Bootstrap Conservation

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Published on: Apr. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 26, 2010

Bonebrake, Earthways and Oxbow. If you lump all three names together you might think you stumbled into a history book of 19th century political slang: Carpetbaggers, Boodlers, Mugwumps and Bonebrakes? Not a bad guess, but the only thing they have in common with old political labeling is that they sprung up in their communities due to grass roots support.

The Bonebrake Center for Nature and History, named for the family who donated the house and land, is in Salem. The Earthways Home is a large brick house in St. Louis, restored to help teach people how dwellings can be made highly energy-efficient. The Oxbow Lake and Nature Trail lies just south of Bethel near the North River - an outdoor classroom and trail serving a neighboring rural school.

While physically and geographically remote from each other, these three areas have something in common: each one is a stellar example of a community-based place where local residents can learn about conservation and their outdoor environment.

Salem's Center for nature and History

Two blocks from the Dent County courthouse in Salem, there stands a formidable two-story, white house built in the 1880s. In June 1988, a group of Salem-area residents proposed a plan to turn the house and surrounding 12 acres, located at 601 N. Hickory, into a community education center. The owners of the property, descendants of the Bonebrake family, approved the plan the following year and donated the house and land to the then-recently incorporated Bonebrake-McMurtrey Foundation, which operates the Center. From the start, the Bonebrake family's generosity has been complemented by volunteers' energy and commitment. An outdoor educational and historical centerpiece for the Salem community was born.

From the back steps of the house, a natural yard sweeps down the hill to a spring-fed pond. An overlook, boardwalk and soft trails mowed through the prairie grass lead visitors on an easy hike through 12 acres and several changing habitats. One trail winds over a frog-filled creek, along the edge of a grove of young pine trees and through blooming prairie flowers to the shade of an oak tree with a girth of about two and one-half feet. The Bonebrake Center for Nature and History is a peaceful, natural oasis in the heart of a busy town.

Peaceful, that is, until 45 kids charge over from the neighboring junior high school for an outdoor biology class. Or 20 toddlers arrive - all at once - for a fall leaf project. Or until the annual Bucket Brigade commences, a program about water and its role in the environment and importance to people. "Wear comfortable clothes," reads the flyer announcing the event. "And be prepared to get wet!"

"It can be pretty wild sometimes, but we have a wonderful, core group of people who keep this place organized," says Libby Sanders, acting executive director and vice president of the board of trustees. "Volunteers, the Board, teachers, craftspeople, students ... all kinds of people get involved and keep this place growing."

Bird-watching, photography, traditional crafts and wild flower identification are just a few of the classes and workshops offered at the center and devised by a volunteer teaching staff.

Volunteers also dream up and implement projects to enhance the area's natural beauty. In the last four years, more than 600 trees, such as pine, redbud, dogwood, oak and maple, have been strategically planted. Prairie and marsh habitats add to the diversity of landscape. Engineering students from the University of Missouri-Rolla have designed and constructed a bridge, boardwalk, outdoor amphitheater and an observation boardwalk over the pond.

"Sometimes people just drop by and take care of the day-to-day things without ever being asked. Just this morning, a plumber came by to check out something in the basement," explains Sanders. Volunteers, she says, help do everything from mow the grass to write the newsletter.

Bonebrake's success also is due to the leadership of a unified Board of Directors, of which Sanders and seven other people are members. They give their time, professional expertise such as legal, architectural, or construction knowledge, and provide financial support and work together to secure it from outside sources. The Center has been awarded a Neighborhood Assistance Program grant, which allows businesses and individuals to make donations to the Center in exchange for certain tax credits.

"I think it's a benefit to Salem, partly because we have a place for people here to be proud of, to love," says Sanders. "Everyone can find something here: something rewarding by volunteering, or by attending one of our programs. Sometimes it's been a struggle, but a lot of people care about seeing the Center grow."

Bethel's Investment in Nature

About 250 miles to the north, there is another outdoor educational facility filling a small but vital niche in a community. It lies between North Shelby High School and the town of Bethel and, from the road, looks like a small, inaccessible pond surrounded by thick woods. A small sign reads "The Marion and Virgil Culler Oxbow Lake and Nature Trail."

"The land is privately owned, but some time ago, the owners decided it was important to let school groups use the area for field trips," says Mitch Kruger of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Virgil Culler's ancestors were one of a handful of pioneering families who arrived on the banks of the North River in what is now Shelby County and founded their own commune in 1848. The settlers named their new town Bethel and built a tannery, general store, tailor shop, school and, on the banks of the river, a mill. The communal arrangements of property and labor long ago disbanded, but there is still a strong sense of community sharing within this small town, population 117. Bethel's motto was "many hands make quick work."

"It's been in my wife's family for years and years, and it gives the school kids a place to go," says Virgil Culler of his Oxbow Lake. "I don't charge them anything. My wife and I just wanted to have it for them to visit. They come by the bus load sometimes."

Once or twice a year, students from North Shelby take a field trip to the oxbow. Staff from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Conservation Department, MU Extension and teachers set up along the trail and banks of the oxbow and kids move from station to station, learning about the area's aquatic and animal life. Craig King, Soil Technician with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has organized the event and staffed the stations.

"Snakes, furs, teaching them about poison ivy. We try to teach a little bit of everything," he says. "Someone brings a collection of pelts for the kids to see and feel - something they can experience up close. Our soil scientist sends them home with test tubes of samples they collect. The oxbow is a really good setting for the kids, and we try to have a lot going on to make it fun for them." Last year, King says, about 125 students made the field trip.

Visits to the Oxbow by school kids ebb and flow. Compared to a nature center or publicly developed area, it is low-key and understated. But it anchors the south side of a small Missouri town, reflects the generosity of neighbors and is always there for school kids and an abundance of wildlife dependent on the area's undisturbed, rich natural features. The Oxbow Lake and Nature Trail is successful because a close-knit, small community of people has invested in it.

Examples of community "bootstrap conservation," such as the Bonebrake Center or Oxbow Lake, thrive because volunteers make sure the physical place matches the educational needs of their community. In Shelby County, it was a place for school groups to visit. In Salem, it was the desire to restore a wonderful old house and enhance 12 natural acres. The Earthways Home, located in the heart of St. Louis, is no different.

Earthways - Home of the Future

Before the Earthways Home was established, there was Earthways - a non-profit St. Louis environmental group responsible for bringing Earth Day celebrations to St. Louis. In mid-December 1992, the group leased a 110-year-old house located at 3617 Grandel Square from Grand Center, Inc. They decided to restore the two-story, brick house using as many recycled materials and energy-efficient techniques as possible. Over four years and about $500,000 later, the result is an attractive house, surrounding native plant garden and hands-on exhibits and displays that show people how a forlorn, run-down house in the heart of St. Louis' entertainment district can be turned into an educational model for conservation, recycling and efficiency.

"Most people, when they first come here, are surprised by what they see. The house has recycled and environmentally friendly things in it that a lot of people have never even thought of," explains Laura Kezer, director.

Visitors to the Earthways Home walk across carpet made from recycled plastic bottles and padding made from recycled tires. They can inspect some of the most energy-efficient appliances available. "Our tiles in both the kitchen and bathroom are made from recycled windshield glass," says Kezer. The toilet has a small hand washing sink on top of the back tank which uses "pre-flush" water from the tank.

The home's energy-efficiency does not stop at appliances or decoration. The walls are filled with cellulose insulation made from recycled paper, visible through attractive, cut-away sections of the wall. Visitors also can venture down to the basement and see how the geothermal heating and cooling system makes use of deep underground pipes that tap into a steady, underground temperature of about 58 degrees. The house's electrical system is solar-powered.

"The house is here to serve as a model for what many homes will need to look like in the future," says Kezer. "It has features that may seem unusual now, but soon will be commonplace practices, environmental strategies that will be part of everyday life."

In addition to showcasing technological features, the house also advocates common-sense, simple resource saving measures, such as composting and kitchens equipped with handy containers for recyclables. And to help visitors explore ways to take home some of what they learn at Earthways, the house contains a resource library full of books and newsletters about solar power, native yard plantings and catalogs of recycled materials.

The Earthways Home is a practical, hands-on place for urban dwellers to learn how natural resource conservation can be meaningfully incorporated into city life. A small paid staff and volunteers work to link together environmental groups, St. Louis businesses, schools, media and cultural organizations in common support of their educational mission. This has been the key to Earthways community success.

In Missouri, there are countless outdoor conservation education places. They range from the simplicity of an area such as the Oxbow - equipped with a few rows of benches - to the technological showcase of the Earthways Home. They help educate adults and children and provide a community focal point for conservation-minded people. The end result, no matter what the size or scope of the facility, is a better place to live.

Teaming with Wildlife

by Kathy Love

A new national initiative could provide financial assistance to towns like Salem and Bethel, who want to do more for wildlife-related conservation, recreation and education.

The initiative, called Teaming with Wildlife, is based on the successful federal programs which funnel proceeds from a small excise tax on hunting and fishing equipment to states for habitat development, fish and wildlife restoration.

Teaming with Wildlife would provide about $7.5 million to Missouri, of which half would be made available to communities and local organizations through cooperative projects and matching grants. Funding would come from a one-fourth to five percent excise tax on the manufacturer's cost of certain outdoor recreation equipment, wildlife guidebooks, backyard wildlife products and other items associated with enjoyment of non-game wildlife.

Teaming with Wildlife would cost consumers only $6 to $10 per year, but would make more than $350 million available nationally to help non-game species and the people who enjoy them. The small tax (for instance, 30 cents for a $10 field guide, or $2.50 on a $100 tent) is a "value added" economic incentive, providing communities with start-up funds to promote local nature tourism opportunities.

In Missouri alone, the economic activity associated with non-game recreation amounts to $258 million in actual dollars spent, plus $400 million in related business activity, and 10,000 jobs.

Fifty-five Missouri groups, including businesses, agencies and associations, support Teaming with Wildlife. Johnny Morris, president of Bass Pro Shops, was one of the first recreation industry executives to endorse it. "The future really depends more on how we manage our resources than absolutely anything else," Morris said.

"Our customers tell us loud and clear every day that they are eager to support fees, taxes, permits, whatever, if it can be demonstrated that these fees will be used cost-effectively and are going to a specific purpose that creates additional positive benefits. We decided to lend support to Teaming with Wildlife because we really felt it was absolutely the right thing to do."

For more information about Teaming with Wildlife, contact Cheryl Riley, Conservation Federation of Missouri, 728 West Main Street, Jefferson City 65101-1534; phone (573) 634-2322.

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