St. Francis Lake Association's working to preserve Sunken Lands

Friday, November 6, 2015
Pictured, from left, are St. Francis Lake Association members Terry Rollins, Jr., Voy Gillentine, Bill Amelung, and Neal Vickers. (DT Photo/Corey Clairday)

The St. Francis Lake Association may have started as a group of duck hunters and waterfowlers, but over the past few years their mission has evolved into saving the St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management Area for everyone to enjoy. The SFLA will be holding their annual meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 10, at the Trumann Recreation Complex, where guest speakers will talk about the future of the St. Francis Sunken Lands. The complex is located at 16179 Pecan Grove Road.

According to SFLA President Bill Amelung, who has been a member since 1969 when he came to the area on leave from Vietnam, "The Sunken Lands was the best kept waterfowling secret for years." The original St. Francis Lake Recreational Association was established in 1968. That organization later went defunct but was revived as the SFLA in 1987 by local hunters and sportsmen. "We had a good relationship with Ducks Unlimited," Amelung said. "We reforested the floodways. The Lake Association was doing everything it could do to improve the waterfowl habitat."

After he retired from the military in 1988, waterfowling became a true passion for Amelung as he hunted every day of every season for the next 25 years. In that time, he saw a lot of changes to the sport from the advent and subsequent banning of motorized, spinning-wing decoys, to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission removing the permanent duck blinds on the St. Francis Sunken Lands and Big Lake WMAs. The SFLA tried to fight the duck blind removal in court, hoping to use Amendment 88 to let them keep the blinds as a traditional method of hunting, but in the end the duck blinds were taken down. The focus now is on the erosion near Dam 10, which has worsened in the past few years and made it difficult for St. Francis Sunken Lands to hold water. Last year's turnout for duck hunting on opening day was a far cry from what it used to be as the water was too low for most hunters to get on the river and hunt.

During the SFLA's annual meeting next week, keynote speaker Regina Kuykendoll Cash, Supervisory Civil Engineer at the Memphis District of the US Corps of Engineers, is expected to provide details of the Corps' plan to repair the erosion. Guest speakers will also include Congressman Rick Crawford, who has been working with the SFLA on the Washington front regarding repairs to the St. Francis river basin.

According to Amelung, the St. Francis River Basin Repair Project, approved by Congress, lists 27 repair projects but states the goal for the St. Francis river basin as flood control. One major change the SFLA has been pushing for recently is to amend the Corps' goals to include recreation so that the ability to hold water can become a priority which will allow the river basin to become a great place not only for hunting and fishing again but for canoeing, kayaking, boating, bird watching, and other forms of water tourism. Amelung said the St. Francis Sunken Lands is a unique ecosystem that needs to be preserved. "It's the largest body of water, when it can hold water, in Poinsett County," Amelung said. "It is a resource, and it could be a big part of the development of Northeast Arkansas if it can be brought back to its glory as a lake and river system." The SFLA's current mission is not focused solely on saving the area for waterfowl habitat but is about much more than that. "What we're about now is saving the St. Francis Sunken Lands for recreation for everybody," he said.

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