Forest management is all about habitat. Luke Naylor is State Waterfowl Program Coordinator for Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. Two years ago, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission began intensively managing State-owned greentree reservoirs to include dewatering and timber harvesting. Why were these activities prescribed? How will duck hunting be affected near-term and in future seasons? Great discussion about conserving a national treasure long-term.
Greentree Reservoir Management on Arkansas Wildlife Management Areas
[In forest management] you kind of have to get that long-term vision. – Luke Naylor, AGFC
Ramsey Russell: Today is November 25th, and I am in southern Arkansas at Commander’s Corner. It’s the first Monday of duck season. We’ve had a pretty decent season. No complaints there. I’ve got a special guest today. I have got Luke Naylor, with the Arkansas Game and Fish. We’re here to talk about some of the great WMA management going on in the state of Arkansas that may, or may not, be popular with some of the listening public. We’re here to just kind of clean up the air and talk about it. Let us know what you think. Luke, how are you?
Luke Naylor: Doing all right. A little warm for this time of year, but doing okay.
Luke Naylor, Waterfowl Program Coordinator, Arkansas Game and Fish
Ramsey Russell: So that people who don’t know you personally can kind of know who you are and where you’re coming from, tell me this: you’re a duck hunter?
Luke Naylor: I am.
Ramsey Russell: Where were you born and raised?
Luke Naylor: I was born in Wichita, Kansas. I grew up in South Central, Kansas. A little town just north of Wichita, actually. Grew up in South Central, Kansas, and went to college at Kansas State University. Then I did some graduate work out in the University of California at Davis. So I spent a few years out there in a different part of duck country that people don’t talk about, quite as much, around these parts. Pretty duck-y out there, as well.
Ramsey Russell: You got some good waterfowl management, sounds like. Now, the Mississippi, Central, and Pacific Flyways.
Luke Naylor: That’s right.
Ramsey Russell: That’s great. How did you get into duck hunting?
Luke Naylor: My dad. Had a whole family of hunters. A lot of family dove hunts, quail hunts, pheasant hunts, rabbit hunts. Then, somehow, just took to waterfowl hunting. I don’t know exactly when that happened. I knew I wanted to do this career—kind of strange—pretty young. I’ve got a third-grade boy, right now, and in third grade I knew I wanted to do this as a career. I don’t have any idea what he wants to do, right now. Yeah, so hunting in general was just part of our family. It’s just what we did. Sometime around that ten, eleven, twelve year old age, I think I really took to duck hunting. It was during drought times. Low duck populations. Could shoot two greenheads, there in the Central Flyway, or one hen mallard and be done for the day. But I got hooked, nonetheless.
Ramsey Russell: That’s crazy because that’s really when I got hooked, myself, on duck hunting. In a two mallard per day limit era, which my kids haven’t seen. I got a 22 year old son that hasn’t seen that. But that’s the year I got hooked. Oddly enough, I was hunting with some friends on Arkansas public, and it hooked me right through the roof of the mouth like a big old bass. What do you think it is that hooks you on duck hunting, at that age? Because, man, Kansas is just eat up with hunting opportunities.
Luke Naylor: Yeah, a lot of it wasn’t as well publicized, back then, as it is now, for sure. I don’t know. I didn’t turkey hunt initially. My dad didn’t turkey hunt. Nobody in my family turkey hunted. I was the first one who ever took to turkey hunting, by just begging my dad to take me. Of course, he did. I think he had a friend, who had grown up doing some duck hunting, who took him. I love the dog work of quail hunting. That’s fantastic. Dove hunting, of course, is just a great family experience. Maybe it’s the calling, the decoys, everything involved in trying to decoy waterfowl. All the different species of birds—I was drawn to that at an early age. Bird identification, waterfowl identification, is just something I kind of enjoyed at a young age. So maybe it was that, about duck hunting, that I got into.
Ramsey Russell: It’s the whole aura. It’s hard for me to articulate it, too. There’s no one thing. It’s like a relationship with this bird. The calling and the dogs and the ducks and the camaraderie and the shooting and the decoying. It’s just the whole thing.
Luke Naylor: Yeah, and it was sort of a downtime, if you will, when I was growing up in Kansas. In mid-October you could start doing some duck hunting. It was the second Saturday in November when quail and pheasant season came in. Our family didn’t do a whole lot of bow hunting for deer. We rifle hunted when that short season came in, after Thanksgiving, in Kansas. It was kind of a time when you could get out and hunt when a lot of other stuff wasn’t happening. Again, unless you’re a bow hunter. That’s, of course, different here, and it was different when I was out in California. It just was something else we could do, for two or three weekends there in October, before quail and pheasant season started. We had some pretty mild weather at that time. Lots of birds moving into the state. Then, of course, had got hooked on a lot of phenomenal, later-season duck hunts, as well.
Ramsey Russell: How long have you worked for Arkansas Game and Fish?
Luke Naylor: A little over thirteen years. I moved here right around the first of June in 2006.
Ramsey Russell: Was it a big cultural shock, coming from California to here?
Luke Naylor: It was. It felt a little bit more like going home, though. Growing up in Kansas, it’s a whole lot more of that middle-of-the-country feel. California is a different place.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a whole different vibe. But for people who’ve never been to California, it’s amazing how rural it can be in part, out in the agricultural country where the ducks are hanging out. It’s a very rural area.
Luke Naylor: Oh, yeah. I joke with people: you go deer hunting in California, in the hills, and you’ll see just as many rednecks as you see driving around in the Delta. I say that as, not a negative term, it’s just they’re good people. You don’t think about that. Nobody thinks about California as having that. I went up to northeast California for a duck hunt on some of those real famous refuges they have up there, and public wildlife areas. Man, you’re driving around with old pickup trucks and gun racks in the windows. Stuff I grew up seeing in Kansas that you didn’t see much if you went by the Bay Area, for example. You don’t see a whole lot of that. The duck hunting in California is just phenomenal. It’s phenomenal. Many times I remember seven greenheads, which is just crazy to think about back in the Central Mississippi Flyway.
Ramsey Russell: Without having to look for a game warden over the back of your trailer.
Luke Naylor: Yeah, it’s a totally different deal. It’s not about the numbers of birds. It’s just the quality of it. You could go out and have hunts where you shot seven greenheads. You could have a hunt where you shot seven birds and, literally, could have seven different species. Just a lot of variety out there. Lots of green-winged teal. One of the counties out there, I think it’s still the top green-winged teal harvest county in the nation. No offense to Louisiana, of course.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Well, I have heard that California produces more rice, second only to Arkansas. That’s the numbers I’ve heard.
Luke Naylor: Yeah. And theirs have gone up and down, too, with water. Big deal there is water. We’re here in the Arkansas Delta with groundwater concerns, but they got it out there with just overall availability. Drought. For a period of time there, it was a lot more financially appealing to a landowner to sell the water downstream to L.A. than it was to grow rice. Fortunately, there’s still a pretty good rice base there, and that’s helped like it has here in the Delta. Really kept things going for lots of years.
Ramsey Russell: Well, from Kansas to California to Arkansas. What is your title with Arkansas Game and Fish?
Luke Naylor: Waterfowl Program Coordinator.
Ramsey Russell: So you’re the guy.
Luke Naylor: Yeah, most people talk about the waterfowl biologist, duck biologist. It’s been called a bunch of different things over the years, but we kind of have this program coordinator title. So yeah, waterfowl program coordinator.
Ramsey Russell: What all resource concerns fall under your purview?
Luke Naylor: If it’s got to do with ducks or geese in the state, typically I’m involved somehow. That varies. That’s all sorts of degrees, right? Regulations each year, and stuff, that’s mainly kind of my thing. I’m almost flying solo with a team of advisors.
Ramsey Russell: And duck hunting in Arkansas is not a small program.
Luke Naylor: No, it’s big. It’s a big deal. You know, habitat work. We’ve got a wetland biologist and wetlands technician. You do, really, lead most of that. Then we’ve got a whole pile of wildlife management division staff who really do the work out there on all the wildlife management areas.
Need for Bottomland Forest Management, Improved Habitat, in Public Arkansas Greentree Reservoirs
It’s gradual changes in forest composition and in tree health…Desirable red oaks being replaced by overcup oaks, but that happens really gradually…start to see windthrow trees. By artificially putting water onto these areas and holding it for longer periods of times, more consecutive years in a row, the plant community begins to respond. Even though it may, topographically, be in higher elevation, it’s behaving or performing like a lower elevation. So you start getting those lower-quality species growing in there.
Ramsey Russell: I wanted to talk about the greentree reservoir management on Arkansas Wildlife Management Areas. Forest management, really. How, or when, did that evolve into a big deal? It’s like they weren’t doing any management at all, maybe twenty years ago, but now, all of a sudden, it really needs some work done. How did this evolve? How did that process, or topic, evolve?
Luke Naylor: Yeah, we’ve had probably a couple of big points where that’s ramped up. The most recent one of them was about three years ago, now, but it still feels kind of new. We had a little push, I would say, in the late 90’s, where folks first started to present to the commission. Said, “Hey, there’s some issues going on out there.”
Ramsey Russell: Were these private citizens?
Luke Naylor: No, these were a lot of folks.
Ramsey Russell: Biologists? Foresters? Agencies?
Luke Naylor: Agencies, biologists, and foresters. That’s right. Looked at it and said, “We’re seeing some changes in the forest out here. In these GTRs, especially. Bottomland hardwoods in general, but primarily in the greentree reservoirs. The managed bottomland hardwood, impounded water control structures, those sorts of things. Didn’t get a lot of traction, at that point. Then tried again in about 2007, kind of brought these concerns forward, and got a better start at it. I think, really, that 2007 effort kind of set us up for what we’re doing now, because it got the conversation front and center. We didn’t move it quite as far, as far as operationally, as what we’ve done this time. But at least we got it right in front of everybody. In the meantime, it was kind of waiting for the research to get there, too, because we had lots of— More than anecdotes, I guess.
Ramsey Russell: Basic forest management – go out there and do some inventory.
Luke Naylor: We’ve got some smart folks out there, right? There are a lot of foresters out there, a lot of our biologists. They’re sharp enough. We know what we’re seeing, but you know how the real world works. You kind of need to have some solid evidence behind what you’re recommending. During that whole time, there’s a long-term study going on, just right in our backyard, at Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge. They’d been looking at their greentree reservoir management and doing a long-term study of the changes in forest community and forest health because of, they think, greentree reservoir management.
Ramsey Russell: If you look at natural forested wetlands—and I know there’s some WMAs that have a lot of that here—the river jumps out of the bank. It comes and it goes. You’ve got wet years, you’ve got dry years. The flood duration varies, and, all of a sudden, you put a levee around it. Now you’ve got man induced flooding, plus or minus what the beavers or structure failures or anything else that runs the water off, plus the river jumping out and everything else. It’s like a whole other layer. Nonetheless, what I’m trying to say is, it’s artificial management. We try to mimic the natural cycle, but it’s artificial management. Now we’ve got the biological side, the forest management, relative to the trees and resources. But also we’ve got public use coming in. They’re voters, so we’ve got politicians becoming involved. Now, I’m jumping here, guys, I’m leaping along, but it’s not just biology. Now we’ve got this whole personal element pulled into it. Just so these guys listening, who may or may not know what we’re talking about— I’m a forester. You’re a wildlife biologist. What changes were the resource personnel beginning to see, out in those GTRs, that concerned them?
Luke Naylor: Yeah, so it’s stuff that happens where—most of the time—duck hunters going out sixty days of the season, in the winter, typically don’t notice. It’s gradual changes. Sometimes more rapid, but gradual changes in forest composition and in tree health. You start to see areas that had a lot of red oaks in them— willow oaks and Nuttall oaks are our primary red oaks we’ve gotten in these GTRs. That’s what mallards like. You got water oak, cherry bark, and some high ridges and things, but less common. So you’ve got, primarily, those two species. They’re the big duck food producing trees, and they are also just—I guess unfortunately, in this case—happen to be the ones that can take less water. So overcup oak—which produces an acorn that we hear a lot about from the public when they go out there and look at a particular area. It’s flooded, and they see acorns floating all over the place. You hear plenty of comments about how, “Man, this must be great for ducks. Look at all these acorns out here.” And all of those floating acorns aren’t worth a flip for ducks. They’re either an overcup, that 80% to 90% of them can’t even fit in their mouth, or they’re a non-viable red oak corn.
Ramsey Russell: Right. If it’s red oak, and it’s floating, you’ve got a problem.
Luke Naylor: So you’ve got to dig your hand under the water, dig in that leaf litter, to find any kind of duck food. So all of that was shifting. These red oaks are dying, being replaced by overcup oaks, but that happens really gradually. People start to see windthrow trees. An entire willow oak tree falling over, what’s left of the root wad attached. It’s easy to think, “Well, man. How could you not notice that?” But you go by—
Ramsey Russell: Because trees don’t grow like tomato plants.
Luke Naylor: No, and trees fall over. They do. That just happens naturally.
Bottomland hardwood forest management and natural habitat dynamics
Ramsey Russell: It’s what they call gap-phase regeneration. We throw out things like overcup acorns which, historically, grow down in the lowest place on the floodplain. Then you’ve got cherrybark oak, at the opposite end of the spectrum, that grows on the highest part of the floodplain. In between, you’ve got your willow oaks, your water oaks, and your Nuttalls. By artificially putting water onto these areas and holding it for longer periods of times, more consecutive years in a row, the plant community begins to respond. Even though it may, topographically, be in higher elevation, it’s behaving or performing like a lower elevation. So you start getting those lower-quality species growing in there.
Luke Naylor: Exactly. We talk about it as, you’re essentially moving overcups up the hill and pushing the red oaks way up. You’re kind of removing them.
Ramsey Russell: And to complicate things—because, heck, this is tornado country just like Kansas. Without timber thinnings, and without changing the light conditions— Because an oak tree, any oak tree, grows in fifty percent sunlight. It’s not a late-succession species. It’s a mid-succession species. By letting it just stay stagnant—well, a forest does what it does. It starts converting to very shade-tolerant species. Along comes a tornado and disturbs those conditions that have been too shaded for five decades, and all that’s going to regenerate in that gap is going to be shade-tolerant species like hop-hornbeams or elms or ashes. No, I might have thrown ashes in there too soon. But what’s not going to come in there is good red oak generation that your grandkids or your great-grandkids are going to see. Am I right?
Luke Naylor: You’ve right. Human nature is to want things consistent. Folks who developed GTRs back in the—well, by accident in the 30’s and 40’s, and then on purpose in the 50’s and 60’s, for ducks—it was well-meaning. Most of the MAV (Mississippi Alluvial Valley) forests had been lost, and they saw a need to provide habitat for ducks and these forested wetlands. It wasn’t because people wanted to leave us with something to do, sixty years down the road; they wanted to do the right thing for ducks and for duck hunters. The problem is, though, you end up sixty or seventy years down the road and have, essentially, done the same thing: focusing on providing annual waterfowl hunting opportunity. You do that for sixty years, and, all of a sudden, you look back and say, “Wait a minute. The whole thing’s changed.” Because you haven’t had a real long-term objective. To say, “Hey, our long-term goal here is to provide this habitat for the next hundred years. It’s not to make sure it’s flooded by ducks every day. It’s to make sure this habitat is sustainable.”
First and foremost, you just got to sustain this habitat. Then, of course, we’re not going to forget about duck hunters. We haven’t. These areas have been critically important areas for waterfowl hunting for decades. We hope to keep them that way, and we plan to keep them that way. It’s kind of this circular conversation. You really have to have those habitats, or you’re not going to have the waterfowl hunting opportunity. Again, you start to see these gradual changes, and hear people talk about, “Well, there’s not as many ducks out here as there used to be. Not as many ducks using these woods.” Well, there’s lots of reasons that could be, but ducks sure like good habitat. The food is not there, and you’ve got a bunch of eight to twelve-inch overcup oak regeneration, in all these places, that doesn’t let any herbaceous cover come in on the forest floor. It doesn’t produce an acorn that a duck really values. It’s a nice little thicket for them, when they need a loaf in January, and that’s not a problem.
Ramsey Russell: Good healthy canopies. Generate more leaf litter. Generate more invertebrate biomass. Or you’ll never end the cycle.
Luke Naylor: Those openings where you’re talking about tornadoes, now we have to—mostly, with the limited acreage we have—we’re doing that with forest management. We really need to do more of it, active forest management, to put that sunlight on the ground. Which just produces a phenomenal herbaceous growth, for a period of years, until the trees can take over. Then, yeah, they shade out the herbaceous stuff, but you’re talking five to ten years of some pretty good groceries and bug-producing plants being in that opening.
Ramsey Russell: Right. That’s a very good point.
Historic bottomland hardwood forest management in Arkansas WMA greentree reservoirs
Luke Naylor: On the forest management side of things, it’s been interesting. We’ve been in the process of reviewing all of these areas. We have nearly fifty individual GTRs. Over fifty thousand acres of them. We’ve been going around and individually conducting reviews at every WMA and looking at every GTR. A lot of differences, but a whole lot of similarities. That’s kind of forced folks to go back and look at the history of acquisition and early management of these places. Man, almost every one of them we’ve been to talks about the condition of the land when Game and Fish purchased it. Boy, we hear a lot of comments when a thinning operation is getting ready to start, and we start marking trees. Oh man. Boy, here come the emails and the phone calls, right? You know, “Don’t touch this. This is untouched timber. This is virgin timber, out here.” There’s no such thing. When these folks have gone back and looked at the history—we bought a bunch of this stuff, and the deeds had timber harvest attached to them. We bought the land, and they’re still coming in and cutting timber.
Ramsey Russell: Coming in and cutting that timber, right.
Luke Naylor: We’re talking diameter cuts. We’ve got one at Henry Gray Hurricane Lake, and I’m pretty sure—if I’m remembering correctly—that they had like twelve or fourteen inch diameter cuts. Every tree they wanted, they would take. So you think why we have red oaks now—yeah, it’s partly because those are the trees that are supposed to be there—but seventy, eighty years ago? There was a whole lot of sunlight put on the ground that created those conditions for the forest we have out there now, that is now being affected by the water management, and the lack of forest management, that’s happened since we purchased it. So a major forest management effort, whether we wanted it or not, when we first bought these things. Then, not a lot of forest management in these duck hunting areas for many, many years now, with the addition of water stress. So what you’ve got is a completely different forest community out there, right now, for all those different reasons.
Ramsey Russell: Certainly, it’s a lot of facets to this problem right here. On one hand, what’s good for the resource—without which, hunters don’t matter.
Luke Naylor: Right.
Ramsey Russell: Okay. So after the observations started coming in from the resource personnel that were out in the field, y’all started talking amongst the agency, amongst the other people. Where did you go from there? Okay, we’ve got this problem. You finally got it in front of the right audience—politically, I’m assuming. The politicians. Now what happens? You write a management plan?
A 2014 greentree reservoir assessments on Arkansas WMAs confirmed suspected decline in bottomland hardwood habitat quality. New greentree reservoir forest management policies developed.
Luke Naylor: Yeah, so we took a lot of time, and around 2014—well, the summer of 2014—we contracted to have forest health assessments completed on all of our GTRs. This is a kind of one shot in time deal, where we just went out and tried to assess forest health. Really focusing on those Nuttall oaks. We looked at all species, but really honed in our analysis and reporting on those primary species: willow, Nuttall, overcup. Because there’s differences there, as we’ve talked about. We did that in 2014. The results came back kind of like what we expected. This was all contracted out to private forestry companies. They did the work, sent us the data. We started looking at it, and the results were sort of what the literature and our observations would have predicted. Red oaks in bad shape. Overcup oaks in good shape and starting to become dominant in the forest. That’s a real short summary, there.
That, and the existing body of scientific literature out there that’s accumulated over the past twenty or thirty years—I spent a whole lot of time thinking I was back in school, which I never wanted to be. Going back, reviewing all this literature, and compiling it in a single document that looks at all the—not all, but all I could find, all I could dig up—existing literature about greentree reservoir and bottomland hardwood forest management. They all point the same direction. Doing it for years and years and years just changes the forest community, and it’s really not sustainable. We ended up taking that, then, to our commission. Continued to provide information to our directorate, and our commission, and just kind of bring them up to speed on what the issue was, what we were finding, and what we proposed we needed to do, moving forward. That culminated with changing our water management practices, our infrastructure management, starting with the 2017-2018 duck season. Now, I think one key, important point of that is—and biologists are pretty bad about this. We like to dig around in data and stuff, but sometimes aren’t all that great about communicating stuff. We could have just put ourselves in a box and said, “You know what? Well, we know what’s right, and we’re just going to do it. That’s that.” But because we communicated with our directorate and our commission, got them on board, we then did a major public information campaign.
In late February and March of 2017, we published a document reel. We’ve got a fantastic communications division in our agency, and they helped us take all that fifty pages of literature review I’d done and make it digestible. Because, yeah, people can understand all that fine, but they don’t want to read fifty pages of it. So we brought the key points into a real shiny, glossy publication that we then direct-mailed to every household in which a person had purchased a duck stamp at least once in the previous three seasons. So about a little over a hundred thousand households. We direct-mailed it. At that point, there really wasn’t a whole lot of people who shouldn’t have heard about it. Then we had a series of public meetings, and then we went to our commission and said, “Here’s what we need to do. We’re going to start a process of evaluating these. There’s going to be major infrastructure renovations.
First step, change when and for how long Arkansas greentree reservoirs are flooded
Forest management needs all sorts of stuff over what’s going to end up being a ten, twenty, thirty year timeline, here. But in the meantime, with our existing infrastructure, we need to set everything back. We know that we’re closing structures well before red oak dormancy, and we have to push that back. There’s just no more time to wait. We’ve got to do that now. Save what we can.” That’s the thing we can control, you know? We’ve heard a lot of feedback now about, “Well, look at all the spring and summer water,” and that’s absolutely correct. Spring and summer water are huge, but what are we going to do right now about that? What we could do, immediately, is just change when we close the structures. Change when we drop the board. So, by and large, we moved them back about a month. Most of our GTRs were an October 15th board-up date. Now, the majority of them are November 15th. A couple of them in far south Arkansas are December 1st. We had board-up dates as early as October 1st, in some of these places. Again, through these reviews, you go back and hear about what happened historically— Well, when rice used to come off in September and October, that was a whole lot of water. Man, that’s free water. Let’s just take that and flood our woods, you know?
A lot of private landowners are in the same situation we are. We’re not alone on this deal. There’s a lot of private GTR managers who are facing the same issues because, man, that free water was sure appealing in September and October. So you go back and talk to folks with some history, and they say, “Oh yeah, man, that GTR— We’d take all of that rice water in September. We’d be lipping full the first week of October.” There’s a whole lot of green red oak leaves in October and, honestly, through about the better part of November. Maybe even early December, in a lot of years. Especially for willow oaks. So we control what we can control, right off the top, which was that board update. This is the third year that we’ve implemented that. Now, in the meantime, we’re looking at, “Okay, how do we do better in the long run? How do we get that spring and summer water moving through the system?” My kind of new mantra in this whole thing is: we got to move forward thinking about how we move water, not how we hold water. Because you can look back at the way the infrastructure is on these places—and again, well-meaning people, managers who were doing what they thought was the right thing at the time—and you go to an area and you get sixty or seventy water control structures on an area. I’m including earthen plugs as water control structures. Man, that’s a lot.
You can picture what these guys were doing. Any time water would be moving through the system, and then it’s duck season and somebody calls them. Comes up to the office and says, “Man, there’s water coming out right here.” “Okay. All right. I’ll get on that.” So what happens? They go in and put an earthen plug in. Next summer, they go put a structure right there, right? Because they’re trying to do everything they can to not let water move through that area during duck season. To let it all part there. Well, now that it seems like spring and summer flooding is a whole lot bigger deal than what it was— Now, all those places? That’s the same place water is just backing up and stagnating, all during those spring and summer months. Nowhere to move. Again, people thought they were doing right. Managers on the ground did not have commission-level support to say, “No, we’re not going to do that. We want water to be moving through these systems. If it’s flowing out of a slough here, that’s a good thing.” Those people back thirty or forty years ago didn’t have the support at the highest level to do that. We do now.
Ramsey Russell: Forest management science has come a long way since back in the 50’s. We know a lot more than we did then. We know what’s good for the hardwoods and the natural cycles of mimicking and stuff like that. It’s a complicated time, isn’t it?
Luke Naylor: It is. But the information is power, in this case, right? We know a lot more than we used to.
Public lands hunter complaints about greentree reservoir management activities on Arkansas WMAs?
Ramsey Russell: Well, what is the number one complaint you seem to hear in response to good, sound forest management in greentree reservoirs?
Luke Naylor: “Don’t cut my tree.” As far as the forest management side of things, we hear a lot of feedback that, “Man, you’re clear-cutting this spot,” and we haven’t clear-cut anything. They do it in industrial pine country, but on WMA lands we haven’t clear-cut anything in I don’t know how long. But we are moving towards these desired forest conditions type-thing where it’s an uneven-aged management. You may find an opening and market to kind of grow that opening. Build off an existing, semi-natural opening and build out from that. Make that your regeneration area. That opening, you may grow that to a couple acres size, for example. But then there will be a thicket, right? For a little while, and then you’ll see another patch like that. Another opening.
Ramsey Russell: Very patchy, thin densities across the forest.
Luke Naylor: The guys who have gone out there and spent a lot of time with our foresters out there, they kind of say, “From one opening, you ought to look through some denser stuff—a little thicker understory—you ought to be able to kind of see that next opening through that.” Clear-cut, of course, you’d be able to see clean through it, right? People see any tree cut at all, and it’s quickly characterized as, “Well, you’re clear-cutting.”
Necessary forest management harvesting practices are aesthetically unattractive
It’s ugly. People don’t like to see the equipment, see a tree that they like to lean against with paint on it. It’s just a natural inclination to be kind of angry about that, right? They’re going to cut the tree that I lean up against. It does feel personal. Our job, though, is to take the personal out of it. Our job is to look at long term forest habitat health, look at the entire system, and try to make the best decision we can for the long run.
Ramsey Russell: Forest management is ugly. We did a cut on our personal property over in Warren County, Mississippi, and you walk out through that timber and see all the pink paint. You’re like, “Holy cow, there’s going to be nothing left.” Then for four or five years after the cut, it’s ugly. There’s nothing attractive about it. Nothing aesthetic about it. But at the same time, you walk through seven or eight years later, and you start to see all these red oaks coming up. The woods settle down, the paint goes away, and the forest begins to behave and do what it’s supposed to be doing, as a forest. And you say, “Oh, wait a minute. This is pretty dang nice.”
Luke Naylor: It worked out. Also, I think a few people—we don’t hear from these folks quite as much—but you see a few of these places that do a timber cut like that, then all of a sudden, a couple years later, people are killing a lot of ducks in those places. A lot of deer bending those thickets. Lots of things happening, when you put that diversity back into it. I’m not a forester by training, but we have a lot of folks, of course, on our staff, and partners we’re working with on our reviews, who have a lot of experience in that. As a public land duck hunter, in access—
Ramsey Russell: And you are a public land duck hunter?
Luke Naylor: Yeah. Oh, yeah. That’s what I do. I’m on private land a couple times a year. A lot of goose hunting on private land, of course, because that’s where they are. We don’t have any of those on public land, generally. But, yeah, public land duck hunter. Access is an issue, right? People see it. It’s messy out there after a timber harvesting. Well, I walk in some of these GTRs now, though, and I look at them and say, “Well, I can’t look a hundred yards in any direction without seeing a twenty to forty inch red oak on the ground, and all the large, dead limbs on the ground.” That’s not hard to get through? That’s some navigation issues there, too, and that’s all because we haven’t been doing proper management, that that stuff is falling like that. It’s messy. It’s just not a clean system, and it’s never going to be. Whether, if we’re managing it right, we’re going to have timber harvest out there that’s going to create what looks like a messy situation—as you describe—for a few years. But by and large? Yeah, you get past five, seven, eight years, and you kind of almost forget that it happened. Because the forest starts to take on that different look to it. Man, yeah, it’s ugly. People don’t like to see the equipment, see a tree that they like to lean against with paint on it. It’s just a natural inclination to be kind of angry about that, right? They’re going to cut the tree that I lean up against. It does feel personal.
Our job, though, is to take the personal out of it. Our job is to look at the long term forest habitat health, look at the entire system, and try to make the best decision we can for the long run. That’s hard for folks. I understand that, as a public land duck hunter. We were talking here, before we came on, about this opening weekend. Part of it’s because I’ve been visiting family most holiday weekends since I lived here—that’s back in Kansas, by and large—but as for the first part of duck season, as a public land duck hunter for the thirteen years I’ve been here, I generally don’t get all that excited about it. Because habitat conditions are highly unpredictable. It’s variable.
Now, with our GTR management stuff, we know we’re generally not going to have a whole lot of water in those places, by design. It’s kind of a “sit back and wait.” I’ll get wound up about it when the second segment comes in, in mid-December. That last fifty days is when public land duck hunters really make some hay. That’s not to say there haven’t been some good duck hunts this opening weekend, because I’ve heard there have been. But you kind of have to get that long-term vision. I guess it’s been a little bit surprising—in a really good way—with this third year. It’s almost like this is just the way we do it now. With this later board-up date.
Communicating with public stakeholders on Arkansas greentree reservoir management
Ramsey Russell: So a lot of the uproar and fury just kind of calmed down a little bit.
Luke Naylor: Yeah. We still got tons of room to keep the information flow going, keep communicating with people. We’re never going to stop doing that when we say, “Hey, here’s how we’re going to redesign this particular GTR.” Getting very local-scale on this. We’re going to go out and meet with the local hunters and say, “Hey, here’s what we have in mind for this area.” Now, it’s been a big picture, overall, long-term concepts. It’s kind of big-scale stuff, but we’re going to be getting down more in the weeds, if you will.
Ramsey Russell: I think it’s so admirable that a state agency that has sovereignty over this resource is nonetheless inviting public stakeholder input to help them craft the policy. That’s very transparent. Wow, what a great concept that is, to get the public involved. How would the local stakeholders, the local hunters, become involved? How would they know that this is coming? Where would you post that information? How would they know to get involved with this?
Luke Naylor: Yeah, lots of different sources now, right? Lots of electronic ways of communicating with people. Again, we’ve got a great communications staff. One of the first areas we may work on is Bayou De View, for example. It’s up by Weiner. Kind of getting close to northeast Arkansas, not way up there. We’ve got a couple of grants in the pipe right now, in cooperation with Ducks Unlimited, to try to start doing some infrastructure work on that place. So we’d hit local newspapers. We’d put stuff out. We don’t have a lot of big information kiosks on WMAs anymore because they typically end up as targets. Typically not from hunters, I don’t think, it’s all the other ten months out of the year usage. We get email stuff. We got a big list of people who take our weekly waterfowl habitat report. So you send it out to all those people, you send it out on our general weekly newsletter. You do social media pushes to get word-of-mouth type stuff out there. At that place, when we get some plans conceptualized here and get some kind of— We got concepts, and we’re working now on engineering designs where people could actually wrap their head around, “Okay, here’s what it’s going to look like.” Here’s what we’re proposing it would look like.
That’s when you call a meeting with the public and say, “Hey, here’s what we’ve got in mind. Here’s what we’re thinking, and here’s why we’re doing this. Move water through here, move water through here.” That type of stuff. “Change this levee here.” Let people ask a lot of questions, at that point, about the why’s and wherefore’s of what we’re doing. Dispel myths that may be out there about why we’re doing it. Get the information. Hear it from the horse’s mouth, if you will. Look us in the eye, and we’re going to tell you, right now, what we’ve got planned. Let’s have some conversation, right now. Because even with the messaging we’ve done so far, it’s amazing. I had multiple people this year say, “Well, this is going to be a dry year by a meter, right? This is going to be the dry year where you just leave all the structures open.” I said, “No, we haven’t proposed a ‘dry year’ for any GTR, yet. An unmanaged year.” Now, we talked about how, long-term, with new infrastructure, we would have much more adaptable management plans that aren’t just November 15th, and that’s it. Because that’s what we did for sixty years. Just pick one date and go with it. We’d be kind of foolish to do that again.
Ramsey Russell: Trying to imitate that natural cycle.
Luke Naylor: It’s interesting to hear. I talked to one individual who said, “Yeah, this is the dry year, right?” I said, “No, where’d you hear that?” He said, “Oh, down here at the coffee shop, man. I’ve heard three or four people telling me that today.”
Ramsey Russell: Probably just trying to keep out-of-staters away.
Luke Naylor: Maybe. I said, “Look, here’s the deal. If that’s happening, I sure hope that you don’t hear it first from the coffee shop.” I said, “We’re going to be screaming that from the rafters. If we’re going to leave the boards open at Bayou Meto, you won’t hear about it from the coffee shop first. I sure hope. We’ll be telling a lot of people about it.” It’s just that information exchange, man, and not being scared of it. We’ve taken a lot of very tough questions, had a lot of really good feedback from the public. These folks aren’t uninformed at all. There’s a lot of very informed questions. We talked about the spring and summer flooding. As soon as we start talking about changing things in the fall—which feels like a direct impact on the public land hunter—immediately it’s, “What are you doing about the spring and summer?” Which is good. But it’s lots of real well-founded questions. Hard questions. “Hey, what are you going to do? This is the biggest stressor.” All we can tell them is, “Yeah. We agree. That is a huge stressor, but there’s a lot of other factors involved in fixing that, and, generally, we aren’t the primary responsible authority on some of those big issues like that. Some we have more influence than others.” Just keeping the public informed. We’re working towards, we think—at the end of this duck season, so it would be in 2020, three years after that one primary informational document we mailed out—we’re planning to repeat that. Not the same one and just mail out again, but take that same concept of a four, five, six page, shiny, easy-to-read document that kind of tells people where we were and where we’ve been in the last three years since we sent it out. Mail that out again to every duck stamp holder.
How many acres public greentree reservoir in Arkansas?
…represents a huge percent of high-quality public hunting opportunity for waterfowl in flooded timber in Arkansas.
Ramsey Russell: Updates. Let them know. I didn’t ask you this question, Luke— How many acres of public GTR approximately, in Arkansas?
Luke Naylor: Little over fifty thousand. It really depends on how you draw that line, right? It’s funny because people talk about 50 or 51 or 52, and I don’t get too wound up in that because, if you look at elevation information that we have now, and our structure elevations—
Ramsey Russell: We’re not talking about naturally flowing, we’re talking about under a levee. Behind a levee.
Luke Naylor: These are what we think the mean sea level of our infrastructure, the maximum that can hold water, is this. That’s a little over fifty thousand. But we do know that—you take a place like Bayou Meto. You might draw a line—a polygon, if you will—for a GTR at a certain MSL. That’s where our infrastructure maxes out. That’s it. That’s all we can do. But we know that when a four inch rain hits Jacksonville, that water is coming down that watershed, and it’s a lot bigger. Yeah, our infrastructure isn’t that high, but we know—because we’ve got all this water stacked up in there already—that we are influencing a larger area. Which can be a good thing because we provide some duck habitat and some duck hunting opportunity above our management pool, if you will. We’re really influencing more than that fifty thousand. But that number, again, it probably moves around a lot depending on the year. That’s something we keep bringing back to the public and our directorate and commission—in the grand scheme of things, fifty thousand acres in a twenty-something million acre delta—
Ramsey Russell: That fifty thousand acres represents a huge percent of high-quality public hunting opportunity for waterfowl in flooded timber in Arkansas. A lot of the Delta is clear.
Luke Naylor: You said it right there. High-quality waterfowl hunting opportunity on public land. That’s our long-term objective, right? If we can’t keep that true fifty years from now— We kind of see, as managers in a managing agency right now, we’ve got the trust and responsibility to take care of that stuff. If we don’t, shame on us.
Timeline for Managing Public Arkansas Greentree Reservoirs
We’re not going to see these positive changes overnight. This is setting it up so my eight year old will come out there, fifty years from now, and be able to hunt in these places.
Ramsey Russell: Real quick, how far along are you into the forest management of the total fifty thousand acres? How long do you think it’ll take to run the whole first cycle of touch-ups, to turn to timber management?
Luke Naylor: Yeah. So here’s what we’re doing. We’re working on infrastructure first, generally speaking, before trying to work with our forest management folks on, “Okay, can we prescribe forest management activities on this place? Do we think we’ve got the water right enough? Maybe not perfect, but do we think we have the water that we can be successful in a forest management activity?” If we know we can’t get the water off of a place, there’s probably no sense in going in and doing a cut when we know that what red oaks do regenerate aren’t going to have a great chance of making it, unless we just happen to hit three or four dry years in a row.
Now, one example: Sheffield Nelson Dagmar Wildlife Management Area, it’s just kind of by Brinkley, right in the central Delta. Before all this happened, or simultaneously, there was a timber harvest prescribed there. Marked. It was done, and it’s within one of the GTRs. Amazing red oak regeneration. Phenomenal. So the forest management team came back to us and our Wildlife Management Administration and said, “Hey, we really need to leave this GTR open. We think we’ve got a great red oak stand, here. Young trees.” I forget the numbers, but it was six or eight hundred stems per acre of hardwood regeneration. So that’s success, right? We went to the public last year and went, again, to our administration. I said, “Hey, we need to make this decision with infrastructure management because of what’s happening with this regeneration.” Supported us, said, “Okay, we’ll leave it open.” So, yeah, it flooded. It provided duck hunting opportunity and duck habitat, but we never artificially kept the water stacked up in the system. This year, I think they went in, and it was a thousand stems per acre. So we’re going to leave it open again.
On the other hand, we had a major timber die-off in the south GTR of Henry Gray Hurricane Lake. Our forest management folks quickly responded to that and said, “Hey, we’ve got some plans. Here’s what we need to do.” This is immediate urgency because this is—I’m talking Nuttall oaks, thirty- or forty-inch trees, greened up summer of 2018—and then with a crown of brown leaves by early September. Not good at all. We’re talking a brown-out. Said, “Call it,” Right? It was just done. Really bad. About doubled, this summer. They have plans, of course, to say, “Okay, here’s what we need to do with regeneration, with planting.” But we kind of all talked and said, “Well, we don’t have the water fixed yet. We don’t have any way to get that water out of the south GTR.” So immediately we went to work planning infrastructure renovations (see 2020-2021 GTR Infrastructure Operation Plans, refer to AGFC website for updates), and we actually went to administration again. We said, “We will not close any water control structures on the south GTR.” Essentially, the south GTR isn’t a GTR anymore. We’re not going to close any structures, but we have some major plans, in development, to essentially reconnect that whole GTR, that whole land area there. There’s about four or five places where there’s no flow through. Old sloughs have just been cut off by roads and various structures over the years. We’re going to fix all that the best we can, so water moves in and out of there as freely as it can. Not manage that as a GTR anymore. When that’s done, boom, we’ll move in with the forest management practices, knowing that we can see that soil profile dry up. Get it manageable before we manage it. Yeah, it’s a balancing act, as I’m sure you well know. You let that sit there for a little bit. You got a lot of sunlight on the ground right now. So what’s going to be in there— Chances are, your forest restoration practices get a little more complicated, little more costly, because you’ve got something in there you’ve got to get rid of, now, before you go in and try to reset it. But we think long term that will be most successful.
Ramsey Russell: Have you got any parting shots? Have you got any last thoughts, or comments, you’d like to tell the listeners?
Luke Naylor: Yeah. Just bear with us and stick with us. That’s all you can say. I know this is a long-term effort. A lot of us right now in that ten to twenty year phase in our career are kind of like, “Man, if we pull this off by the time we’re all retired, we’ll call that a success.” This is not something that is going to change overnight. We’re not going to see these positive changes overnight. This is setting it up so my eight year old will come out there, fifty years from now, and be able to hunt in these places.
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely. Absolutely. The way I look at it, it’s not us, the duck hunters, versus y’all—or state or federal or anybody’s agency. We’re all in this same lifeboat together. Everybody’s trying to do the best they can to produce an abundance of waterfowl. I’ve always marveled at the difference in a birdwatcher versus a duck hunter, because a birdwatcher’s just happy to see one or two birds and we want to see a sky full. That takes quality habitats.
Luke Naylor: It sure does.
Ramsey Russell: It sure does. Luke, I very much thank you for being here. Folks, thank y’all for listening. Again, I’m with Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Waterfowl Program Coordinator Luke Naylor. If you’ve got any questions regarding this topic, don’t hesitate to shoot me a text or shoot me an inbox or shoot me an email. Or contact Luke Naylor. As you heard throughout the podcast, Arkansas Game and Fish invites the hunter, as a stakeholder, into the conversation. Thank y’all.