Twenty Years of Missouri Natural Areas: Protecting the Genuine Article

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Published on: Mar. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 26, 2010

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Missouri Natural Areas System. In a sense it seems strange to think of this as a milestone, since natural areas themselves are essentially timeless. Their natural communities reach back to the last ice age, and their geology much further.

But in terms of human endeavors, 20 years of successful cooperation by government and the private sector is truly an achievement worth celebrating.

In 1976, while a biologist in Illinois, I learned that the citizens of neighboring Missouri had passed a Conservation Sales Tax that would help protect natural areas. I joined the Conservation Department to help build this expanded natural areas program. We would buy high quality areas, as well as add staff for administration, inventory and management.

I joined a project that was already well developed. The Conservation Department had begun a natural areas program on its lands in 1970. Bill Crawford, a retired wildlife research chief, recalls that in the late 1960s, he studied natural areas programs in Wisconsin and Illinois. He recommended that the Conservation Department get involved with its natural areas resource.

Key staff and administration supported Crawford's idea. "Soon we were underway. Director Carl Noren formed a committee to develop a natural areas system on conservation lands. And it took off. It was one of the fun times of my professional life."

Allen Brohn, assistant director now retired, chaired the fledgling Conservation Department program. Assistant state forester and later natural history chief John Wylie remembers the early efforts: "Foresters and biologists nominated and evaluated outstanding areas on conservation lands, the committee and director reviewed them and the Conservation Commission designated the best of them as MDC Natural Areas. We wanted to protect the best examples of our state's original landscape in all its diverse forms. Natural areas are living museums of our natural history - our state's crown jewels, so to speak - and over time they become biological benchmarks."

Even without additional employees or funds to buy public land during those early years, fine areas such as Taberville Prairie, Clifty Creek, Blue Spring and Lichen Glade became units of the new system. By the end of the nation's bicentennial, 49 areas and about 6,000 acres comprised the Conservation Department system. The Nature Conservancy, the Missouri Prairie Foundation, and the L-A-D Foundation owned some of these areas, but all were managed by the Conservation Department.

In April 1977 the Department of Natural Resources joined the Conservation Department to create an interagency Missouri Natural Areas System. This partnership opened the door for natural area designation of outstanding state park lands. Allen Brohn headed the new interagency panel.

"There was strong interest by the Department of Natural Resources and other agencies in joining the Natural Areas Committee," he said, "making it a truly inclusive Missouri Natural Areas System. It was mainly a matter of working out operational mechanics, and assigning responsibilities. With solid cooperation, this was done quickly. And while not without problems, the state committee worked, and worked well. Then-Governor Joe Teasdale commented that he'd never seen a better example of interagency cooperation," Brohn recalled.

The new Missouri Natural Areas Committee sought other agencies, organizations, corporations and individuals who owned potential natural areas. Soon the U.S. Forest Service (Mark Twain National Forest) and the National Park Service (Ozark National Scenic Riverways) joined the Missouri Natural Areas Committee, adding these major federal landholding agencies to the team.

The Missouri Natural Areas Committee defines natural areas as biological communities or geological sites that are managed to perpetuate their natural character, diversity and ecological processes. Participating agencies agree that Missouri Natural Areas should encompass the best examples of all of our state's natural ecosystems, and that this is the best use for these special lands. Once designated, Missouri Natural Areas will forever be protected. Their natural values will not be compromised, except for a critical need for which there is no alternative.

Natural Areas management involves inviting public use without letting them damage the area, restoring the natural processes under which the native plants and animals developed and eliminating weedy, exotic plant species that compete with the native vegetation. We also protect Natural Areas from outside threats, such as roads, powerlines and pollution.

For example, a prairie area could have a small parking lot and a walking trail for visitor access. Managers would use prescribed burning to simulate natural prairie fires and to tip the balance against exotic grasses and trees that are foreign to a prairie ecosystem.

On this 20th anniversary, there are 168 Missouri Natural Areas with more than 44,000 acres. Recently, the Missouri Natural Areas Committee has recognized the importance of protecting large natural landscapes in different regions of the state. Places like Stegall Mountain, Carman Springs, St. Francois Mountains, Jacks Fork and Pelican Island Natural Areas are large enough to encompass many natural communities with all of their plants and wildlife, and to preserve the feeling of typical landscapes of primitive Missouri.

Jerry Vineyard, deputy state geologist with the Department of Natural Resources, chairs the current Missouri Natural Areas Committee: "Twenty years ago a statewide Natural Areas System was only a dream, now come true. Having it in place is like having a picture of what the Missouri landscape once was, and could become, to guide our stewardship of all public lands. The cooperation between agencies seems stronger than ever, ready to finish the job. Private landowners and organizations want to participate as well. We can take pride in passing on a system that has the best of both biology and geology for the enjoyment of generations to come."

The Missouri Natural Areas System guarantees a future for Missouri marshes, prairies, forests, glades, streams and a host of other natural communities and the landscapes they belong to.

Reflections on the Jacks Fork Natural Area

by Charles Putnam

When I think of the Jacks Fork Natural Area, I think about my kid upstairs under the covers and taking him to chase the smallmouth bass that hunt the bluff pools. I also think about how the Jacks Fork Natural Area conveys, through its breadth of scenery, wildness and diversity, the scale of time and forces that have fashioned Missouri.

That scale can be sensed in many dimensions. It's the depth of time absorbed in the black holes of the caverns as they reach into a time long before the first dinosaurs, the time of the first ancestors of the smallmouth. It's the uncountable creatures that have lived and left, suggested by blue harebells cliff-hanging beneath the blue skies of 10,000 Junes since the boreal forest left with the Pleistocene, the last Ice Age.

It's the unbounded wildness that brought these inhabitants, such as lacey Venus maidenhair ferns that survive the violence of 30-foot floods.

Star School Hill Prairie

by Karen Kramer

I experienced the loess hill prairie of Star School for the first time on a field trip as a Missouri Western State College student in 1990. I climbed up its near-vertical slope through an old pasture grown up in ash and hackberrys, then pushed by thick rough-leaved dogwood and sumac shrubs and finally - out of breath - reached the blufftop where the prairie opening appeared.

Although many of the prairie plants were new to me and in full bloom, I could not concentrate on the botanical aspect of this field trip until I finished absorbing the expansive view. The prairie overlooked miles of Missouri River bottoms and the states of Nebraska and Iowa. On this ridgetop, I felt removed from the rest of the earth, from the toy cars and trucks that sped by on the miniature interstate and the mini John Deere tractors cultivating corn below. I had been invited to the edge of heaven to view the world.

Several unique plants directly underfoot grew plants that were common out west but found only on the dry, steep loess slopes of Holt and Atchison counties in Missouri. There were so many new names to learn. I scribbled down plant names and characteristics as my instructor, Dr. John Rushin, named them ...thimbleweed, downy painted cup (a relative of Indian paintbrush), scarlet gaura, beard-tongue (rare in Missouri), locoweed (poisonous to cattle), and hairy grama.... I left that day, grateful to have been introduced to such a wonderful, unusual natural community.

Later that same year, I got a job with the Department of Conservation as natural features inventory biologist for northwest Missouri. One of my responsibilities was to search for all remnant loess hill prairies. I inventoried almost every hill prairie from the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge to the Iowa state line - that included a very fragmented string of linear, blufftop prairies about 40 miles long - and found that only approximately 150 acres of this prairie natural community type still exist in Missouri.

Most hill prairies have been overgrown with woody vegetation. Through the inventory process, I learned that the Star School vicinity holds around 40 acres of the most diverse loess hill prairie remaining in the state. Sixteen plants and two animals listed on Missouri's Rare and Endangered Species List were found on the Star School landscape.

Agency # of Natural Areas # of Acres
Total number of Natural Areas *167 Total Area: 37,073
Missouri Department of Conservation 76 17,743
Department of Natural Resources 36 6,384
Mark Twain National Forest 18 5,824
The Nature Conservancy 13 2,127
National Park Service 8 2,371
L-A-D Foundation 10 1,638
Corps of Engineers 3 520
University of Missouri 1 80
K.C. Parks and Recreation 1 82
Jackson County Parks and Recreation 1 18
City of Excelsior Springs 1 15
City of Joplin 1 32
Audubon Society of Missouri 1 23
Pinnacles Foundation 1 27
Greenwood Forest Assoc. 1 10
Missouri Prairie Foundation 1 37
Nehai Property Owners 1 90
Other Private Owners 4 52
  • Agency totals are greater than the total number of natural areas due to several natural areas with multiple ownerships.

Tunnel Bluff Woods Natural Area

by Jerry D. Vineyard

Walking into Tunnel Bluff Woods Natural Area is like walking back in time - way back! The ridge trail is dim but clear enough to follow from the nearest road to the bluff, where you can see the Current River far below. I came along in the late fall; the beauty of the forest reminded me of Luella Owen, a geologist who visited the Ozark woods a hundred years ago. "Those who ever have an opportunity to enjoy a moonlight ride [by carriage] through the Ozark forests should not let it pass unimproved," she said.

At the brow of the bluff I found the three "guide trees" marking the way to the tunnel. The namesake Tunnel is more arch than tunnel, but the real attraction is the nearby cave, which yawns on the bluff face, high above the river. The roof of the cave is the bottom of a one-time marine reef, now a fossil. The impression is that of looking up at what was once the bottom of a shallow sea, incredibly old, yet sharp and detailed.

Sitting alone in the cave, looking down on giant sycamores in the bottomland forest along Current River, I felt at one with the flow of history from an unimaginably distant past when ocean waters covered the area, to today's landscape, little changed for hundreds of years.

East Drywood Creek Natural Area

Prairie State Park

by Paul Nelson, Missouri Department of Natural Resources

From a sandstone ledge at East Drywood Creek Natural Area in western Missouri I gazed across a striking scene before me. Lightning streaked across the treeless eastern horizon in a turquoise sky as low-racing clouds signaled the end to the evening deluge. Below me, swollen yet nearly clear waters rushed over sandstone boulders hidden somewhere among the buttonbushes.

Tall grasses swayed in the wind everywhere around me as the sun hung below a stormy veil to the west. Meadowlarks sung evening melodies. I found it difficult to break away and pitch my tent.

Coyotes howled nearby in the crisp starry night. Memories flowed like distant babbling waters. I remembered when my daughter Heather carefully picked up a large bullsnake she found sunning on a rock slab nearby. Being only 12 she placed enormous trust in a father's guidance.

I took comfort in the fact that the stream's 1,000-acre watershed retains nearly all its ancient prairie soil. Filtered through a living golden carpet, rainwaters gradually will find meandering streamlets. Eventually these streamlets join into one series of pools separated by shallow boulder strewn riffles.

A backpack camp awaits those who wish to experience this prairie wilderness stream. Don't be surprised if you see me there.

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