Of Gravel and The River

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 25, 2010

the Jacks Fork and Little Piney.

For parts of three years I was hired to find long-time residents of these watersheds who had good memories of changing use of the land. Such oral insights into recent history were important because no written records exist to document many farming methods. Rapid change in the 20th Century has made oral history methods useful to many disciplines.

As might be expected, each person interviewed had a slightly different point of view and different memories of his or her farm, river or neck of the woods:

We used to always burn every spring. You had to burn every spring because, you see, there wasn't no stock law. People just turned their stock out on what they call the free range. Over there at the old home place where this house is, well we'd milk the old cows and just kick them out of the gate ... You could go back out north out there and there'd be as high as 50 bells. You could just hear cow bells, horses and cows ... and they all had bells on them.

That's the late Ab Detwiler speaking, a Mennonite farmer who lived south of the Jacks Fork near Birch Tree. He and his wife, Lottie, and others spoke about how common spring or fall burning was 50 or 60 years ago. Burning promoted grass to support livestock roaming the countryside, which was mostly open range. It may have also contributed to erosion and streambed instability in the long run.

These and related observations, when joined with data about livestock numbers, suggested to Jacobson patterns of land use that may have changed rivers. By using different kinds of data, a picture of the changing Ozarks and its rivers emerges.

"This report is valuable in managing the Current, Jacks Fork and other streams," observes Dave Foster, a biologist recently retired from the National Park Service. "We have limited resources so this helps us know what sections of river may be unstable and why. We've had to move campgrounds in the past and must avoid such expense in the future."

Can study of stream geomorphology be any help in the related issue of gravel mining? Regulations in recent years have affected how gravel can be taken from streams.

"Many believe rivers were so damaged by timber cutting a hundred years ago it doesn't make any difference where gravel comes from," Jacobson says about the question. "Rivers are recovering according to our research. If we study them we can find what areas have been disturbed the most. These places might be better for mining than more stable zones."

Any spring day along a river makes questions of stability and past uses of rivers seem irrelevant, but geomorphology may make it possible to sustain and improve our rivers so we can enjoy them all the more.

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