Dr. Christian Vlautin calls Big Lake "untapped jewel"

Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Dr. Chris Vlautin (Town Crier photo/Revis Blaylock)

Dr. Christian Vlautin will be leaving Big Lake this week after three months of serving with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's (FWS) Wilderness Fellow Program. Originally from California, Vlautin has been residing in the Mid-south for several years and accepted the six month fellowship in May. He will be going to St. Charles' White River National Wildlife Refuge to continue his work.

"Our nation's wildernesses have a very interesting history," Vlautin said. "Every wilderness is unique and it is important to discover and preserve the character in each one."

The Wilderness Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, called for an organized effort to preserve the nation's wildest and least touched expanses. These areas became designated wildernesses which fell under the care of a variety of agencies, including the FWS. As part of the Act, a series of regulations were put in place to ensure the wildernesses were properly monitored and reported on periodically.

The reports are collected to determine the state of Wilderness Character on a local, regional and national level. At the start, this monitoring was undertaken by the individual agencies looking after their specific wildernesses. Since the turn of the century, there has been a greater push for legislators to take advantage of advances in technology to encourage more cooperation and dialogue between various agencies.

To accomplish this, the Wilderness Character Monitoring Fellowship was created. This initiative places individuals in designated wilderness areas across the country with the purpose of seeing ways the over 700 wildernesses have improved, declined or remained stable over the alt 50 years.

Fellows work closely with local staff, scientists, managers and the general public to assess the overall character of the wildernesses.

Vlautin describes his job, assessing the character of an area, as an interesting challenge; there is no clear definition of what "Wilderness Character" is. The framers of the Wilderness Act wanted to protect the unique feelings one gets from being out in a natural space, far away from the sounds, sights and influences of other humans.

"Each person experiences a wilderness differently and one person's experience will differ from another," he said. "This makes monitoring and managing them difficult."

Fellows follow a set of guidelines to divide the overall "Wilderness Character" into a set of categories that can be measured. These include how natural the area is, while others measure various aspects of developments, management actions, cultural/historical significance, and opportunities one gets for solitude and primitive recreation.

"We study how management decisions affect the area," he said. In doing so, we can improve communication between staff and the public, help raise awareness of the lands, and create a legacy for future managers and visitors. Like most of the public lands in the U.S., wildernesses don't just take care of themselves, they need attention and upkeep. What happens outside of its borders can greatly impact what happens inside. For example, the water levels of Big Lake are influenced by the actions of the FWS, Arkansas Game and Fish, The Army Corps and the Little River Drainage Commission. Timing and amount of draw downs can impact fish numbers, duck populations and plant life. This is one of the challenges of working in and for wilderness. Good management practices sometimes require restraint and knowledge of when it is best to not act."

Vlautin called Big Lake Wilderness an untapped jewel.

"Big Lake is an exceptional ecosystem that remains one of the last stretches of bottomland hardwoods in the state," Vlautin said. "Its position in the Mississippi flyway makes it an important habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife, and because of this, it has been popular with fishermen, hunters and other sportsmen for generations."

He also commented on Big Lake's rich history.

"I've been here for a few months, and I'm always learning more about its unique past and place in Arkansas history," he said. "I look forward to any opportunity to be able to take a boat out onto its waters and make my way to the wilderness. It is an amazing chance to be able to experience a place that has remained relatively untouched for many years. This is a place that has some of the oldest cypress trees in the area, a place that the herons can hunt undisturbed, the fish thrive, and where the Bald eagles continue to raise their young in a nest that has been used year in and out for two decades. I've been fortunate to have been assigned this position and I encourage everyone to come out and see it for themselves."

Vlautin earned a PhD in Animal Behavior, Wildlife Biologist from the University of Memphis. He has had some adventuresome positions including three months in Africa tracking leopards and tracking bear in South America. Vlautin said working at Big Lake has been just as rewarding. He has enjoyed kayaking to the Big Lake wilderness area. He also commented about the warm welcome he has received in the area.

"People in Manila have been very helpful in sharing the history of the area," he said. "They have been friendly.

Vlautin has always had a love of the outdoors ever since he was a Boy Scout working his way to Eagle Scout.

"It is important to teach children the appreciation of nature and the outdoors," he said. "Sept. 3 will be the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act."

Big Lake also offers a great place for birding opportunities.

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