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The Sky Lake Boardwalk

On November 3, Governor Haley Barbour, First Lady Marsha Barbour and others announced the opening of the Sky Lake Boardwalk. Wildlife Mississippi's involvement in the preservation of Sky Lake began when the organization was founded. Wildlife Mississippi worked with the owners of the property, Mark and Peggy Simmons, the Office of the Governor, and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks to acquire the property so that it would be preserved, not only for its fish and wildlife values, but for scenic, ecological, and scientific values as well. The ancient baldcypress trees of Sky Lake are one of the largest remaining tracts of old growth cypress on earth. The other sites are located in Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina.

A Sky Lake GiantSignificance of Sky Lake

Baldcypress trees are a wetland species often characterized by their moss-draped crowns, buttressed trunks and protruding "knees" emerging around them from the swamp. It is a deciduous conifer which means its needles fall off in the winter months (hence the name "bald"). It grows naturally throughout the Southern Coastal states and north into the Lower Mississippi River Valley.

Dr. David Stahle, the Director of the Tree Ring Laboratory at the University of Arkansas, is a dendrochronologist who has specialized in the analysis of tree-ring records from ancient baldcypress forests in the United States and Mexico to determine past weather patterns. He has discovered the oldest known living trees in Eastern North America, the ancient baldcypress at Black River North Carolina. The oldest of these are 1,500 to 2,000 years old. Stahle analyzed thousands of tree ring samples of ancient baldcypress and used these climate proxies to reconstruct past rainfall amounts and to study the impact of severe and prolonged drought on the first colonial settlements in the United States at Roanoke Island and Jamestown.

Dr. Stahle says, "Based on our field inspections and core samplings, I can state with certainty that Sky Lake contains some of the largest and oldest baldcypress trees that remain on earth, and they have international scientific significance. Here at Sky Lake one can see what native Mississippi was truly like in the heart of her forested wetlands, an ecosystem of such diversity and productivity that it was rivaled only by the tropical rainforests of Amazonia," said Dr. Stahle.

Even before Wildlife Mississippi began working on this important acquisition, Stahle had visited the area and said, "The record size and age of the Sky Lake baldcypress are a unique natural and scientific resource, and in my opinion they should be preserved for future generations."

Peyton Self, a past-president of Wildlife Mississippi agrees. "Early on, I had the opportunity view the Sky Lake property. Aside from the obvious need to protect the area for its scientific and scenic beauty, it will provide valuable habitat for a diversity of bird life, especially neotropical migratory birds such as the roseate spoonbill."

The Property

Wildlife Mississippi worked with the Office of the Governor and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks to acquire the initial 773 acres from Mark and Peggy Simmons for the Sky Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA). The WMA now encompasses approximately 4,273 acres.  

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has acquired nearly 3,500 acres of former agricultural land around Sky Lake and restored the vegetation through reforestation of bottomland hardwoods with a variety of hardwood tree species, including water oak, willow oak and Nuttall oak. These young stands of trees are frequented by rabbits and deer, and will eventually provide habitat for such woodland species as squirrels and pileated woodpeckers. This reforestation effort will virtually eliminate contamination and filling in of the lake bed. The efforts of the Corps will enhance habitat for wood duck broods, alligators, wintering waterfowl and sport fish. A wide array of fish and wildlife species will benefit.

Some of the agricultural land has been placed in permanent set-aside managed as permanent food plots of grass, clover and vetch. These plots benefit grassland songbirds, such as bluebirds, as well as resident turkey, deer and rabbits.

Educational Opportunities at Sky Lake

Wildlife Mississippi sees the potential of using Sky Lake as a educational tool that will showcase the need to protect valuable habitats in Mississippi.

Stahle agrees, saying, "The extreme scarcity of old-growth baldcypress only heightens the value of Sky Lake, especially as an educational resource for the citizens of Mississippi and this nation."

The Boardwalk

Don Nevels, former Chief of Forest Management for the Mississippi Forestry Commission, before the property was even acquired in the late 1990s, stated, "I can imagine raised walk-ways into the swamp and the tourists that the area might draw. I have worked in the forests of Mississippi for over 30 years, and I know of no other area as unique as the Sky lake property."

In 2006, Wildlife Mississippi, through a grant from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Recreational Trails Program, the Federal Highway Administration and the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee Board began the Sky Lake Boardwalk Project. The ancient baldcypress of Sky Lake can be seen from a 12 foot high boardwalk for 1,735 feet through the forest canopy. 

Approximately 75,000 galvanized nails and 50,000 galvanized screws were used in the walkway. There were approximately 450 6' X 6', 22' long posts used; 15,000 feet of 2' X 4's; 47,500 feet of 2' X 6's; 36,000 feet of deck board; and 500 yards of concrete. Over 5,000 hours of labor were put into the project. Pryor and Morrow Architects designed the boardwalk with David Smith Construction building it.

A boardwalk, amphitheater, comfort station, walking path, pavilion and a system of canoe/kayak trails were constructed. The cost of the entire project was $716,000. This consists of $571,000 from the Recreational Trails Program, which is a cooperative effort between the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks and the Federal Highway Administration. Private donors contributed $145,000. The Yazoo Mississippi Delta Levee Board purchased 50 acres, which includes the compound area, and constructed one of the parking lots and the canoe/kayak trail system.
 
The majority of the boardwalk was constructed during the drought of 2010, when the water levels in Sky Lake were some of the lowest they had been in almost 50 years. 

Marsha Barbour was involved with the boardwalk from conception of the project. "Rarely does a First Lady have the unique privilege of seeing a dream come true in her state.  As Chair of Wildlife Mississippi's Advisory Council, I had the opportunity to be in on the ground level of this amazing project. It has exceeded my expectations. The formally hidden treasure of these ancient forest giants is now easily accessible, making it possible for generations of Mississippians and tourists to appreciate and enjoy their beauty and grandeur," said Barbour.

The Location of the Boardwalk
           
The boardwalk is located at the Sky Lake Wildlife Management Area, which is north of Belzoni. At the intersection of US Highway 49W and Highways 12 and 7 (at Belzoni), turn east onto Highway 7 (1st Street). At the first traffic light, the intersection of Highway 7 (also named Martin Luther King Drive) and Hayden Street, turn left. When the road forks at Old Highway 49 and Highway 7, bear right on Highway 7 and continue for approximately 4.9 miles to the intersection of Four Mile Road. Turn left and travel approximately 0.9 miles to the intersection of Simmons Road. Turn left on Simmons Road and travel approximately 0.8 miles, staying on the blacktop, to the entrance of the facility, which will be on the right. The coordinates are N 33° 17.101' W 090° 28.961'.

A Cooperative Effort

The project was a cooperative effort by Wildlife Mississippi, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, the Federal Highway Administration and the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee Board.