The White River winds through a magical expanse of bottomland hardwoods, one of the last remnants of the 24 million-acre forest that once blanketed the entire Mississippi Valley. William Faulkner dubbed this basin the Big Woods, "bigger and older than any recorded document." Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has called it America's Amazon.

Now this fading river town is battling to protect the oak, ash and sweet gum of the Big Woods from the dikes, dredges and jetties of the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps is studying a plan to expand navigation on the White, a $50 million effort to attract economic development to rural backwaters like Clarendon by deepening the river's barge channel. But Clarendon--the mayor, the city council, even the Chamber of Commerce--is saying no thanks. At a recent town meeting to discuss the project, the vote was a stunning 74 to 2 against.

"Nobody needs economic development more than we do, but this isn't the way to get it," says Clarendon Mayor Don Boshers. "All over America, the Corps has raped the countryside to make way for barges that don't even come. We're not going to let that happen here."

The nation's federally managed water transportation system is just about complete, and with a few exceptions, its bargeways have been disappointments, and sometimes spectacular failures. Nevertheless, there are two possible expansions in the works. A proposed extension of the little-used Red River navigation channel from Shreveport, La., up to Index, Ark., is years away from a decision. But the Corps plan to build 119 wing dikes on the White is an imminent possibility.

The plan has some support in depressed Arkansas communities like Augusta and Newport, where factories manufacturing wire products, light fixtures and outdoor furniture have shut down in the last few years. But the equally depressed downriver towns of Clarendon and Brinkley have chosen to fight--not because they're teeming with left-leaning environmentalists, but because they believe their economic futures depend on a healthy river.

This is the new twist of the war over waterways: It's not just businessmen versus environmentalists anymore. Wildlife-related recreation--hunting, fishing, birdwatching--is now a billion-dollar industry in Arkansas, enjoyed by nearly half the state's adults. The White flows through two national wildlife refuges that receive 280,000 visitors a year; the telling sign at the entrance to Clarendon now reads "Gateway to the White and Cache River Refuges." This basin is the number-one flyway for mallards in North America; a recent duck-calling contest in nearby Stuttgart attracted more than 50,000 visitors to that town.

"They talk about all the economic benefits of those barges, but that's all questionable," says Perry Lee, the local banker. "The river is real. We can't kill that golden goose."

Supporters of the project can hardly believe the furor. For years, Congress and the Corps have greenlighted one massive navigation project after another with little debate, shelling out billions of dollars, with little attention to environmental impact. The naturally deep White is much better suited for navigation than most of the previous reengineered rivers, and will require much less alteration to ensure a nine-foot barge channel. Still, it is far more controversial.

The boosters believe the wingdikes will increase traffic on the river tenfold, converting the White from an underused, often unavailable waterway into a bustling full-time river of commerce. They predict that farmers hurting from low commodities prices will save 10 cents per bushel shipping soybeans by water instead of highway, and new factories will flock to obscure riverside towns staggered by double-digit unemployment. And they say there is no evidence that the modest wingdikes will hurt the environment at all; they've already agreed to abandon a plan that required much more dredging of the riverbottom.

Their argument is simple: Stop blaming the White for the boondoggles of yore.

"We're trying to get the word out: We're not like those other projects," says Harvey Joe Sanner, an outspoken farm activist who runs the pro-barge White River Valley Association. "We agree, if this is bad for the environment, forget about it. But it won't be."

That's not what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service thinks. It's predicting a disaster.

The White River--which stretches from the foothills of the Ozarks in northwest Arkansas up through the country-music mecca of Branson, Mo., then back southeast through Arkansas to the Mississippi River--may be best known for a failed riverside development known as Whitewater. But the Lower White is also considered one of America's best-kept natural secrets, the last pristine swath of the Mississippi's alluvial floodplain, a diverse habitat for songbirds, waterfowl, black bears, bald eagles and 150 species of fish, as well as endangered freshwater mussels. The key to the whole ecosystem is floods, rising in spring, retreating in summer, carrying fish to their spawning grounds and exposing invertebrates for them to eat.

On rivers like the Missouri, wingdikes have disrupted those natural ebbs and flows, fundamentally unhinging the local food chain. On the White, the lower half of the barge channel would flow through national wildlife refuges, and the Fish and Wildlife officials running those refuges believe history will undoubtedly repeat itself.

"This isn't brain surgery," says Larry Mallard, the director of the White River refuge. "If you mess with the connectivity of the system, you're going to inflict some incredible damage."

Navigation boosters grouse that the Fish and Wildlife Service just wants to depopulate and reforest the area. But even Army Corps head Joseph Westphal, who visited the White last year with Babbitt, says he discovered the need to "assess and reassess what we're doing there."

"We pay to destroy precious natural resources. Then we pay to fix it down the road," warns Steve Ellis, director of water resources for Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Well, here's one last chance to say no in the first place."

Yet the study continues, and a decision is expected this spring. In 1988, this was one of the first navigation projects ever deauthorized by Congress; in 1996, then-Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) got it reauthorized. The channelization vision is the same as it always has been along the inland waterways system: If we build it, economic development will come. And this area is particularly desperate for economic development.

"We all love hunting and fishing, but we've got to think about jobs," says Augusta Mayor Thomas Huie, a former highway engineer. "If this creates one job, I'm for it 100 percent."