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Exploring the White River Refuge with biologist Matt Moran

Where you'll find the largest bottomland hardwood forest in the lower Mississippi River Valley.

By Benjamin Hardy

Deep in the Delta, just a few miles north of where the White and the Arkansas rivers merge and pour into the Mississippi, you'll find the largest tree in the state. Arkansas's champion bald cypress stands 120 feet high with a circumference of 514 inches, big enough for seven tree huggers to wrap themselves around it. That's not accounting for the retinue of "knees" that crowd the cypress' base, some of them taller than a person.

Mighty though it is, the cypress is just the most prominent citizen in a vast woodland community hugging the lower White as it winds a course between Monroe, Arkansas and Phillips counties. This is the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge, a sinuous island of bottomland hardwood forest rising from a sea of cotton, soybeans, rice and other row crops. At 160,000 acres, it's the largest such forest to be found anywhere in the lower Mississippi River Valley and one of the last remaining pieces of a world almost entirely lost to agriculture.

Hunters and fishermen know the refuge is one of the great natural jewels of the state, as do birdwatchers. But somehow, it's been neglected by most of the thousands of hikers and casual nature lovers who flock to the Ozarks and the Ouachita Mountains. Dr. Matt Moran, a biology professor at Hendrix College in Conway, has written a field guide that aims to change that.

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