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Downtrodden Arkansas towns see salvation in rediscovered bird

CLARENDON, Ark.—About one-quarter of the downtown shops are boarded up. The two factories—a steel basket manufacturer and a shoe company—fled for Mexico about four years ago. Many of the children leave town after graduation.

But suddenly there is hope, talk of new motels being built, and a flock of newly printed T-shirts for sale. And the kids, at least the much younger kids, are showing civic pride with a strange multi-colored, moussed-up $25 "woodpecker haircut."

And it's all thanks to a bird.

Not just any bird, mind you, but an ivory-billed woodpecker. It's a bird that for 60 years was thought to be extinct. But here in the Arkansas Big Woods region, it is alive again.

Now Clarendon—population 1,751 and shrinking every census—and all of Monroe County, which in January 2004 had a double-digit unemployment rate, hopes to copy the ivory-bill and rise from what everyone said was a certain death.

"This might be the thing that gets us going," Clarendon Mayor Don Boshers said Saturday morning during a birding festival that attracted 2,000 people to the town square along the banks of the White River.

But the very bird tourism that this area embraces could end up crushing the ivory-bill's habitat and send it fleeing or worse. Parts of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge were quickly closed to anyone but a select dozen scientists with special research passes. Interior Secretary Gale Norton asked people not to come. Officials went on bird watching Web sites to say stay away.

"We were afraid that literally 20,000 birders were going to descend on central Arkansas and love this bird to death," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional director Sam Hamilton told a town hall meeting in Stuttgart on Thursday.

After a month of worry and a mere trickle of tourists—mostly because summer is a bad time to visit to look for birds due to heat, mosquitoes, snakes and a thick tree canopy that's hard to see through—officials are breathing a little easier. This past week they opened some of the restricted areas.

"We don't expect summer to be that bad," Hamilton said.

By fall and winter, when birders are expected to arrive in earnest, new visitor towers, boardwalks and stands may be ready. Still, the chances of seeing an ivory-bill are slim, based on the fact that researchers made only seven sightings during 20,000 hours of looking.

Because the Big Woods—an area that includes both the White River and Cache River National Wildlife Refuges—is so thick with towering trees, swamps, bayous, rivers, and lakes, it can accommodate a lot of people. Yet the notoriously skittish ivory-bill would likely not notice all the birders, officials and conservationists hope.

"There is so much space for both the bird and the people who want to come, look at it, that we're really very fortunate," said Scott Simon, Arkansas director of The Nature Conservancy, which helped coordinate the woodpecker search and bought new land around the refuges to expand the habitat. "There must be something going right in this ecosystem because this bird has been here for decades with all these other people."

In the newly reopened swamps of Bayou DeView on Friday, Hamilton told Knight Ridder Newspapers that Saturday's fourth annual Big Woods Birding Festival would be a good test to see if tourism and the bird can co-exist. The festival attracted two-and-a-half times more people than last year, but so far no ill effects to the woodpecker were noted, Mayor Boshers said.

The man who started it all, bird re-discoverer Gene Sparling, who has been coordinating search teams, figures tourism and the ivory-bill will live well together.

"I expect great numbers of people to come," Sparling said. "I actually expect it to be a wonderful thing."

So do all the towns here. In a way, the towns all have competing claims to the woodpecker.

County seat Clarendon, which is the junction of the two wildlife refuges the ivory-bill roams through, figures it's the logical place to visit, especially since it hosts the birding festival. Bigger Brinkley, which is even closer to the "hot zone" where the bird was actually found, claims to be the home of the woodpecker—and it has chain motels and restaurants, unlike its neighbors. St. Charles is the home of a new visitor's center at the White River National Wildlife Refuge that was finished a day after the re-discovery was announced.

They all are going cuckoo over the ivory-billed woodpecker T-shirts for sale—not bad considering the bird's re-discovery was announced just four weeks ago. There's a new children's woodpecker book, a woodpecker burger, the woodpecker haircut, a duck hunting lodge that changed into a birding lodge, guides offering woodpecker-searching trips, large $45 wooden woodpecker lawn and office art, and it's all cashing in here at the birding festival.

That is a key to keeping the bird alive, The Nature Conservancy's Simon said. The local communities must claim ownership of the bird. And in a series of three town meetings, the most frequent comment—aside from technical questions about how to see the elusive bird—was a worry that the federal and state governments weren't shutting down enough land to save the bird.

"It's actually just really cool," said Sparling, who lives across the state in Hot Springs.

For local residents, it's more than cool; it's providential.

"We've tried to find something that would just give us economic rescue," Clarendon City Clerk Billie Hasty said. "And lo and behold, the bird flew in."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WOODPECKER-TOWN

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