Of Gravel and The River

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 25, 2010

Stringing ropes across a river on a March day sounded like pleasant work, especially on the Jacks Fork, which may be the most dazzling place in the world.

A few butterflies are out. Pileated woodpecker and kingfisher challenge jets for sound effects. By evening, bats try their wings as peepers sing. Only bare trees say spring hasn't arrived, which makes Robb Jacobson happy.

Jacobson is a United States Geological Survey researcher. His job is surveying the river and tree leaves get in his way. His laser theodolite, a surveying instrument with an electronic data logger, doesn't see through leaves, although they can "look around them a little," Jacobson says.

My job for the day is setting up survey cross-sections. I had thought it would be purely educational, but I'd forgotten about chest waders. Even on a cool day they make you sweat like a kid on a hay crew.

Jacobson has spent several years gathering data on Ozark rivers. He has updated our knowledge of Ozarks rivers and the critters that live in and near them.

"People see rivers and think they have always looked like this, but we know that's not so. With our equipment we can describe accurately what's changing and why," Jacobson says.

"Jacobson's work is just solid science," says Bob Cunningham, Conservation Department assistant district forester in West Plains. Cunningham has a personal and professional interest in Ozark forest history. "We've needed something like this report. I've always thought it was simplistic to blame early timber cutting for all the gravel in the rivers."

The report in question, Historical Land-Use Changes and Potential Effects on Stream Disturbance in the Ozark Plateaus, Missouri, published by the U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the Missouri Department of Conservation in 1994, deals with issues debated for decades. It uses many geological and historical methods to reach a main conclusion: livestock grazing on open range in the Ozarks until the 1950s was primarily responsible for destabilizing the streams Jacobson examined. Recovery seems to be underway, but returning rivers to optimum conditions will take time and patient management.

That kind of care has gone into Jacobson's research. He crafts methods to determine what Ozark rivers were like before settlement, 200 or so years ago, as well as more recent changes. Ropes and his theodolite are some of his more fascinating tools. Old photographs and memories can be valuable, too.

Surveying's difficulties come from the need to examine exactly the same portions

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