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Sky Lake: Preserving A Stand Of Ancient Cypress

If there is a parcel of land in the State of Mississippi worth preserving, it is the 773 acre Sky Lake. According to Leila C. Wynn, Treasurer of the Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Foundation, "When I went to Sky Lake, it was if I was stepping back into a prehistoric time - what a thrill!"

The Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Foundation's involvement in the preservation of Sky Lake began when the organization was founded. The Foundation worked with 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. Sky Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is near Belzoni in Humphreys County, located in a strategic area of the Mississippi Flyway. For years, local citizens have been familiar with the area they call Sky Lake. The area's greatest asset is the magnificent stand of cypress trees that are scattered throughout the property.

Significance Of Sky Lake

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 and his colleague, Malcolm Cleaveland, 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.

Sky Lake
A view of Sky Lake during the drought of the summer of 2000. Photo by the Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Stahle and Cleavelend analyzed thousands 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." Even before the Foundation began working on this important acquisition, Stahle stated, "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, President of the Foundation 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."

"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 Stahle.

"...Sky Lake contains some of the largest and oldest baldcypress trees that remain on earth, and they have international scientific significance."

Dr. David Stahle
Director Tree Ring Laboratory
University of Arkansas

In a letter to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, Stahle stated, "Baldcypress is a valuable timber commodity, and as a result there are very few ancient cypress forests still in existence, and fewer yet that are accessible to the public."

Baldcypress has been heavily exploited for timber so that very few examples of these primeval swamp forests remain. There are only two other sites in Mississippi with relatively undisturbed ancient baldcypress. They are located on the Pearl River near Philadelphia and on the Pascagoula Rive near Wade.

Aging Sky Lake And Its Trees

This cypress knee measures over 8 feet in height. Photo by the Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Baldcypress, in general, have the capacity to become some of the oldest and largest trees on earth. The are in the same category in size and age of the giant sequoia and redwood, which live 2,000 to 3,000 years old. According to Stahle, "We have obtained small core samples from some of the living cypress trees and dead logs that litter the swamp floor at Sky Lake, and many of these individuals are in the 800 to 1,000 year old range. I believe that some of the oldest baldcypress at Sky Lake likely lived for 2,000 years."

The age of the magnificent trees at Sky Lake proves the area itself to be old. The meandering Mississippi River dropped sediments here that are thousands of years old. Sky Lake is an old Mississippi River distributary of the Wisconsin or Holocene age, about 7,700 years ago. It probably functioned as a distributary for 1,700 years to 2,800 years. The meander belts and natural levees of Sky Lake were high enough for Indians to have occupied the area 6,500 years ago, yet the oldest known evidence of humans in the Sky Lake area was 4,000 years ago.

A Diversity Of Fish And Wildlife

Sky Lake WMA provides overwintering habitat for a variety of migrating birds including shorebirds and neotropical migrant songbirds. It is an important link in the chain of WMAs, refuges and national forests for migrating ducks and geese in this flyway.

The protection of this area will continue the effort of Mark Simmons, the former private landowner, to provide for the habitat needs of threatened and endangered species like the bald eagle and least tern, migratory bird species such as the prothonotary warbler and mallard ducks, and resident wildlife species to include turkey, squirrel and white-tailed deer.

Sky Lake provides habitat for a variety of shorebirds, waterfowl and aquatic and amphibious species such as turtles, frogs and crayfish. Several moist soil areas (areas that grow plant species such as smartweed, sedges and rushes), that were developed several years ago by Tara Development, a division of Tara Wildlife, will be managed for moist soil plants. This management will benefit a variety of shore and wading birds as well as waterfowl. Sky Lake itself is providing foraging habitat for least terns.

Among other activities, an extensive nest box program for wood ducks and prothonotary warblers is being considered by the Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. This project will be a continuation of the nest box program that was begun by Mark Simmons and his wife, Peggy.

Sky Lake offers alligators complete protection from human depredation and disturbance. The open area of the Sky Lake WMA offers quality deep water habitat inhabited by alligators. Summer visitors have the opportunity to view alligators in their natural habitat, but must be aware that alligators nest on shores and can become aggressive in defending their nests.

Increasing The Size Of Sky Lake WMA

Currently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is involved in an effort to acquire mitigation land around Sky Lake and restore the vegetation through reforestation of adjacent lands. This reforestation effort will virtually eliminate contamination and filling in of the lake bed. The efforts of the Corp will enhance habitat for wood duck broods, alligators, wintering waterfowl and sport fish. A wide array of fish and wildlife species will benefit.

Nearly 3,000 acres of former agricultural land on the WMA have been reforested by the Corp of Engineers 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.

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.

Recreational Opportunities At Sky Lake

Local Residents
Local resident Martha Scott Poindexter and her niece pose by the former Mississippi State Record baldcypress. It is one of hundreds of trees this size on Sky Lake WMA and measures 40 feet in circumference. Photo by the Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

In the future Sky Lake will offer a variety of recreational opportunities to the public. Visitors may view and photograph birds and other wildlife. No camping is permitted on Sky Lake WMA as of yet, however, Leroy Percy State Park is located nearby and offers facilities for camping and RVs.

Limited permit hunting is currently allowed for deer, turkey, squirrel, rabbit, dove and raccoon. This hunting is an important management tool for keeping certain wildlife populations within the carrying capacity of the habitat on the WMA.

We encourage you to show your appreciation for these efforts by visiting Sky Lake WMA and enjoying what it has to offer.

Potential Future Activity

"On one level, the fact that so few of these native Mississippi wetland forests survive today in their original condition is a sad commentary on our shabby treatment of this ecosystem, which once was such an important part of the native woodlands of Mississippi," commented Dr. Stahle. "However, on another level, the extreme scarcity of old-growth baldcypress woodlands only heightens the value of Sky Lake, especially as an educational resource for the citizens of Mississippi and this nation."

"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 thirty years, and I know of no other area as unique as the Sky lake property."

Don Nevels
Chief of Forest Management
Mississippi Forestry Commission

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

Don Nevels, Chief of Forest Management for the Mississippi Forestry Commission, wrote the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks before the property was acquired stating, "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 thirty years, and I know of no other area as unique as the Sky lake property."

Dr. Stahle agrees and further states, "I believe that a park, interpretive center and trail/boardwalk out into the heart of this amazing wetland of forest giants would do more to advance the cause of wetland conservation and restoration than any other single effort we might contemplate."

Perhaps, one day a visitor center and nature trails will provide the opportunity for public education and understanding of the ecology of our ancient, baldcypress swamps. "Certainly Sky Lake is the most significant stand of ancient baldcypress in Mississippi, and I am thankful that it has been acquired for preservation as the Sky Lake Wildlife Management Area," stated Dr. Stahle. The Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Foundation is honored to have been a significant partner in preserving this important resource, not only for Mississippi, but for the world.

Leila C. Wynn, the Treasurer of the Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Foundation, contributed to this article.


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