02 June 2011

Griswold Bird Refuge Long Forgotten

Midlands Voices:

For a particular oxbow lake of the Missouri River valley now known as Carter Lake, a profound page in its history was recognition as a wild bird sanctuary. Perhaps it was the first fowl refuge established in the region.

The designation was a tribute to the legacy of Sandy Griswold, whose writings — starting in 1887 when hired for the Omaha Bee newspaper — were well known to competitive sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts throughout Nebraska and the nation.

Griswold, in his latter years while writing for the Omaha World-Herald, regularly expressed the need to protect birds and their wild havens. Many articles, whether about feathered visitors to Turner Park — near his midtown residence — or expressing the splendors of spring among the wooded hills of Florence, were vivid in their presentation. Readers regularly expressed appreciation for a story they thought was especially interesting.

By the mid-1920s, efforts were undertaken to recognize his long-term, nearly ceaseless tributes to the wonders of natural history at Nebraska places.

A January 1924 letter by Harry B. Fitch of the Izaak Walton group and sent to Griswold, in his mid-70s, indicated one particular group initiative:

"You can rest assured ‘The Izaak Walton League,’ as a unit, is behind you in this great and worthy movement, and any measure that has for its prime motive the perpetuation and propagation of wildlife will receive the whole-hearted support of the Waltons. No doubt it will meet with some adverse criticism, but we believe very little opposition will come from the real red-blooded 100 percent American sportsman and nature lovers.
"You have seen the time when our Nebraska lakes teemed with myriads of ducks and wildlife, and no man in the shooting world has a keener knowledge of what conditions will be in the next decade.
"Since you are unquestionably one of the greatest living bird authorities, and in gratitude of your untiring efforts toward saving the last shattered remnants of our great heritage, please allow me to submit to the sportsmen of Omaha and Nebraska a fitting name for Carter Lake in its new existence, The Sandy Griswold Bird Sanctuary."

Omaha officials soon passed a resolution recognizing this designation. The May 10, 1925, issue of the Omaha Bee indicated:

"Carter Lake has been made a bird preserve. No more may Omaha nimrods slaughter migrating flocks of ducks which seek rest in the lake. The fowls seem to realize that they will not be molested about the lake, and have made their homes near it in great numbers.”

In late October 1929, during a "sudden snowstorm and cold spell," Carter Lake was "‘full of ducks’ where they found a safe haven at the bird sanctuary," according to a Nebraska Ornithologists Union letter of information, which recognized the Izaak Walton League in achieving the designation.

During 1928-30, members of the Omaha Nature Study Club visited the lake and marsh environs more than 90 times to document the waterbirds. Many distinctive species were observed, especially shorebirds particular to shallow water habitats.

Prominent in raising funds for a bird sanctuary marker were George Brandeis and Thomas Kimball, two of the members of a 50-person committee. A monument, expressing "Sandy’s Creed" for land conservation, was placed in Levi Carter Park.

Sandy Griswold’s death on April 20, 1929, was noted in the two Omaha daily newspapers. He was 80. His funeral on Arbor Day was attended by hundreds, including many local luminaries. The family plot at Prospect Hill Cemetery has an expansive, scenic view of the wide valley of the Missouri River.

There is currently no Sandy Griswold Bird Sanctuary marker at Levi Carter Park. The presence of this feature has been long ignored but not wholly forgotten.

A modern appreciation for Griswold’s unique legacy can be easily recognized, as wildlife habitats about Carter Lake still have some value for bird life. Its setting has been dramatically altered since the halcyon days of the 1920s. Despite the vast changes, more than 80 species — mostly songbirds — have been recorded this current spring.

With another large-scale "alteration" of Carter Lake currently pending, it’s time to re-establish the Sandy Griswold Bird Sanctuary and actively conserve those relict wild habitats that still remain. There are obviously beneficial opportunities.

June 1, 2010. Omaha World-Herald 146(250): 7B. Midlands Voices, on the right-side opinion page. A letter and word not revised by editorial staff have been corrected.