Dr. Rex Hancock
Even by Arkansas standards, Archibald Rex Hancock Jr.’s love of the outdoors was exceptional. His father first took him hunting at age 4; by age 8 he had his own shotgun and the honor of being the youngest permit carrier in his native Missouri, according to a local magazine.
In 1951, Hancock settled in Arkansas solely for its rich hunting and fishing, initially in Huntsville then Stuttgart, where he took every opportunity to pursue the area’s game. Having hunted and fished all over North America, there was no place closer to his heart than north central Arkansas and he became a vigilant, even obsessive conservationist on its behalf.
If there was a battle to be fought in defense of Arkansas’ sporting fields, it was Hancock who could be found at the front of the line. When the 1958 Boone and Crockett Club’s Records of North America Big Game failed to mention Arkansas in its whitetail deer listings, Hancock became certified as an official scorer for the club and started measuring mounts. Six years later, Arkansas was not only listed, but ranked first.
Hancock brought similar drive to the organizations that supported his passion. He served five consecutive terms as president of the Grand Prairie Chapter of the Wildlife Federation, became Arkansas Wildlife Federation president and served from 1975-1979 as a regional National Wildlife Federation director.
In 1964, Hancock got into his first major environmental tangle while documenting fish kill on Bayou Meto. He spent years kicking down doors and blistering ears before the federal government finally acknowledged in 1979 that chemical dumps into a local stream by a Jacksonville pesticide plant was the culprit, and the awareness of Vertac’s actions helped trigger Arkansas’ most notorious Superfund cleanup case.
For his last and greatest battle – saving the Cache River from being dredged and channelized – Hancock would need the accumulated contacts and resources he’d built within conservation and hunting circles. Even then, his beloved Cache and the multiple habitats it supported were nearly lost.
The Cache River rises in the Missouri bootheel, travels southward and empties into the White River north of Clarendon. The Nature Conservancy, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Ducks Unlimited have long recognized it as one of the most important habitat areas in the country, but in 1950 Congress saw it as just another wild river threatening agricultural interests and approved the Cache River Channelization Project as part of the Flood Control Act.
In 1970, Congress approved $60 million for the Corps of Engineers to channelize 232 miles of the river and its tributary, Bayou DeView. Despite pending lawsuits to stop it by the Arkansas Wildlife Federation and Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, a seven-mile gash was cut alongside the river.
Hancock responded by sounding a call to arms, bringing together hunter and environmentalist alike under the banner Citizen’s Committee to Save the Cache.
CCSC quickly signed onto the pending lawsuits and Hancock went into trademark bulldog mode pushing the agenda to whoever would listen to join him against those who wouldn’t.
Years in the courts and thousands of his own dollars later, nine states, Arkansas Gov. Dale Bumpers and Attorney General Bill Clinton would ultimately align with the unshakable Grand Prairie dentist.
A pivotal federal court halted the dredging work in 1972, requiring further environmental impact studies be done. These studies affirmed the potential eco-disaster channelization represented and that Hancock had asserted all along.
In 1984, the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was established, permanently putting the area out of reach of such harm.
Attention over Hancock’s fight sparked a new era in conservationist zeal in Arkansas and elsewhere. In the Big Woods, new federal and state wildlife refuges were formed, including one, Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area, re-named in his honor in 1981. Subsequent state and federal conservation initiatives took their inspiration, precedents or both from his fight to save the Cache.
Not the least of these are recent efforts to repair the seven-mile scar from the initial dredging along the river, a project that aligned Hancock’s former allies Ducks Unlimited, Arkansas Game and Fish and The Nature Conservancy with, ironically, his former adversary the Corps of Engineers.
Among his many accolades – including Outdoor Life magazine’s Conservationist of the Year in 1973, Arkansas Sportsman of the Year in 1975 and Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation Outdoor Hall of Fame induction in 1993 – perhaps Hancock’s greatest and most fitting tribute came upon his death in 1986, when his ashes were placed along the Cache River that he loved and saved.
“I couldn’t stand by and watch a bureaucratic federal agency thumb its nose at Arkansas,” Hancock said at the height of his one-man crusade. “Conservation needs more than lip service … more than professionals. It needs ordinary people with extraordinary desire.”