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The American Dream

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Published on: Dec. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 10, 2010

A lot of people who grew up in the post-World War II years yearned for a home in the country. Some of us never realized that dream, but many Missourians have managed to carve out a piece of what was once forest or agricultural land around our cities and towns for their dream homes in the country. The movement of people from the city has accelerated recently, to the point where we now have a phenomenon commonly known as "urban sprawl."

Urban sprawl is usually considered a bad thing. Experts in demographics predict that Missouri could be divided into as many as six million individual land ownerships by the year 2010. This represents a dramatic and challenging change in our pattern of land use. Fragmenting large pieces of property into smaller units results in increased commercial development and residential construction. It also results in a corresponding fragmentation or complete loss of quality wildlife habitat.

I have to confess that I am part of the problem. My wife and I own what we think is a wonderful eight acres of green space in Greene County, and most of our neighbors also live on 5-20 acre tracts of land.

I know from personal experience, however, that we who live on these small tracts of rural Missouri can have a positive impact on the land. As a professional forester, I have had the good fortune to work with many landowners during the past 30 years, and I have learned from their individual mistakes and successes.

One good friend, who lives on a wonderful 15-acre property in Newton County, showed me many years ago just how much quality wildlife habitat he could produce in a limited space. He likes to plant trees, and that's how I first met him. While working on some urban landscape issues in the area, I got a good look at his place, which he fondly calls "The Rabbit Patch." It is appropriately named, to be sure. He's done everything possible to produce quality upland wildlife habitat, and the bunnies and birds that live there are his rewards.

When I purchased my home and eight acres, the land was in pretty sad shape. It was part of a 40-acre tract that had a long history of past landowners trying to scratch out a living by grazing as many cows as possible. The pastures had been abused and neglected, and new trees and native grasses were beginning to take back the land. My neighbors and I did not plan to graze any livestock, so I began removing old fences and working with the native plants that remained.

It has been a labor of love for the past 12 years, and I still have much to do. We have two sinkholes, and protecting them with tree cover has been a high priority. Sinkholes are direct conduits that surface water uses to reach our groundwater, and keeping that water clean is a critical concern. Protecting these fragile natural features is not easy, but protecting and improving the woody vegetation around them can help us keep sinkholes and our groundwater healthy.

Early on I noticed that there were many nice young black walnut trees appearing on our property. They were the product of a good local seed source and some industrious gray squirrels. There are now more than 50 young trees that I prune annually and protect from competition. Someday they may become high-quality lumber or veneer trees. Until then, I hope to harvest and sell a good annual nut crop and reward the squirrels with their share, too.

About two of our eight acres are dominated by prairie and glade plants. Now that there are no cattle, repeated prescribed spring burns have resulted in an amazing reappearance of many native plants. Watching them come back, along with the wildlife that uses this habitat type, has been a treat for us.

Our south and west property lines are old field rock piles left from long ago agricultural efforts. They have now grown up in trees and vines of many species. It's a jungle ideal for many species of birds. The chainsaw that has helped us manage our young walnut trees and our small spot of prairie/glade has helped turn undesirable trees and woody plants into durable brush piles for bunnies and other critters that we enjoy seeing. Brush piles offer top notch winter protection and escape cover for many wildlife species. I never burn a brush pile.

I also limit mowing to the house area and a small nature trail that surrounds the place. Mowing wastes expensive natural resources, time and wildlife. I mainly use the lawn tractor to help build flower beds of our beautiful native plants and brush piles .

If you have the good fortune to own and live on a small tract of land, you can do much to attract and support wildlife of all kinds. You can protect and encourage native plants, including trees. You can plant beneficial native trees and shrubs where necessary and use prescribed fire as a vegetative management tool. You also can provide wildlife with water by constructing small ponds, if soil types are suitable.

Conservation Department staff throughout the state are available to provide technical advice and assistance to owners of large or small tracts of land. They can advise you on planting, promoting and protecting native vegetation and minimizing your impact on the wild landscape of Missouri.

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