Deforestation is the conversion of timbered lands into one or more non-forest uses. A classical example of deforestation in Arkansas is the clearing of the forests of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain to plant fields of rice, cotton, soybeans, corn, wheat, and other crops. According to this technical definition, the logging of forests (even the clearcutting of native, natural-origin forests and their subsequent replacement with pine plantations) is not deforestation since the land is still in some kind of forested state.
In most cases, deforestation is a human-mediated process. The two primary reasons behind deforestation—agricultural conversion and urbanization—are not new to Arkansas. Native Americans cleared forests to build their communities and sow crops at least as early as the Late Archaic Period. This prehistoric deforestation reached its zenith in the Late Mississippian Period, when thousands of Native Americans felled bottomland hardwood forests to build large villages and plant extensive fields of corn, beans, and squash. In 1541–1542, the chroniclers of the Hernando de Soto expedition provided clear evidence of the deforestation of northeastern Arkansas, describing long days of travel through farmed fields within sight of multiple villages scattered miles apart. The collapse in Native American populations immediately after de Soto’s expedition produced the opposite of deforestation—a process known as “afforestation.”
The relatively limited human populations in Arkansas between de Soto’s expedition and the beginning of the nineteenth century affected only a small fraction of what the Mississippian peoples had cleared. According to the best estimates, about 32 million acres (approximately ninety-six percent) of the state was forested around the time of the Louisiana Purchase. Prior to the Civil War, large-scale agriculture reappeared along the major river corridors in Arkansas. Nationwide, rapid population growth in the mid- to late nineteenth century accompanied a dramatic expansion of commercial lumbering and agricultural land clearing. By 1910, Arkansas forest cover had declined to an estimated 24 million acres, and only 20 million acres remained by the start of World War II. Most of the farms on the uplands eventually failed and gradually returned to forest. However, every year, tens of thousands of acres of forest in the major river valleys were being cleared for farmland during the mid-twentieth century. This deforestation sustained a statewide decline in total forest coverage (to less than 17 million acres) well into the 1970s. Since 1980, forest cover has increased modestly to about 18.3 million acres, a gradual trend that is expected to continue into the twenty-first century as more former agricultural lands are reforested.
For many years, deforestation was not considered an environmental problem but rather a goal to be achieved and was supported by numerous programs that treated forests as a resource to be exploited as quickly and cheaply as possible. Forest conservation efforts gained momentum in the 1920s, however, with private citizens, government agencies, and even some lumber companies working to recover many of the denuded landscapes of Arkansas. For example, reforesting large parts of the state was one of the two primary goals of the nascent Arkansas State Forestry Commission. Not everybody supported this effort, however. For instance, Gaston Percy George, a Hamburg (Ashley County) newspaper editor and businessman, wrote a number of vitriolic editorials in the Ashley County Leader against what he called “the pine tree menace.” In one such commentary, George proclaimed: “This timber culture, Forest Conservation, and timber famine are all bunk and should be relegated to the junk pile where it belongs. Two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time—Pine trees cannot grow on lands needed for homes for our people….Are we afraid to move? Do you prefer forest and wild life to that of happy families located on prosperous farms?”
George vehemently opposed the reforestation efforts of the timber industry and government agencies because he believed agriculture and settlement were higher and better uses of the land. Fortunately, his efforts failed to sway public opinion, and the tide of deforestation in Arkansas forests gradually turned as economics and site conditions helped dictate which lands would remain in farms and which would revert back to forest. According to the most recent statewide forest inventory, the counties along the Mississippi River have the lowest forest cover (led by Mississippi County, with only four percent forest cover), while most of the West Gulf Coastal Plain and Ouachita Mountain counties are still at least seventy-five percent forested (and some as much as ninety percent).
Today, most deforestation in Arkansas arises from development and urbanization. However, significant natural events such as major climate change or geological processes can also lead to deforestation. For example, there is considerable evidence in the paleorecord of large-scale shifts in the climate of Arkansas during the Holocene when the region became significantly drier and warmer, which in turn helped to change forests into persistent prairies. Earthquakes have also caused lands in the Mississippi Alluvial Plain to subside enough in places to permanently convert low-lying bottomland hardwood and cypress forests into open-water lakes (for example, Big Lake in northeastern Arkansas and Reelfoot Lake in western Tennessee).
For additional information:
Bragg, Don C. “Percy George and The Pine Tree Menace.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 69 (Winter 2010): 346–367.
Delcourt, Hazel R., Paul A. Delcourt, and P. D. Royall. “Late Quaternary Vegetational History of the Western Lowlands.” In Sloan: A Paleoindian Dalton Cemetery in Arkansas, edited by Dan F. Morse. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1997.
George, Gaston Percy. The Pine Tree Menace. Hamburg, AR: 1928.
Harrison, Robert W. “Clearing Land in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 13 (Winter 1954): 352–371.
Helms, John A., ed. The Dictionary of Forestry. Bethesda, MD: The Society of American Foresters, 1998.
Lang, Fred H. “Two Decades of State Forestry in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 24 (Autumn 1965): 208–219.
Rosson, James F., and Anita K. Rose. Arkansas’ Forests, 2005. General Technical Report SRS-166. Asheville, NC: USDA Forest Service, Southern Research Station, 2010.
Wear, David N., and John G. Greis, eds. Southern Forest Resource Assessment. General Technical Report SRS-53. Asheville, NC: USDA Forest Service, Southern Research Station, 2002.
Don C. Bragg
USDA Forest Service
Southern Research Station
Last Updated: 03/12/2012