lured here by the discovery of what President Theodore Roosevelt nearly a century ago called “the Lord God bird — the sight of it drives a man to his knees.”

“I even got a call from England, where a fellow is going to visit with a group of 20 later this summer,” says Mr. Depriest.

“We’ve got to move on this,” says Homer Reeves, the Cotton Plant water chief. “If we sit here and do nothing, we’ll never have another chance to save this town.”

In Brinkley, the largest town (population 3,600) close to the elusive woodpecker’s habitat, several have speculated how to capitalize on the expected bonanza.

Penny Childs, who runs a small hair salon just off Main Street, has a new hairdo called the “Woodpecker.” For $25, she will fashion a spike cut with red dye on the top, black dye on the sides and a touch of white on the front, all sprayed heavily to make it last. So far only her teenage son has agreed to submit to the birdlike hairdo, but she has been interviewed by reporters from Little Rock, Memphis, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and New York.

She planned to set up her chair at the Wal-Mart on the weekend, with woodpecker-related receipts going to a local charity. “I feel like we all must give something back. If the Lord isn’t happy, he could just kill that bird, you know.”

The woodpecker sightings have resulted in three new books. Woodcarvers, embroiderers and craftsmen and even furniture designers are busy. The town of Clarendon (population 1,900), 25 miles down the road, has a Web site on which woodpecker art and a commemorative poster are available.

Some hunters and farmers are concerned the government might restrict use of their land to protect the ivory-billed woodpecker.

“We’ve got to make intelligent, informed decisions,” Mr. Hamilton says. “It’s a pretty awesome responsibility to protect that lone male bird we know about.”

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has appointed a committee to protect the woodpecker and to promote ecotourism. “This ‘Big Woods’ area is a prime example of what Arkansas offers,” Mr. Huckabee said, referring to the region by a name given by novelist William Faulkner. “For the United States, this is our own version of the Amazon.”

The governor agrees with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s swiftly made decision to make 5,000 acres of the swampland off-limits to the public, but wants birders to know that thousands of acres in Woodruff, Monroe and St. Francis counties still are open.

At Gene’s Bar-B-Que, a half-dozen old-timers reminisced about the last time Brinkley had been in the limelight. “Guess it was when Gennifer Flowers became famous,” Mr. Depriest says. Miss Flowers, whose revelations of a romantic liaison with Bill Clinton nearly sank his presidential candidacy in 1992, graduated from Brinkley High School.

“Yeah, her daddy used to be a close buddy of mine,” says Mr. Depriest. “And her mother used to do my wife’s hair,” says Wiley Meacham, 73, a retired farmer.

Back in boarded-up Cotton Plant, two elderly black men while away the hours in a small park on Main Street. “I don’t think anything good is going to happen,” says Jim Johnson, 78. “There’s nobody left in town who can do anything.”

“Sure be nice to have a job,” says Enoch Davis, 64, who lost his job as a janitor when the Presbyterian church closed a couple years ago. “I can still work,” he says, his voice trailing to a whisper. “If only.”

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