GRENADA, Miss. – Faced with the same economic challenges that confront many small towns throughout Mississippi and across America, the leadership of Grenada, Mississippi decided in 2016 to cut and sell trees on city property, including a 300-acre of bottomland hardwood forest located in Chakchiuma Swamp on the edge of town. What seemed like a routine and logical plan by local politicians faced one major obstacle – that swamp had for years been a source of inspiration and a spiritual home for local artist and business owner Robin Whitfield. Having spent hundreds of hours hiking, kayaking, birding, meditating, and painting in that swamp, Whitfield was horrified by the notion of it being logged and its beautiful biodiversity lost forever. Whitfield’s creativity kicked in, and she committed herself to the work of convincing Grenada’s leaders to see the swamp with new eyes.
The Chakchiuma Swamp, just off Grenada’s town square, sits at the place where the historic downtown meets the Yalobusha River as it meanders through the loess bluffs. Due to its geographic location, the sprawling stand of water-soaked cypress and other bottomland trees are home to a unique collection of plants and animals and critical habitat for birds. In this swamp, one can find great diversity including copper iris, red buckeye, prothonotary warblers, wood ducks and otter. The entire area is accessible by water via canoes and kayaks and on foot. Extended hiking trails and interpretive areas are a part of the master plan.
Faced with the prospect of losing her beloved swamp, Whitfield enlisted the help of other local nature lovers and began working on a plan to convince Grenada to give the Friends of Chakchiuma Swamp, FCS, time to raise the money the city would have made from a timber sale. “We started looking at the numbers in the timber appraisals and determined how much each tree was worth,” explained Whitfield. “Our ‘big idea’ was to have people buy those trees from the city so they could remain in the forest.” Facebook and a GoFundMe.com campaign spread the word, and the movement grew rapidly. The Grenada Community Foundation allowed FCS to raise money under its umbrella, and conservation groups, local garden clubs, civic organizations, and individuals provided initial funds that got the attention of Grenada’s leadership. James Cummins, director of Wildlife Mississippi, even agreed to build four miles of trails if the forest remained uncut.
Despite the initial success of FCS and its supporters, the grassroots movement faced the daunting obstacle of needing to raise $300,000 in order to offset what the city would receive from a timber sale. In 2017, a Mississippi businessman heard about the fight to save Chakchiuma Swamp and felt moved to get involved. He approached Whitfield and explained that he would be a matching donor, front necessary money and talk to Grenada’s city leaders. In exchange, he only asked that the nature preserve Whitfield envisioned be named for Lee Tartt, a fallen law enforcement officer from Grenada.Tartt was passionate about the outdoors and spending time in nature. He especially enjoyed hunting and hand-fishing in the Yalobusha River. On February 20, 2016, Lee Tartt was killed in the line of duty.
Talks then began with Grenada City Manager, Trey Baker, a native of Grenada who had spent time in Washington, D.C., working on the staff of Congressman Bennie Thompson. Baker recognized the appeal of a nature preserve that would bring visitors to Grenada, and he agreed to begin negotiation of a long-term lease to FCS in exchange for the same $300,000 the city would have made from the timber sale.
Plans for the area are well underway, and “the swamp” already is becoming an attraction for nature lovers throughout the region. Strawberry Plains Audubon Center ecologists are currently working on the Land Use Management Plan. Holmes Community College forestry students are mapping and tagging trees for the “Forest Friends” campaign through which trees are “adopted” to cover the cost of the lease. Mississippi State University Landscape Architecture students are working alongside a private landscape architecture firm, Native Habitats, Inc., to develop a program and master plan for the preserve. The Downtown Innovation District, Grenada Chamber of Commerce, and Grenada Tourism Authority are promoting the preserve and directing people downtown to this unusual Main Street attraction. Grenada Public Schools, Holmes Community College, and the Delta State University Outdoor Recreation Program are incorporating the preserve into their classes and activities.
Friends of Chakchiuma Swamp, Grenada’s city leaders, representatives of the law enforcement community, local residents, and members of Tartt’s family will gather at noon on Friday, May 18, for the dedication of the Lee Tartt Nature Preserve. Tours will be given immediately following the presentation. The event marks the culmination of years of hard work by Grenada’s city leaders and local residents who care deeply about their community and its natural resources.
Whitfield, the moving force behind the effort, added, “This place isn’t beautiful just because of its natural wonders. Now, it has taken on even greater beauty because it is a monument to the tenacity of our local citizens, the generosity of our financial supporters, the collaborative spirit of Grenada’s leaders, and the selfless dedication of Lee Tartt to his community. At a time when the world seems so divided and angry, we’re all starving for connection to something beautiful and good. My hope is that people will come experience this wonderful place for themselves.”