As we approached a bridge on the rumbling green river, I concentrated all my senses to my ears. After all, we were about to cross the Singing River. Legend has it that a low humming sounds rise from the Pascagoula River[i], heard only by a few. Poignant stories of love and loss are interwoven into the sounds of the river.
I did not hear the river sing. But maybe, what I experienced was more magical than a Singing River.
Running for 130 kms through the Gulf Coastal plain in southeastern Mississippi and southwestern Alabama, Pascagoula is the largest undammed, free-flowing river (by volume) in the continental United States.[ii] The Pascagoula watershed is largely forested: a rich mosaic of salt marshes at the mouth, leading up to dense emerald Cypress-Tupelo swamps to pine savannahs where one can hear joyous calls of the rare Mississippi Sandhill Crane.
Its streams provide habitat for rare plants and animals from the headwaters to the tidally-influenced marshes downstream. The river has astounding biodiversity and is home to endemic species like the Pearl darter and Yellow botched-map turtle, which is found nowhere but the Pascagoula drainage. As a natural estuary, the river hosts abundant animal life including over 22 threatened and endangered species and over 300 plant species. Birds enthusiasts call it the “Interstate Highway” for birds. Two-thirds of all the Eastern breeding migratory birds use the Pascagoula River and its marshes as a resting point. Its banks hold many notable archaeological sites, native American burial sites dating back to 7000 years, historic locations and economic treasures.[iii]
People in the basin are fiercely proud of their River as a part of their Heritage. “Singing River” moniker is ubiquitous from motels to grocery stores.
But apart from the socio-ecological treasure trove that it is, one more thing distinguishes the river. Pascagoula is not only the largest free flowing river in the contiguous United States: It is also almost entirely protected throughout its length. Add to that, the biodiversity-rich riparian banks of the Pascagoula are protected too!
A free-flowing river is not just an unhindered channel of flowing water. That would be a canal. A river is a living system with connections at nearly all realms: vertical, temporal, lateral and longitudinal. This longitudinal connectivity of the river with its floodplains and riparian corridors is the key to features like buffering against floods and droughts, biodiversity, water quality and temperature regulation, etc.
If we add all these things together, Pascagoula maybe one of the most unique river systems in the world.
We were fortunate to be introduced to the river by Becky Lumpkin Stowe, Director of the Forests Program of The Nature Conservancy and instrumental in protecting Pascagoula. Becky has spent most of her life on the banks of river and like a true river lover, she has a story to tell about each turn and riffle of the river, about the gardenias that grow on the banks, about a fisherman who welcomes anyone to his riverside home and talks about the river. It will be an understatement to say that Becky is passionate about Pascagoula. She carries with her a silent, satiated sense of belonging to a place. To someone like me who has come thousands of miles from her native rivers, it is a feeling I know and miss so much.
The story she told us of how Pascagoula was protected and how the struggle continues till date was inspirational. In the words of celebrated naturalist E.O. Wilson, struggle to conserve Pascagoula was a “Grassroot Epic in which Mississippians worked together to protect one of the jewels of America Natural environment.” The tale has “several heroes, no great villains, and a happy ending”.[iv]
In the United States, efforts have been made since the 1960’s to protect free flowing rivers or stretches with various objectives. This protection was legally enshrined in the iconic Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, 1968.[v] This month, United States celebrates 50th Anniversary of Wild and Scenic Rivers Act which protects about 12,000 miles of rivers in the country under a nuanced classification of Wild, Scenic and Recreational. An effort celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act aims to add 5000 miles of protected rivers just this year.[vi]
Today, the Act provides inspiration to many countries, faraway from the US, with diverse challenges and opportunities, but a will to protect last remaining free flowing rivers.[vii]
At the same time, even in the United States, there are very few rivers which are entirely free flowing.
Free flowing rivers, which retain the connection of the source to the sea have become so rare, that if they were a specie, they would be facing extinction. Today only 21 rivers over 1000 kms retain their connection to the sea.[viii] We have nearly lost our ability to study the benefits of a healthy, free flowing river, because so few remain in the world!
Free flowing, undammed rivers with intact riparian areas provide astonishing range of ecosystem goods and services for the human and non-human world. Just some of it include Climate change mitigation, provision of clean water, buffering from floods and droughts, sustainability, diverse biodiversity, vibrant social and cultural values, healthier societies, cleaner and healthier deltas and seas.
Of the handful free flowing rivers that flow till date[ix], no river has been protected by accident. Each river has a unique story to tell: one of struggle, triumph, hope and a lingering fear of what might happen tomorrow. Pascagoula is no exception.
But it just nearly did not happen. In the 1970’s, a private holding timber company called Pascagoula Hardwood Company owned about 42,000 acres of land around Pascagoula river, including some 30 river miles and about 40 lakes in the basin[x]. The land was not worked on for a very long time and a dense and dark forest enveloped the Pascagoula, much like its primary forest. Pascagoula Hardwood had about 100 shareholders, most of whom were very keen to get this land off their hands to timber logging firms who would have razed the ancient riparian forest in a matter of days.
One of the shareholders was a young heir Graham Wisner who was in love with the river and the age old Cypress-Tupelo forest. While exploring the river, Graham was in touch with the true river people of the Pascagoula. He knew something had to be done and had to be done fast to protect the forest and the river and it was only a big policy step that could save Pascagoula as it was.
He met several leaders and organizations to discuss what could be done. When he met conservation NGO The Nature Conservancy, a radicle idea shaped up: first one of its kind and scale in the history of United States. The Nature Conservancy made a 13 million dollar offer to the Pascagoula Hardwood Company and bought most of the forest land and the enveloped river, just before the axe could get it.[xi] Of course, with a huge amount to raise and varied shareholders of the company, the move was anything but straightforward, but it did come through. The Conservancy also lobbied with the Mississippi Government to form a Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Commission which bought the land from The Conservancy mainly with an aim to form a Fish and Game reserve.
TNC sold this land to the Mississippi State and only after this paid off the loan they had taken to buy this land in the forest place! The loan costed them 3000 $ per day.[xii]
Though all this sounds smooth and simple, it was anything but and involved heroic efforts from a number of people across the spectrum, like Mr. Avery Wood, the then-Director of Mississippi Fish Game and Wildlife Commission and officials, Bill Quisenberry and Herman Murrah.[xiii] State of Mississippi is not exactly flush with resources and it was an uphill battle to put together money to buy the land from TNC and protect it. But they did it and this laid an example which is being followed by most American states till date.
Since then, along with government, non-government and community support, several new Wildlife Management Areas have been added to the Pascagoula River State Wildlife Management Area to make a contiguous patchwork of an unbelievable 70,000 acres of public and private conservation lands.
Few years back, The Nature Conservancy bought about 2100 acres of Pascagoula and Green Rivers which were earlier not protected and handed it to Mississippi Forestry Commission in 2016 for further protection. This land is of critical importance as it connects “more than 450,000 contiguous acres between the De Soto National Forest and the Pascagoula Wildlife Management Area, now the largest tract of contiguous conserved lands in Mississippi”.[xiv]
Conservation by buying lands? Is that sustainable?
While buying lands from private owners, holding them and then selling them to government agencies worked in the case of United States and Pascagoula, several developing countries will be skeptical about this method of conservation. In most developing countries, communities depend directly on the river for their sustenance, livelihoods, cultural and social needs. To translate these non-monitory services into economical terms is unacceptable and even dangerous in many cases. Land ownership changing hands like this may be viewed as privatization of resources, or exclusion of indigenous communities through protected areas.
This is not a one-size-fits all solution, nor a universal recommendation. In places where community dependence on rivers and lands is high, inclusive conservation measures like Community reserves in India can be the way out. However, it is important to be aware of various tools used in various countries to protect rivers. In case of Pascagoula, Fishing and Hunting rights are regulated, but not closed. There has been opposition by some individuals to the sale of their lands, but this is not widespread and is respected.
Despite a glorious history of protection and a unique status, Pascagoula is not without its set of problems. Main issues include increased sedimentation, continuous dredging, introduction of exotic species and most recently, damming. This damming proposal led to American Rivers putting Pascagoula in its 2016 “America’s Most Endangered Rivers”[xv] List.
Lake George River Drought Resiliency Project aims to dam two of the biggest tributaries Big Cedar Creek and Little Cedar Creek for recreational purposes and for industrial water supply during drought. The project is misleading being called “Pascagoula River Drought Resiliency Project”.[xvi] However, there is near unanimous opposition to the project and the second informational meeting was so heated that not only slogans, but fists involved.[xvii] The locals raised several issues including flooding, dam operations, and the legacy of free flowing Pascagoula.
Becky tells me that some of the staunchest opponents of the dam projects are traditional fishermen who depend directly on the river. Sense of heritage associated with Pascagoula is so strong and the dependence on the river is so direct that she thinks local communities will keep Pascagoula and its tributaries free flowing for as long as they can.
Pascagoula river, its tributaries, swamps, savannah are unique systems in the world and a proud heritage of the State of Mississippi. Economies of several towns depend on the river for food, transport and resources. According to Becky Stowe, while Hurricane Katrina ripped through the towns of Pascagoula basin and destroyed homes and economies, more people were out of harms way because of the extensive swamps and floodplains. In addition, there was no intricate canal or embankment system which could bring the storm surge in like River Mississippi. It has been proven time and again that free flowing rivers are better adapted to the effects of Climate Change than their dammed counterparts.[xviii]
Protection of Pascagoula River has led to increase in the number of people visiting Wildlife Management Areas. Just last year, about 50,000 people visited the management areas, creating significant indirect employment. The region is remarkable for the presence of Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge and Pascagoula River Aubudon Centre which provides a unique opportunity to explore the river and know more about its ecosystem.[xix] Pascagoula River Basin Alliance which includes conservation organistaions, industry, schools and citizens of the basin works towards fostering research, communication, and action surrounding the river.[xx]
In other words, Pascagoula River Basin has all the hardware and software prerequisites to become a global demonstration area of free flowing rivers. And despite this, it is not protected under Wild and Scenic Rivers Legislation. Pascagoula is a part of Mississippi State’s Scenic Streams Program[xxi], but it is a completely voluntary system of protection.
As America celebrates 50th Anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and as organizations look ahead to protect 5000 miles of rivers this year, it is only timely that Pascagoula receives protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the largest free flowing river in contiguous United States is able to flow unhindered till posterity.
Parineeta Dandekar (firstname.lastname@example.org)
[i] Earlier article on this river by the author: https://sandrp.in/2018/06/26/mississippi-and-the-singing-river/
[iv] Scheuler, Preserving the Pascagoula
[xiii] Preserving the Pascagoula By Donald G. Schueler, University of Mississippi Press