Geography

Geography is the description of earths physical environment and the complex biological relationships within, or click this link- Geography Defined to read Merriam-Webster’s definition.

A minimal description of the Sicily Island Hills would be as follows. A series of steep, primarily forested hills in northern Catahoula Parish, Louisiana separated from the Chalk Hills to the west and completely surrounded by the alluvial plains of the Mississippi and Ouachita Rivers. Elevations within the hills are up to 200 feet greater than the surrounding floodplains.  Placement and elevation of these hills give the appearance from an aerial perspective of an island, which they are not. Home to a diverse and rich list of animal and plant life, including some rare species not known to exist in other locations in Louisiana, outside these hills.

Vermont ? La Louisiane n'est-ce pas !

From the first time that I visited the Sicily Island Hills I felt I was experiencing a special and wonderful place. I am grateful for the dedicated and hard working scientists that research these hills. The results of their findings aid preservation efforts so that future citizens of this incredible planet will be able to enjoy this unique treasure.

Due to Louisiana’s unique border shape its sometimes difficult to describe locations. In my opinion the Sicily Island Hills are situated in the southern half of the northeast portion of Louisiana in Catahoula Parish between the villages of Harrisonburg and Sicily Island. These hills stand out in the distance as you approach from the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. One of the outstanding features of the Sicily Island Hills is that these hills are predominantly capped by wind blown silty sediment known as loess which many travelers to Natchez, Mississippi will recognize. For more information on loess in Louisiana refer to the link at left labeled Loess Map. Some people pronounce loess like the name Lois, and for some people loess is pronounced as if it rhymed with less, still others may pronounce it as a word that sounds like lurs. When I was in college we called it loess like the word less, so that is how I prefer to pronounce it.

The map above clearly shows the boundaries and surrounding features of the Sicily Island Hills. The Ouachita River (pronounced as it were spelled Washitaw) and to a lesser extent the Boeuf River (pronounced like the name Jeff) form the western border. LA 915 borders the northern edge. LA 913 skirts the eastern edge. LA 8  follows the southern extremity.

Entering the Sicily Island Hills from the southern entrance, before the visitor reaches the portion of the road that includes the nature trail leading to Rock Falls, one will find on the right hand side of the road what is usually called the “Grand Canyon of Sicily Island Hills”. This area is one of many places in these hills that exhibit the typical loess erosion pattern that occurs from  annual and heavy rainfall.

1999 Erosion alongside road leading to Waterfall

This area has eroded severely since I first visited the area in the mid 1990’s. The photograph above was at the height of its glory. I prefer to think of it as the “Bryce Canyon of Sicily Island Hills”. For other views of this same area go to the Photos and Maps page, especially the 2009 photo.  I have also seen beautiful photographs of this same spot featured in Louisiana calendars and postcards, but this was before years of rain took a toll on the area.

An excellent topographic map is the 100k Natchez Quad from the United States Geological Survey, which shows Natchez Mississippi,the Mississippi river floodplain, Sicily Island Hills and a portion of the Chalk Hills to the west. You can download this map ( or maps for other locations) by going to www.usgs.gov Then click on the tab at top left labeled  Maps, Imagery and Publications. Under Maps click on Download digital scans of topo maps. On the left side of the screen click on Map Locator.  On the screen will appear a map of the United States. Use your cursor which will look like a hand to  move the map around, then use  the + and – signs on the left hand side to zoom in or out.  Use the instructions on the right hand side to bring up a map of the Sicily Island Hills.

Another great experience is Google Earth. Type in the search term: Sicily Island Hills. Google Earth will zoom in to display a broad view of the floodplain and hills including the Sicily Island Hills. Words such as Sicily Island Hills will be visible on the screen just over the area.  Holding down your cursor button which on screen looks like a hand, you can drag the image until you have the Sicily Island Hills centered on your screen. Using the + and – slider on the right hand side of the screen you can zoom in or out. The closer you zoom in you begin seeing roads, ponds and other features. In addition, you will begin to see  on the northern edge of the hills, blue and white square markers on which you can click  to reveal photographs that individuals have uploaded of the scenery. This is an excellent resource to explore the Sicily Island Hills and beyond.

One of the many things that distinguishes the Sicily Island Hills from other areas in Louisiana is the marked degree of diversity. With many kinds of animal and plant life, along with elevation above the floodplain, the Native Americans of the area must have utilized these hills for daily or seasonal resources.

During  times of flooding on the Ouachita and Mississippi rivers, one might imagine that early settlers who lived near these hills were protected from the dangers of high water that would envelop the lower croplands.

Thanks are in order to Richard McCulloh of the Louisiana Geological Survey for his generosity in providing  the following information on the biology and geology of the Sicily Island Hills. The material is excerpted from a LGS Statemap 2001-2002 Proposal  which was submitted to the United States Geological Survey, Department of Interior, under the STATEMAP component of the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program.  Portions of the proposal excerpt Louisiana Natural Heritage Program material and are cited as such. Many thanks to Gary Lester, Program Coordinator, LNHP for his kindness in allowing use of LNHP materials.

Geology of the Sicily Island Hills

The Subproject area comprises three 7.5 – minute quadrangles encompasssing the Sicily Island Hills WMA. The area is underlain by Oligocene sediment comprising mudstone of the Vicksburg Group and sandstone of the Catahoula Formation (Figure 3), the latter of which is overlain by the graveliferous Bentley alloformation of the Upland Allogroup, capped by loess. Regionally, the area lies directly south of the eastern extension of the Angelina–Caldwell flexure and western end of the Mississippi salt basin, on the eastern flank of the La Salle arch.

One aspect of surface geology that this investigation may have an opportunity to clarify, but the import of which would extend beyond the subproject area through much of the northern Gulf Coast, is the stratigraphic classification of the Catahoula Formation.  The age of the Catahoula has been subject to question for decades, in fact since the formation was first recognized and named.  The most comprehensive early work, that of Matson (1916; cf. also the accompanying paleobotanical work of Berry 1916), interpreted the formation as Oligocene, but as Chawner (1936) pointed out, the formation contains nothing diagnostic as to age.  In part as a result, in the northern Gulf Coast, two different traditions with respect to the age of the Catahoula have developed side by side:  a surface-mapping tradition that regards the formation as Miocene (e.g., Cooke et al. 1943), and a subsurface-mapping tradition that regards it and its purported correlative subsurface equivalents as principally or wholly Oligocene (e.g., Deussen and Owen 1939).  The controversy has stayed alive because the surface-mapping tradition has no diagnostic fossils on which to base its age assignment, and the subsurface-mapping tradition’s age assignment based on standard foraminiferal biostratigraphy entails correlation with the surface Catahoula that is not unequivocal (cf. McBride et al. 1968, p. 10).  Thus most of the aspects of the controversy as summarized by Chawner (1936, p. 132) are essentially unchanged from the time of his writing.

The age controversy derives in part from a situation in the northern Gulf Coast that generally hampers updip-to-downdip correlation:  a zone of little to no electric-log data between the bottoms of the shallower wells and the tops of the logged intervals of the deeper wells.  This zone, created by the deep surface casings in most oil and gas wells, amounts to a sizeable gap in information between the deep subsurface and shallow subsurface (McCulloh 1993), spanning as much as several thousand feet.  In many areas with dramatic changes of facies and increases in structural displacement (e.g., accompanying the expansion of section across successive shelf edges), much of the change takes place entirely within this zone, making correlations across the zone problematic.

Galloway (1977) and Galloway and others (1982) have suggested that presently available information likely indicates that the interpretation made earlier by Deussen and Owen (1939) is essentially correct:  that the Catahoula in Texas correlates down dip with the subsurface Oligocene Frio Sand and with the Oligocene portion of the overlying Anahuac Shale, and that the Miocene section begins with the base of the Fleming Formation and its equivalents. Howe (1933) and Chawner (1936) pointed out that virtually all authors correlate the Catahoula along strike to the east, at least in part, with the Miocene Chattahoochee Formation or Tampa Limestone; the COSUNA correlation chart prepared by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (1988) shows that this is still the case, but that at least the lower two-thirds of the Catahoula is now regarded as Oligocene throughout the area of its extent.

The development of a means of obtaining age-diagnostic fossils in the surface Catahoula would hold promise for resolving the long-standing age controversy.  Palynology may hold such promise…

Boulders At Base of Waterfall after Snowfall

Forests of Sicily Island Hills

The area encompassing Sicily Island and the Chalk Hills to its west contains mature forest communities with associated floral and faunal assemblages of unique ecologic significance. These were originally noteworthy but have now become rare through timber cutting and its initiation of successional changes in surrounding areas.

Sicily Island is shown by Goins and Caldwell (1995, pl. 3) as representing the southern tip of the Blufflands natural region, which is formed mostly on the Pleistocene valley trains (Saucier and Snead 1989) or “braided stream terraces” (Snead and McCulloh 1984) extending to the north; and as separated by the Mississippi [Ouachita] Flood Plain natural region from the Longleaf Pine Hills natural region to the northwest, of which the area including the Chalk Hills is the eastern extremity. The present forest region types indicated by Goins and Caldwell (1995, pl. 7) in these natural regions are Loblolly–Shortleaf Pine in the Chalk Hills, Oak–Gum–Cypress in the flood plain, and Oak–Gum–Cypress on Sicily Island.

Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries website document states:

The forest over story is a mixture of loblolly-shortleaf pine and upland hardwoods. Approximately one-third of the tract was heavily logged prior to acquisition, resulting in a sparse stand of small trees. The remaining lands are forested with a variety of uneven-aged timber species, with a relatively closed canopy. On ridges, the predominant tree species are loblolly and shortleaf pine, hickory, elm, ash, white oak, blackjack oak, post oak, shumard oak and southern red oak. Important species in the lower elevations are beech, magnolia, hickory, sweet gum, black gum, water oak, and cherrybark oak.

The understory is sparse in the forested areas with density improving in the cut overs. Some important understory species are flowering dogwood, arrowwood, rattan, huckleberry, buckeye, greenbrier, blackberry, grape, seedlings of the overstory and various native grasses and herbaceous plants.

Additional detail on the natural setting and recent history of the forest communities in the area encompassing the SIHWMA is provided in comments prepared by the LDWF’s Louisiana Natural Heritage Program (LNHP) on a draft compartment prescription and proposed cutting there (LNHP 2000), from which the following is excerpted:

Sicily Island WMA contains what is almost certainly the largest, intact, mature natural forest remaining on the steep hills and escarpment lying immediately adjacent to the Ouachita River in northeast Louisiana. Essentially all of the native forests in the “Ouachita Hills” (that generally begin at and west of SIWMA) have been clearcut and replanted with loblolly pine plantations. In our field work in the region, we have seen this pattern repeated up and down the Ouachita Hills and have seen many significant forests sites that we were tracking lost in this way. Essentially all that remains of the mature, native forests in the area are small patches of 40 acres, sometimes up to 100 acres or so. And there are not many of these. We estimate that currently less than 5% of the area in the escarpment hills flanking the Ouachita River remains in mature, native forest. Thus, the mature, native upland forests at SIWMA are truly rare habitats. And the fact that there are a few thousand contiguous acres of mature, native forests present there adds to their significance.

The native forests at SIWMA are unique. They have developed on loess-capped strata of the Catahoula Formation. The silt loam loess soils at the surface are circum-neutral and relatively high in fertility. The underlying and associated Catahoula Formation sandstones and clays are extremely acidic and nutrient poor. Only a very small area of the “Catahoula Hills” to the west in Catahoula Parish has this same combination of soil and geological conditions, and thus a similar capacity to produce native forests of the same structure and composition.

The area is known to support populations of several rare plant and animal species (see table below). In fact, SIWMA supports more rare species than most other LDWF-owned WMA’s. Each of these species (except the fish) is associated almost exclusively with habitat conditions provided by mature, relatively undisturbed forests. These species are rare today primarily because of the loss of this once fairly common habitat. We have also listed plant and animal species that have a significant probability of being present on SIWMA, but that are not currently known from the area. The great majority of the species listed as probable are associated with mature upland hardwood forest conditions. Several of the probable rare plants are rare “rich woods” orchids.

Table 1.  Rare Species Present or Probable at Sicily Island Hills WMA
Louisiana Natural Heritage Program (LNHP 2000)

Rare Animals

Southern Redback Salamander  (Plethodon serratus) [G5S1]

Comment: One of two known populations in the state.

Louisiana Slimy Salamander  (Plethodon kisatchie) [G3QS1S2]

Comment: The best known occurrence in the state.

Central Stoneroller  (Campostoma anomalum) [G5S2]

Rare Animals with a Significant Probability of Being Present (not a complete listing):

Pine Hills Crawfish (Fallicambarus dissitus) [G3S2]

Comments: To be looked for in upland burrows.

Ouachita Fencing Crawfish (Faxonella creaseri) [G2S2]

Comments: To be looked for in ditches or ephemeral pools.

Yellow Brachycercus Mayfly (Brachycercus flavus) [GHS1?]

Comments: To be looked for in clear, running water.

Schoolhouse Springs Leuctran Stonefly (Leuctra szczytkoi) [G1G3S2]

Comments: To be looked for in clear, running water.

Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) [G4S2]

Comments: To be looked for in woods.

Worm-eating warbler (Helmitheros vermivora) [G5S3S4]

Comments: To be looked for in slope forests.

Louisiana Waterthrush (Seiurus motacilla) [G5S3S4]

Comments: To be looked for along streams.

.

American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) [G5S3]

Comments: To be looked for in overmature forests.

Long-tailed Weasel (Mustela frenata) [G5S2S4]

Comments: To be looked for in woods.

Rare Plants

Single-head Pussytoes  (Antennaria solitaria) [G5S2]

Comments: Found on ledges with exposed boulders on slopes in mature forest on SIWMA.

Scarlet Woodbine (Schisandra glabra)[G3S1S2]

Comments: Recorded from mature, mesic hardwood forests on the area.

Silky Camelia (Stewartia malacodendron) [G4S2]

Comments: Only known population in the state on a conservation area.  Scattered throughout the mature forests of the area.

Rare Plants with a Significant Probability of Being Present (not a complete listing):

Autumn Coral-Root Orchid (Corallorrhiza odontorhiza) [G5S1]

Comments: Known from similar habitats in Caldwell Parish a few miles to the northwest.  Good probability of being present in mature forests on the area.

Southern (yellow) Lady’s-Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium kentuckiense) [G3S1]

Comments: Historically known from “Chalk Hills” area just to the west of  SIWMA.  Some probability of being present in mature forests on the area.

Crested Coral-Root Orchid (Hexalectris spicata) [G4?S1S2]

Comments: Known from escarpment hills in southeastern Caldwell parish a few miles to the northwest of SIWMA.  Moderate probability of occurrence in mature forests on the area.

Shadow-Witch Orchid (Ponthieva racemosa) [G4G5S2]

Comments: Currently known from just north of SIWMA.  High probability of occurrence in mature forests on the area.

American Pinesap (Monotropa hypopithys) [G5S2]

Comments: Known from the Chalk Hills a few miles to the west of SIWMA.  Moderate probability of occurrence in mature forests on the area.

Climbing Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) [G5S2]

Comments: Known from similar loess-based hilly habitats elsewhere in the state.  Some probability of occurrence in mature forests on the area.

Eastern Leatherwood (Dirca palustris) [G4S1]

Comments: Known from escarpment hills a few miles to the west (Chalk Hills).  Some probability of occurrence in mature forests on the area.

In addition to its value as unique mature native forest habitat for floral and faunal assemblages that include a number of notably rare species, the area has considerable scenic value and appeal for tourism of the kind permitted within the framework of wildlife management areas. The forest itself is unlike any with which Louisianians are familiar elsewhere in the state, resembling more something perhaps characteristic of the Appalachians (LNHP 2000); but the area contains as well a number of waterfalls, localized in places along the base of the graveliferous Bentley alloformation of the Upland Allogroup at its contact with the underlying Catahoula sandstone. One of these waterfalls is the state’s tallest (LNHP 2000), and was recently written up in a popular guide to out-of-the-way places of interest to tourists in Louisiana (Odom 1994).

The area is not just sensitive ecologically; with its steep slopes maintained by loess-capped graveliferous sediments of the Bentley alloformation overlying Catahoula sandstone, its soils are as well highly sensitive to physical disturbance and prone to erosion (LNHP 2000).

The state geologist and the state geologic mapping advisory committee consider the development of detailed 1:24,000-scale geologic maps of an area encompassing the SIHWMA, comprising three 7.5-minute quadrangles in the proposed subproject area, to be essential to future maintenance and preservation efforts there, and to have the greatest priority for new geologic mapping at the present time.

Image above courtesy of Ann Bloxom Smith

Plant Specimens Collected in the Sicily Island Hills area

The ULM Herbarium is in the process of digitizing its special and vast collection. Soon the public and scientists alike will be able to view the collection online.

My thanks to Dennis Bell of the Biology Department of the University of Louisiana – Monroe for the following list from the ULM Herbarium.

Some of the plants in or near the Sicily Island Hills:

SIH hereafter refers to Sicily Island Hills

  • Asclepias viridifolia Raf.  6/19/1970   SIH 3.5 m NW of Leland
  • Asclepias viridifolia Raf. 5/20/1996      SIH edge of woods along
    roadside W of Norris Springs
  • Antennaria  plantaginifolia (L.) Richards 6/6/1970 SIH S of LA 915
    W of Norris Springs
  • Antennaria  solitaria Rydb.  3/3/1975 SIH Deep ravine
    S of Leland Lookout Tower
  • Antennaria  solitaria Rydb. 3/3/1990 SIH east of Ouachita River
    S of LA 915 W Leland Lookout Tower site.
  • Antennaria  solitaria Rydb. 5/12/1990 SIH Mature woods near waterfall N of LA 8.
    site
  • Helianthus silphioides Nutt. 8/8/1967  Dry sandy hills in recently
    cleared International Paper Pine Forest 3 m W of Harrisonburg
  • Prenanthes altissima L.  10/8/1983  SIH W of LA 913 N of Leland
  • Prenanthes altissima L.   10/3/1970   SIH N of Norris Springs and LA 913
  • Prenanthes altissima L.     5/12/1990  SIH Mature woods near waterfall N of LA 8
  • Prenanthes altissima L.     10/10/1993 SIH Along Big Creek and
    waterfall branch NW of Leland
  • Prenanthes altissima L.       9/20/1992  SIH Mature woods near water
    fall
  • Prenanthes altissima L.  3/3/1975  SIH Deep ravine S of Leland Lookout Tower
  • Prenanthes altissima L.  6/20/1970 SIH Upper tributaries of Big Creek
  • Prenanthes altissima L.   10/6/1973 SIH Near Big Creek
  • Cardamine concatenata  (Michx.) Sw. 3/24/1972 (Spring Cress)
    Growing along side gravel road in ditch 3 m SW of Manifest, La.
  • Chenopodium simplex (Torr.) Raf. 6/5/1970  Edge of field and fence row beside LA 913, o.3miles SW of Peck,La.
  • Tradescantia gigantea Rose   4/9/1988  SIH LA 913 about 3 miles
    N of LA 8
  • Carex rosea Wild.  Unspecified
  • Cyperus flavescens L.    7/23/1968 International Paper land between Harrisonburg and Rosefield.
  • Astragalus canadensis L.    4/20/1975 Woods besides LA 124, 3 miles
    W of Duty Ferry.
  • Bartonia virginica (L.) B.S.P. 10/20/1975  Seepage area SE of cemetery and church in pine woods  S of Duty.
  • Obolaria virginica  L.   2/22/1992 SIH mixed hardwood forest on steep slopes between ridgetop and branch of Big Creek.
  • Obolaria virginica L.  3/18/1973 Mesic woods near Rosefield,La.
  • Carya myristiciformis (Michx. f ) Nutt  7/23/1968  International
    Paper land between Harrisonburg and Rosefield.
  • Trillium ludovicianum Harbison  5/12/1990 SIH Mature woods near waterfall site.
  • Trillium ludovicianum Harbison  2/13/1993 SIH Wooded gorges near waterfall.
  • Trillium ludovicianum Harbison 2/20/1990 SIH Woods beside LA 913 at Norris Springs W of Sicily Island N of Leland.
  • Trillium ludovicianum Harbison  3/26/1988 SIH W of former Leland Forest Tower.
  • Trillium ludovicianum Harbison 3/23/1974 1/4 mile from Aimwell
    Cemetery alongside road and creek.
  • Polygonum sagittatum L.  10/18/1985  Wet area beside LA 8 at bridge over Bushley Creek E of Manifest, La.
  • Crataegus pruinosa (Wendl. f ) K. Koch  5/12/1990 SIH Mature woods near waterfall.
  • Schisandra glabra (Bickn.) Rehd.  10/10/1993  SIH Along Big Creek
    and waterfall branch.
  • Schisandra glabra (Bickn.) Rehd. 5/12/1990  SIH Mature woods near waterfall.
  • Stewartia malacodendron L. 6/20/1970  SIH Upper tributaries of Big Creek.
  • Stewartia malacodendron L. 9/26/1993 SIH beside creek at waterfall.
  • Stewartia malacodendron L.  6/25/1972 SIH Small tree infrequent along streams in rich woods.
  • Stewartia malacodendron L. 5/12/1990 SIH Mature woods near waterfall.
  • Dirca palustris L.   Unspecified.

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