In late April, rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas’ “Big Woods” was celebrated around the world. But in at least one area of the state, the celebration carried a hint of bewilderment.

“It was exciting,” recounted Tom Fortner of the bird sighting. “It’s just great it was found around here. But it was a funny thing to throw into the mix, you know? In a million years, who could have expected that?”

New player

Only weeks earlier, Fortner, deputy director of the White River Irrigation District, said contracts had been signed and ground would soon be broken on a White River pumping station. Part of a $300 million Army Corps of Engineers-backed project, the station would pull water from the river and, through a series of canals and pipes, deliver irrigation water to some 900 Grand Prairie rice farms.

The White River is also intimately connected with the White River Refuge, a vast swatch of largely undisturbed — and often flooded — old-growth timber. Within this primordial maze the ivory-billed woodpecker has survived.

Fortner has “never thought” discovery of the bird would impact the irrigation project. Except for the pumping plant, he said, the project is to be built on high ground and cropland. He also points to “comprehensive environmental impact studies” showing the project’s effect on the White River wetlands will be “insignificant.”

Nevertheless, despite a crew being on-site in dry conditions, a date for the pumping station ground-breaking is yet to be set.

“On (May 12), we met with reps from the Corps of Engineers. They said the best thing to do is a biological assessment regarding the woodpecker. They’re going to see if the bird will be impacted at all by this project.”

The assessment, Fortner said, can be largely accomplished “with existing data. They don’t expect it will take long before they turn it in for review — within a couple of weeks it should be done. That assessment will be reviewed by other appropriate government agencies.”

In the meantime, the pumping station contractor “has been asked to rearrange his schedule. Any activity like tree removal is being put off prior to the assessment. The contractor has begun to do a little surveying. They’ve gotten flags planted, soil borings and preliminary work like that.”

Better to get the assessment out of the way, figures Fortner. “Sooner or later, we’d have to do it anyway. And if we don’t do it now, it would probably be a bigger wrench thrown into the system later. It was prudent to go ahead and get this done now. It’s easier to do it before the concrete is poured.”

How far is the pumping station from where the woodpecker was spotted?

“As the crow flies, it’s 16 miles.”

And in this corner…

Coincidentally, the sighting point is also 16 miles from the Clarendon, Ark., office of attorney and conservationist, David Carruth.

“I haven’t seen it. But folks know what to look for now. There are rumors from good sources the bird has been spotted both north and south of town,” said Carruth, who has also served as president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation (AWF) for the past three years.

Over the last few years, citing fears the Big Woods will be harmed by removing water from the White River, the AWF has repeatedly tried to shut down the irrigation project. In the last few months, the organization has lost several court challenges related to the project. Despite the losses, Carruth insists project opposition was never vulnerable.

“The fight against this has so many facets, and we’ve been successful on many of them. I’m not being a spin-doctor saying that. Most importantly, the project isn’t getting significant federal appropriations to move forward. We’ve been winning the funding battle — and it’s a tough thing because we have to win it every year.”

While Carruth said farmers on the Grand Prairie are increasingly split on the project’s benefits, “to a man, all want the option for help with tailwater ditches and reservoirs. And that’s fine — we support every farmer — every farmer — in the state having funding for more efficient use of groundwater.”

The golden goose?

Even with extensive contacts, Carruth had no inkling the woodpecker had been found until a day prior to the announcement.

“Setting aside the appreciation and euphoria of the bird’s aesthetic appeal and the resurrection of a supposedly extinct species, this shows me this habitat is unique and untouched enough to support this woodpecker. We have at least protected this refuge enough to keep this environmentally hyper-sensitive bird. If this bird survived, then the habitat is also protected for other species. What else is there to be found?”

Municipalities along the White River could reap financial benefits from birdwatchers wanting a glimpse of the woodpecker. Several years ago, Clarendon actually looked at the tourist/birder potential of the area.

“We had birders inform us of the huge resource in the refuge bottomlands with so many migratory birds coming through. It’s not just ducks and geese. So many birds — warblers, waxwings, so many birds I’ve never heard of — come though in massive waves. It’s amazing to see how many small songbirds — as well as bigger birds like kites and bald eagles — are in the bottoms.”

In a commissioned study the city was told, “A bird-watching industry would begin generating between $50,000 and $125,000 gross annually for the first couple of years. If managed properly, within five years, it could be a cottage industry worth $500,000 to $750,000 for the city. And that was without ramping it up. The consultant said if we focus and build it properly, it could bring in $2 million to $3 million annually. Those figures are all before the woodpecker.”

The consultant, said Carruth, envisioned locals taking birders on two-hour pontoon boat tours for $35 to $50 per person.

“Just float around the bottoms and let them point their binoculars around. Now, with the woodpecker, you might be able to charge $75 to $100 per person. And instead of having 20 birders avail themselves of the guide service, you’ll have many more. Anyone in position to do tours right now — on a party barge holding eight folks at a time — could stay busy on weekends from dawn to dark.”

A rallying point

Carruth also said the woodpecker’s value to the irrigation project’s opposition “is invaluable. It will bring many more people to our side. Not that it will convert anyone’s views, but it will bring more into the issue because they care about the bird.”

To insure the woodpecker is protected, the AWF has asked the Fish and Wildlife Service for a Section 7 evaluation under the Endangered Species Act. Carruth said the service is mandated by law to do the evaluation.

“The bird has taken this from a local/state issue over an irrigation project to a national — maybe international — matter involving a bird once thought extinct. The bird is a huge dividend for us as a rallying point. You can’t buy that kind of publicity.”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com