Buck Island, a Newly Conserved Mississippi River Destination Near Helena, Arkansas
The first leg of a new Lower Mississippi River Water Trail has been established through the conservation of Buck Island near Helena, Arkansas, thanks to the efforts of the American Land Conservancy (ALC), the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC), the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and other partners. The announcement caps a six-year campaign to protect the wildlife-rich island and create the public access launching point for the trail.
“The Mississippi is one of Arkansas’ great natural treasures, and Buck Island gives Americans a new way to enjoy it,” said Clark Hall (D, Marvell). “The water trail will allow people to experience America’s greatest river in a whole new way, and means tourism growth and jobs for Phillips County and the Delta. I am proud to have been an early and avid supporter for Buck Island and am thrilled to see it conserved for public enjoyment.”
First proposed by ALC’s partner, the Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee (LMRCC), the lower river trail was envisioned as an extension of an existing trail upriver, but it lacked a publicly-accessible anchor point. ALC purchased Buck Island in 2005 to serve that purpose. In 2010 ALC negotiated a conservation easement with NRCS to protect native forests on the island, then completed a public access and conservation easement with AGFC in 2011, ensuring public use of the island in perpetuity and establishing it as the anchor of the river trail.
“Establishing the first segment of the Lower Mississippi Water Trail from Helena to Arkansas City has been part of the LMRCC's long-term vision for the river for several years,” said Ron Nassar, PhD, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service coordinator of the LMRCC, a coalition of twelve state natural resource conservation and environmental quality agencies from the six states that border the lower river. “Much of the 24 million-acre forested wetland formerly found in the Mississippi Valley is behind the mainline levee system. Buck Island is truly a treasure hidden in plain sight, but new public access to the island lets people experience Mark Twain's river in a whole new way.”
ALC first pursued the Buck Island project at the urging of LMRCC. “The conservation, recreation, and nature-based economic benefits of Buck Island are a unique national and regional opportunity, and we were excited to help create a river trail where none existed before,” said ALC president Kerry O’Toole. “The natural beauty of the island, its benefits to wildlife, and its excellent recreation opportunities will attract a wide range of visitors to Arkansas and the Delta.”
The island features 880 acres of native forests, 620 acres of large white sand beaches, five miles of hiking trails, and a three-mile side channel. These provide outstanding opportunities for wildlife viewing, camping, hiking, paddling, swimming, fishing, and eventually hunting, and also support numerous wildlife species, including the endangered least tern and pallid sturgeon. The island is also a stop-over site along the Mississippi Flyway, used by 65 percent of North American migratory bird species. Buck Island is a three-minute boat trip from AGFC’s public boat ramp in Helena Harbor, making it easily accessible. It is also reachable by canoe and kayak. The island has been highlighted in national publications including Canoe & Kayak Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, and ESPN Outdoors.com.
“Buck Island provides an excellent and user-friendly way to enjoy the riches of the river like never before,” said George Dunklin, Jr., chairman of AGFC. “We strive to engage more people in protecting and using our state’s natural resources, and Buck Island and the new water trail give local communities and others exciting new ways to do so. For advanced paddlers and boaters, the 106 river-mile trip from Buck Island to Choctaw Island Wildlife Management Area is now possible, and this river trail should soon gain national recognition.”
The positive impacts of creating public access to Buck Island are already being felt locally, drawing visitors to the region and generating new customers for local businesses. “As a river guide and outfitter, I know what a tremendous resource Buck Island is for Helena,” said John Ruskey, owner of Quapaw Canoe Company in Helena, which, in addition to offering guide services, builds voyager-style canoes and provides long-term apprenticeships for local disadvantaged youth. Ruskey has attracted national media attention for his extensive knowledge of the river, having explored it by raft, canoe, kayak, and stand-up paddleboard. He expanded his Clarksdale, Mississippi-based company to include a warehouse in downtown Helena because of Helena’s “energetic community and geographic position.”
“The rich culture of the Delta and the mighty Mississippi are known all over the world, but people need a way to access it,” says Ruskey. “With Buck Island and the river trail they can now experience the river’s power and beauty firsthand.”
Part of the beauty of Buck Island lies in its native forests, which ALC protected through a conservation easement with NRCS with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (federal stimulus bill). “Buck Island’s 880 acres of native trees are a critical part of its conservation value and in time it will become an old growth forest,” said Reed Cripps, PhD, NRCS Assistant State Conservationist for Easements. “Migratory birds, deer, turkey, beaver, opossum, bats, and many other wildlife find food and shelter here, and the trees provide refuge during major flood events. NRCS is pleased to have the opportunity to apply Emergency Watershed Protection Program funds to conserve forest resources on this unique Mississippi River island.”
Public access to Buck Island extends upstream water trails into Arkansas for the first time, linking Helena to the Choctaw Island Wildlife Management Area 106 miles downstream, and to the famed White and Arkansas Rivers in between. As other islands and access points are added, a new, nationally significant recreation complex for boaters, canoeists, kayakers, birders, wildlife watchers, and nature lovers will eventually be created.
“The Mississippi is the lifeblood of the Delta, its people, and its economy, but for too long people have been cut off from it,” said Arkansas House Speaker Robert Moore, Jr. (D-Arkansas City). “With Buck Island and the water trail, people have a new way to see what this magnificent river and our beautiful state have to offer. It’s nothing less than a national treasure.”
A guide to paddling the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail is currently being developed by Quapaw Canoe Company owner, John Ruskey. “Helena is the only place on the big river with easy and safe access in a protected harbor with a big island nearby that can be explored without crossing the main shipping channel,” says Ruskey. “New public access to Buck Island makes that unique situation even better.”
The Buck Island project is part of the American Land Conservancy’s longstanding conservation efforts along the middle and lower Mississippi River. Since 1993 ALC has conserved nearly 25,000 acres of wetlands, riparian areas, native forests, and island and side channel complexes in the region. ALC is currently working to conserve more islands and access points to extend the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail.
For more information contact:
Director of Government Affairs
American Land Conservancy
American Land Conservancy is a non-profit conservation organization that conserves land for the benefit of people and wildlife. Since its founding in 1990, ALC has conserved more than 274,000 acres of land and water resources, working