Great blue herons, purple finches and quail are at home here, and red tailed hawks soar above the woods. Sweetwater has a wealth of wildflowers, native herbs, wild plum trees, blackberries, black raspberries and persimmons. Along with this abundance, it has something else you can almost see, if you squint your imagination.
It has forever.
Sweetwater will always be essentially what it is now, a mixture of wilderness, farm land and homesteads. These 480 acres in Wright County will never be sold for conversion to a treeless plain or a grid of streets thick with houses.
Forever, always and never are strong words, but Sweetwater's human residents could forecast its future in 1985 when they created Sweetwater Community Land Trust, a feat made possible by Ozark Regional Land Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization.
ORLT responds to requests for assistance from people who want to preserve land in the Ozark region, which extends beyond what many people think of as "the Ozarks." The land trust's volunteers consult with landowners in St. Louis, Columbia, throughout the Springfield Plateau and southward into the Boston Mountains of Arkansas. ORLT travels with a tool kit of versatile land protection methods, such as the one that brought Sweetwater under the trust's legal-and perpetual-protection.
In the past 200 years, settlement and development have increasingly altered the Ozark landscape. Many people are looking ahead, hoping to safeguard the region's tranquility and what ORLT calls "the diversity of the Ozarks ecological quilt."
Greg Galbraith ORLT president, grew up in Carthage and was a land trust volunteer on the East Coast. When he returned to live in his home town, he met Missouri and Arkansas people interested in learning how a land trust could benefit the Ozarks. Galbraith supplied the know-how to help start ORLT in 1984. ORLT now has over 2,000 acres protected, with over 1,000 acres in Missouri. "That is changing all the time," Galbraith says.
The basic idea of the land trust movement, which started on the east and west coasts around the turn of the century, is to prevent land from being changed. Natural and scenic areas, wildlife habitat, forests, farms, wetlands, river corridors, prairies and other land can be preserved. In 1994, there were 1,095 land trusts in the United States protecting over four million acres.
Jean Hocker, president of Land Trust Alliance, a national organization of land trusts, wrote in the February 1995 issue of Exchange, the alliance's journal: "Enlightened people now recognize that open land is not just an aesthetic amenity. It is integrally linked to the quality of ground water and drinking water, to air quality, to biological diversity, and to maintaining the integrity of systems that we don't yet fully understand."
Galbraith says, "We have a continent without a land use plan, and we're losing the resources on the continent piece by piece, to the point where it's going to come back to haunt us." Transformations can be swift. "We're such big consumers," he says, "we can bring in a bulldozer and change the landscape overnight."
He adds, "You don't see it until it's gone."
Each ORLT project goes through stages. In response to a request for trust consideration, two or three board members visit the land, then bring a team together to assess the situation. The board can supply a geologist, a biologist, an accountant, an attorney and experts in farm management and urban design. Specialists from outside ORLT advise on features, such as caves or rivers. Together, the landowner and the team design a land use plan with environmental benefit as the first concern. Every project reserves space for wildlife.
Legal documents officially bring the land under ORLT protection, which is expected to continue through time as the organization perpetuates itself by attracting a succession of land advocates. ORLT uses three main stewardship models, sometimes blending them.
Conservation Easements. "It's lovely beyond belief," says Florence Rice of Fiddle Creek Valley in eastern Franklin County. The land, much of it in family farms, is not yet touched by the expanding St. Louis metro region immediately to the east.
Rice sought ORLT's advice in preserving the valley, and she and several neighbors are considering putting conservation easements on their properties. The easement restrictions state how the land is to be treated, according to each owner's wishes. Rice wants a horseback riding and hiking trail that crosses her property to remain whenever the land changes hands. Some landowners are contemplating an option for later division into lots of 20 to 35 acres. Another landowner plans to keep his land in one piece.
"It's a little bit of immortality," Rice says. "We're all going to turn into ions again pretty soon, but how great to leave this thing for the next person and think, I did that. Instead of leaving my footprints all over the land, I left my hand."
Easements grant ORLT the right to enforce restrictions. The landowner still owns the land and may continue to live on it, will it to children or sell it. Restrictions prevail with each change in ownership. A farm sells at farm prices, not the price of adjacent development land. Easements may produce estate, income or property tax benefits, depending on the situation.
A large farm or estate can be protected, but so can a property of only a few acres. The site might be rural or urban. An easement doesn't open land to the public, unless that's a provision the owner wants.
Galbraith expects the conservation easement eventually to become ORLT's most widely used protection tool.
These are locally administered nonprofit groups that own the land and are ORLT affiliates. ORLT has three community land trust affiliates in Missouri. Sweetwater and Hawk Hill are well established, with lease holders living on the land; Elixir Community Land Trust has acquired parcels of forest land along Bryant Creek.
The community land trust develops a land use plan in harmony with the ecosystem. Heavily wooded Sweetwater is divided into 14 homesteading tracts, hayfields along the Gasconade, other fields currently growing Christmas trees and black walnut trees and 80 acres of permanent conservation area.
Homestead lease holders pay modest monthly ground lease fees, which in turn pay the mortgage on the land. An annual assessment pays for taxes, property insurance and road and utility maintenance.
Lease holders build and own their homes, usually supplying much of the labor themselves. Houses are energy-efficient and utilize composting toilets and greywater filtering systems. The land will never be sold and will always be managed ecologically. When a land mortgage is paid off, lease fees may be used to add land to that community land trust.
John Cutler, a founding resident of Sweetwater, believes more people should be aware of the preservation option a community land trust offers. "I think something like it," he says, "if not exactly that, is going to have to be the coming thing in terms of the long-range future, because we're just trashing the planet at a high old rate. It's going to take something where people are more conscious of the land and take care of it."
Natural Areas. Places that have rare features or fragile habitat need protection, and they need buffer zones around them.
In Ozark County, donors provided funds to buy two adjacent woodland areas in the Bryant Creek watershed, one of them purchased from Elixir Farm Botanicals, which cultivates indigenous and Chinese herbs and sells seed. Farm personnel, who act as stewards of these natural areas, have restored golden seal, a native herb, to one site. The plant had been decimated by "wildcrafters" collecting for medicinal uses.
"We're really quite aware of where we are and what our relationship is to our environment here," says Lavinia McKinney, farm proprietor, "and we're committed to protecting it and stewarding it."
Since the first purchases, ORLT acquired three more parcels in the watershed, bringing the total acreage to 211. Further additions will include natural areas and homesteading sites.
In 1997, ORLT accepted transfer of a 100-foot wide, 12.5-mile strip of wildlife habitat, an abandoned portion of the Kansas City Southern Railroad line. The land is "rail banked," meaning the railroad has retained the right to return the line to use. This rails-to-trails project starts in Jasper County in Missouri, then crosses into Kansas.
Galbraith admires the diversity of the strip, which is at a transitional point between the Ozarks and the central plains. "To me it has more significance than a square tract of 120 acres," he says, "because deer use the corridor now, many birds and animals like the edges, it has wetlands adjoining it, open fields around it." He calls it "a wildlife super highway."
South of St. Louis, residents asked ORLT to help preserve an area of high bluffs along the Mississippi River. The landowner, a quarry company, agreed to leave 100 acres in a natural state for 25 years. When that agreement is due to run out, the land trust will seek to negotiate another contract.
It's also possible for a land trust to work with developers in setting aside green space. Paul Justus, ORLT board member with a background in urban design, sees new possibilities for urban and suburban situations - villagelike clusters of homes along with shops, small-scale industry "within environmental reason" and green space.
It isn't easy or quick to create "forever" status for a piece of land. Saving a river corridor, for instance, means local volunteers must encourage many landowners to cooperate, which can take years. ORLT has investigated over 60 potential projects and usually has more requests for assistance than it can handle promptly. Though membership is growing and dues help with some day-to-day expenses, the land protection work is done by volunteers who pay their own way. ORLT is building a stewardship fund designed to earn interest, pay for future land protection and perhaps eventually pay full-time staff.
"We're going to be doing this forever," Galbraith says confidently. "We're concerned about doing it right." Such expectations require extremely long range planning, at least 50 years ahead.
All over the Ozarks, there are places that belong to the quiet, timeless space of an ancient earth, where the land has an intertwined history created by nature and humans who have lived there. People with foresight are determined to bring such places under a sheltering wing. When that happens, says Galbraith, "people and the environment come out winners."
For more information, contact Ozark Regional Land Trust, 427 S. Main St., Carthage, 64836, phone (417) 358-0852, e-mail at <firstname.lastname@example.org>, or visit <http://www.mrba.org/mrba/members/groups/ozarkrlt.html>.
The Conservation Department receives many questions about putting land in conservation easements, stemming loss of farmland and starting greenways in urban areas. The Conservation Department, which has its own program for donations of land and other gifts, has assisted greenway groups by purchasing tracts to become part of their corridors.
In the fall of 1995, the Conservation Department, together with nonprofit land organizations, held a "Partners in Land Protection" workshop to inform Missourians about preservation possibilities.
The land trust movement is growing faster in urban areas here and coming into rural areas more slowly, as it did on the east coast.
Each cave protected by the conservancy will have its own management plan and local management team. MCKC fosters communication between cavers and all public and private cave owners and managers, assists with cave stewardship and publishes the quarterly magazine MCKC Digest. For information, write Rt. 2, Box 234, Eldon, 65026.
Sarcoxie Cave Project is The Ozark Regional Land Trust's most recent Missouri acquisition, a small jewel of a place in the southwest Missouri town of Sarcoxie. A small opening of a cave is in a hillside behind a white house. A spring-fed stream flows from the cave into a high-quality wetland pond.
At a June event called Discovery Day, around 150 adults and children gathered to join Conservation Department staff for nature walks and sessions on aquatic creatures found in the stream.
The main aquatic creature, the Ozark cavefish, was not to be seen, but its stand-in was the star of the celebration: Rosie the cavefish appeared on large buttons given out to children and on T-shirts. Rosie represents the hidden population of Ozark cavefish that live in the dark waters inside the cave.
Rosie's name comes from the Ozark cavefish's scientific name, Amblyopsis rosae. The presence of the eyeless fish is a sign of good water quality. Its numbers are so few, the Ozark cavefish is on Missouri's endangered list.
This past summer, Conservation Department biologists studying the stream and pond were surprised to find the Arkansas darter, which Missouri lists as rare.
ORLT's three-acre tract will protect the habitat for aquatic life and also preserve an important historical site. Sarcoxie, chief of the Turtle band of the Delaware tribe, once lived near the spring. Later, Jasper County's first permanent settlement was established there when Thacker Vivion, a settler from Kentucky, built a log cabin in 1831. The present house was built about 1880.
The area previously had been registered as a natural area by The Nature Conservancy, and the Conservation Department had studied and monitored the site. A $15,000 grant from the Conservation Department helped ORLT buy the property. The Missouri Cave and Karst Conservancy contributed $1,000 and is ORLT's partner in developing a management plan for the cave.
Jan Hinsey, ORLT's Sarcoxie Cave Project coordinator, says the site is attracting interest as a place for environmental education. She has researched the discovery of the Ozark cavefish in Jasper County in the 1880s by Ruth Hoppin, former chair of the botany and biology department at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.
Hoppin first discovered the cavefish in wells, then in Wilson's Cave in the Sarcoxie area. She explored other caves, including Sarcoxie Cave, then known as Day's Cave. She sent cavefish and other aquatic specimens from the wells and caves to the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Samuel Garman wrote an article about her finds, several described as "new to science." The museum published it in 1889.
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