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Where the River Bends

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Published on: Oct. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

Half the citizens of Missouri now have a 4,318-acre conservation area on their doorstep. It's the Conservation Department's Columbia Bottom area, located at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers on the north edge of the St. Louis metropolitan region.

The Conservation Department bought the tract from the city of St. Louis to provide an urban conservation area for residents. It's several times the size of the city's vaunted Forest Park, a comparison that provides most people a way to understand how really large it is. But unlike a city park, it's going to provide hiking and biking in a rural landscape, provide fishing and hunting and also give people a view of the meeting point of two of the country's greatest rivers.

Columbia Bottom Conservation Area occupies almost all of a sweeping curve in the Missouri River as it meets the Mississippi. It also includes an adjoining 110-acre island. Some 3,300 acres are now in crop fields, with much of the remainder (about 900 acres) covered with forest. The crop fields fall inside a levee that encircles much of the tract; the forest lies largely outside the flood protection provided by the levee.

According to the Conservation Department's conceptual plan, land and resource management efforts at Columbia Bottom Conservation Area will be directed toward creating a mosaic of bottomland habitats. This will include wetland, forest, grassland and crop land. Once these diverse habitats are established, a variety of management techniques such as prescribed fire, mowing, water manipulation and agriculture will be used to maintain them.

Tom Leifield manages Columbia Bottom for the Conservation Department. Lots of people are bouncing their ideas for use of the area off him. "People are telling me we shouldn't build any roads at all (the area already has 16 miles of farm roads) to suggesting we build a tall lookout tower down there at the confluence of the rivers. Opinions really vary.

"We want to do good things for the natural resources and for wildlife habitat at Columbia Bottom," Leifield says, "but we know that public use and recreation are going to be a huge part of whatever we do, too. Some of the access roads and facilities might need to be a little more elaborate than what we would normally do on a conservation area."

As an example, the conceptual plan calls for a boat launching ramp on the north end of the area; Leifield says the road to it may be paved. "We feel because of the volume of traffic we will get that asphalt will be a lot more desirable than gravel, both from a maintenance standpoint and a dust standpoint."

From this site, a two-lane gravel road will continue to a point near the river confluence. A disabled-accessible path, including a boardwalk through the timber, will lead from the road to an overview of the confluence. A pad or deck at this site will be large enough for a school group to occupy, possibly while listening to a naturalist describe the natural history of the area.

The name of the area is something of a mystery. Leifield says 19th century maps even refer to it as Columbia Bottom. There was once a small community there called Columbia, and there was a Columbia Bottom school, but it's unknown if they took their name from the bottomland, or vice versa. The town, later called St. Vrain, faded away in the 1870s.

"The city bought the land in the 1940s with the thought of locating an airport there," Leifield says. "If you look around you will see clumps of mature cottonwoods or maples, and most of those can be associated with old house sites or farmsteads." The airport never materialized, and the land in the interim has been leased to farmers.

The Conservation Department will probably build a combination headquarters and visitor center on a high spot of land on the north side of the area. The site is not big, but large enough for a building. It has a hill behind it, and there will probably be a trail leading up the hill where visitors can get a view of the whole river floodplain.

The headquarters is proposed to include a multi-purpose room large enough to accommodate 60 to 70 people in classroom seating and have exhibits, such as a relief map of the area, an aquarium to display fish of the large river system, a kiosk with a video about the area and other exhibits, to familiarize visitors with the site, its ecology and management.

The Conservation Department hopes to begin putting facilities in place in 2000 and have all the planned developments usable by 2004. Portions of the crops grown on the area in the future will be left in the field as wildlife foods.

Leifield hopes to have a conservation naturalist on staff, possibly aided by volunteer naturalists, such as those at other urban conservation facilities. They would help provide educational and interpretive programs to local schools and other visitors with an emphasis on large river systems, the confluence and the ecological, cultural and historical significance of the area. Researchers have located several Native American sites on the tract, and Leifield says Columbia Bottom may also include a spot that was once a Spanish fort.

Hunting at Columbia Bottom will be closely managed. The tract will have some managed wetland pools (see the map) that can be flooded with pumps and seasonal wetlands in some years. These wetlands, located on a great waterfowl flyway, will attract ducks and geese during migrations. "I personally feel we should have a waterfowl hunting program, even if it's on a small scale," Leifield says. "Some wetland pools will be managed as refuges, while others will be open to controlled hunting."

Crop fields along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers are often good sites for dove hunting, and Columbia Bottom will offer that, too. Wheat stubble and sunflower fields will attract the birds. Hunting will be allowed half-days only, and regulations will require the use of non-toxic shot.

"There are a lot of deer on the area," Leifield says. "We did a survey and found 85 deer, so we estimate there are at least 100 deer. When you consider there are 900 forested acres, that's a pretty good deer population." The world-record non-typical buck deer was caught in a fence near the area and found dead there in the past, so the site has the potential to grow big bucks. The archery regulations will divide the long season into segments, and as many as 35 archers may be selected for each. A muzzleloading rifle season may be considered at some time in the future.

The area has at least one turkey flock. The conceptual plan calls for expanding the amount of forest on the area, and that may allow turkey numbers to expand. At two places on the southern edge of Columbia Bottom the levee is right on the edge of the river. The Conservation Department is considering setting the levee back 1,000 feet in these areas, and allowing the intervening land to flood and naturally regenerate forest land. Some tree planting will also be done to establish mixed hardwoods for wildlife habitat.

"Some people think we shouldn't have any levees and let the whole area flood," Leifield says. "We struggled with those issues and considered all of the options, from leaving the levee where it is to removing it altogether. But there is private land nearby and we can't compromise their flood protection. We want to protect, too, the wetland habitat and public facilities we develop. Another factor is that the levee we have now is not real high, so some years it is going to flood anyway." Major floods in 1993 and 1995 left behind sand deposits and other flood debris.

Fishing will be from the bank in either of the two rivers, in a couple of scour holes on the area or from boats launched at the planned boat ramp. Bank fishing and jug fishing for catfish will probably be popular in warm weather. The boat ramp may include a disabled accessible bank fishing facility.

Planners are thinking of a surface similar to that of the Katy Trail for hiking and biking trails at Columbia Bottom. Conservation planners are talking to the Confluence Greenway Group, an organization that has developed a trail and linear park from the St. Louis Arch north to the Chain of Rocks Bridge. The idea is to link the trail to the trails at Columbia Bottom.

The Conservation Department is looking for groups, such as Ducks Unlimited, the Audubon Society, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or even St. Louis-area businesses, to act as partners in putting facilities on the area.

Columbia Bottom is a historic site. St. Louis is situated where it is because of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The Missouri River was the river road to the Rocky Mountains and their wealth of fur. It was also the path Lewis and Clark followed in their exploration of the Louisiana Purchase for President Thomas Jefferson. Now, heading into the 21st century, the confluence of the two rivers will provide both a sense of history and a unique recreational resource for a growing metropolitan area.

"Plenty of people are enjoying the area already," Leifield says. To reach Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, go north about 2.5 miles from the I-270 Riverview Drive Exit. Riverview Drive becomes Columbia Bottom Road at its junction with Larimore Road.

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