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Today is May 10, 2021

Lee Tartt Nature Preserve: A hero’s outdoor refuge

Not far from the square in downtown Grenada, there’s an urban forest on 300 acres on the banks of the Yalobusha River.

By Steven Ward

Lee Tartt Nature Preserve: A hero’s outdoor refuge

Local artist Robin Whitfield, who landed in Grenada in 1996 to paint murals for a public school, had never spent time in a swamp before walking from her home studio to the urban forest.

“It captivated me from day one. I would explore the area every day, slowly learning the names and relationships of the plants and animals there,” Whitfield said.

She “fell head over heels for this special and magical place” and became an Audubon Master Naturalist soon after.

Today, Whitfield is the director of the Lee Tartt Nature Preserve, the name of the acreage which was previously called the Chakchiuma Swamp Natural Area.

The preserve is a bottomland hardwood forest featuring a series of interconnected oxbow lakes known as the Chakchiuma Swamp.

The city-owned property’s westbound boundary is Highway 51 and the northern boundary is Highway 332 leading to the Grenada Lake dam and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers floodplain property known as the Haserway Wetland Area.

The preserve provides a constant feast of caterpillars for birds year-round. Notable summer birds are the prothonotary warbler, summer tanager, white-eyed and yellow-throated vireo, northern parula, yellow-billed cuckoo and snowy egret. Notable winter birds are the hermit thrush, wood duck, brown creeper, red-crowned kinglet and yellow-bellied sapsucker. The year-round residents include barred owl, red-shouldered hawk, northern cardinal, turkey vulture and woodpeckers — pileated, red-bellied and downy, Whitfield added. The caterpillars fill the preserve with butterflies and moths notably zebra swallowtail whose host plant is pawpaw, gulf fritillary whose host plant is passion vine and luna moth whose host plant is sweetgum.

“The oxbow lakes are cut off from the river keeping them cool and clear most of the year,” Whitfield said. And it wouldn’t be a swamp without turtles, frogs, fish and reptiles.

The preserve currently has short walking trails in three locations, an observation deck overlooking the swamp and oxbow lake access for paddlers. Whitfield’s volunteer group, Friends of Chakchiuma Swamp, is working with architects to create a masterplan that will feature a handicap accessible interpretive trail, three miles of walking trails, boardwalks through the wetlands and grasslands, quiet nature viewing benches, a natural children’s play area and a classroom size pavilion.

Whitfield said visitors come to the preserve for many reasons but the swamp itself seems to be the main attraction. Guests sit on the observation deck or float in a kayak. They fish, paddle, take photographs, paint, go birding and set up picnics in the preserve.

The preserve was named after James Lee Tartt, who was passionate about the outdoors.

A Grenada native, he grew up on a farm and loved hunting and fishing. When he was off duty, he liked to hand fish in the Yalobusha River, according to his brother, Keith Tartt.

When he was on duty, he worked as a special agent for the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics. A perfect shot, Keith Tartt said, his brother was also a member of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety SWAT team. The 44-year-old law enforcement officer was shot and killed in February 2016 when he and other authorities responded to a domestic dispute at a home near Iuka in Tishomingo County.

An armed man was holding his wife and 10-year-old daughter in a house and he refused to come out after more than six hours of hostage negotiations, according to reporting by the Associated Press. Tartt was one of four officers that went inside when the man and police officers started shooting at each other. Lee Tartt was shot and killed that day. The other three officers were injured.

The woman and her daughter escaped the home alive. The armed man holding them there was shot and killed by police during the standoff.

How the preserve became named after Lee Tartt, involves someone who remains anonymous to this day.

The Friends of Chakchiuma Swamp wanted to save the acreage from inclusion in a citywide timber harvest. An anonymous donor loaned the group $300,000 to win the bid in the timber sale purchasing all of the trees in the 300 acres, Whitfield said. He then offered half of it back as a matching donor so every time someone donates, 50 cents is added to every $1. The deal paved the way to a 60-year lease of the property with the city.

Keith Tartt said one of the conditions of the deal by the donor was to name the preserve after his brother. The preserve was named after Lee Tartt in 2018.

When asked what Lee would have thought about the naming of the preserve, Keith Tartt recalled his younger brother’s personality.

“I’m sure he would have been proud. But Lee was a very humble person. He was a quiet guy. He liked to be in the background. He didn’t toot his own horn,” Keith Tartt said. After Lee Tartt died, his brother was going through his things and came across a box. Inside were all kinds of law enforcement awards he never told anyone about.“He won too, once also posthumously,” Keith Tartt said.

Keith Tartt, a member of the nature preserve’s board of directors, said he hopes that the future of the swamp area becomes part of city plans for downtown Grenada’s revival.

“It’s all part of a bigger vision and this would add a nature presence which would be vital for the community,” Keith Tartt said.

Whitfield said the mission of the nature preserve is “conservation through creativity, curiosity and community connection.”

“Through all that, we have experienced as an organization and with observations of nature our motto is ‘everything is connected.’ Events, workshops, partnerships and conservation workdays are how we fulfill our mission,” Whitfield said.

Whitfield said she finds a few minutes or a few hours to spend at the preserve every day.

“I never tire of seeing what’s different from the day before and making new connections. I have never been disappointed in a visit and have always left with abundant gifts, Whitfield said. “While wandering around I think things like ‘wow! There’s my favorite flower!’ or ‘that is the most amazing tree I have ever seen!’ or ‘Does it get any more peaceful than this moment?’ Considering I have these thoughts every day about totally different things, the only conclusion I can draw is that my favorite part of the preserve is simply having the privilege of being there in that moment.”


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