Missourians don't have to travel far to enjoy the great outdoors. No matter where you live in the state, you are a short distance from at least one of the nearly 1,000 areas managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation. One of my favorites is Little Lost Creek Conservation Area. Of course, I may be biased. I am the area manager.
Little Lost Creek Conservation Area is located about an hour west of St. Louis in the heart of the Missouri River hills. The area contains 2,899 acres of some of the steepest, most rugged country found anywhere in Missouri. What impresses visitors most about this area is its great diversity of cover types, plant and animal species, and natural features.
The bulk of the area is forested. One goal of our forest management is to provide a diverse age structure throughout the woods. This is because different species of wildlife require forests at various stages of succession. Some rely heavily on the thick, brushy cover provided by a young forest. Other species depend on the snags and cavity trees found in a mature forest.
Historically, a combination of wildfires, insect and disease outbreaks and severe weather events kept the forest in an uneven age structure. However, we no longer are able to allow wildfires to burn uncontrolled or to ignore major insect and disease outbreaks, so we use prescribed burning, forest thinning and timber sales to help keep our forests, and the wildlife that depend on them, healthy.
One of the key issues that we face in the woods of Little Lost Creek Conservation Area is the increasing dominance of sugar maple. These woods have always contained some sugar maple, but the species was historically kept in check by wildfires. The oaks and hickories which used to dominate the overstory of these woods are fire tolerant, but they can't grow in heavy shade. Sugar maple, on the other hand, is susceptible to fire, but it grows well in shade. As we have eliminated fire from our woods over the last 50 years, sugar maples have taken over much of the forest.
Although they are beautiful in the fall, sugar maples produce such heavy shade that hardly any plants, including young oaks and hickories, shrubs or even wildflowers, can survive beneath them,
Over time, these forests slowly develop into a monoculture of maple. This is bad for wildlife, which relies on oaks and hickories and a diversity of understory vegetation for food and cover. The timber resource is also impacted because sugar maple does not produce high quality lumber. We are conducting a number of studies at Little Lost Creek Conservation Area to determine the best way to stop sugar maple from taking over the forests.
As you explore the woods of Little Lost Creek Conservation Area, you will notice a stark contrast in their appearance on north and east facing slopes compared to south and west facing slopes. North and east facing slopes tend to be much better growing sites. Therefore, you will generally find larger, healthier looking trees on these sites. South and west facing slopes receive considerably more sun. Therefore, soils dry out quickly, and organic matter breaks down rapidly. The resulting trees are generally smaller, slower growing, and of poorer quality, but wildlife thrive in this environment.
Tucked into some of these harsh, dry sites are a number of glades and woodlands. Glades typically contain several large, exposed rocks and very thin soil. Normally, the only tree species that can survive on a glade is eastern redcedar. Historically, periodic wildfires kept most cedars off of glades, allowing a variety of native grasses and wildflowers to grow. Many of the area's glades are still fairly open, but some are growing up in cedar.
Glades typically contain some of our most diverse plant communities. Therefore, one of our ongoing projects on the area is to remove cedars from glades so that wildflowers and grasses will flourish. Amazingly, seed from many glade plant species can remain viable for 50 years or more. Usually, merely removing a few cedars and leaving a glade alone for a few years is all it takes to stimulate the wildflowers and grasses to grow. To improve conditions for regrowth, we combine this practice with a prescribed burn.
Unlike glades, woodlands are capable of supporting some scattered trees. Typically, woodlands contain sparsely stocked overstory trees with few to no midstory or understory trees. On the ground you will find a number of wildflowers and small shrubs. If you are lucky, you may even stumble into patch of wild blueberry.
The ridgetops at Little Lost Creek Conservation area contain an interesting mix of forest, prairie and savanna. Savannas are essentially transition zones between forests and prairies. They contain mostly prairie grasses and wildflowers, but they also have some fire-tolerant trees.
Historically, the location and extent of savannas changed with the climate. During dry periods, wildfires burned more frequently and intensely. As a result, savannas were pushed into the woods. During wetter periods, savannas could return to the prairies.
In the mid-1900s, many of these ridgetops were cleared and/or converted to agricultural use. This mostly involved pushing back trees and converting fields to fescue grass. Fescue may be good in some respects for livestock, but it's not useful to wildlife. In the last several years, we have been working hard to convert these fields back into native vegetation.
Crossing the area diagonally from northeast to southwest is Little Lost Creek itself. This is a medium-size, intermittent creek that eventually feeds into Lost Creek, and then into the Missouri River. This section of the creek is pretty far up in the headwaters and typically stays dry much of the year. However, even in the dog days of summer, a few pools support small populations of fish, crawdads and amphibians. The creek also contains a few wet-weather waterfalls and a sandstone chute.
The Conservation Department acquired Little Lost Creek Conservation Area in 1980. Long before then, the area saw a lot of use and abuse. In the early 1900s, almost all marketable timber that was accessible was harvested. Later, in the 1930s, woods were pushed back as far as possible and burned repeatedly to improve grazing conditions for livestock. Meanwhile, many exotic species, such as fescue, sericea lespedeza and autumn olive, were introduced to the area.
Some of those practices were clearly not good for the land, but people working land in the past had to manage their land in a manner that best benefited them, not the land itself.
Fortunately, Little Lost Creek's hills have proven forgiving. With some hard work and patience, much of this landscape is now healthy and supports strong, diverse populations of flora and fauna.
Equally important to maintaining Little Lost Creek Conservation Area for healthy plant and animal populations is providing opportunities for visitors to enjoy the area. The area has a number of trails, mostly along the ridgetops, which are fairly easy to hike. However, there are a few stretches that can really get your heart pumping.
Area maps, including topographic maps, can be found at each parking lot. Take a few minutes to study the map and choose a route you can handle. Bug spray will prove helpful in the summer.
Trails are open to hiking year round. However, from the end of spring turkey season to the beginning of fall turkey season (generally mid-May to mid October), some trails are also open to bicycle and horseback riding. During this period, trails stay fairly dry and are less vulnerable to soil compaction and can handle the extra traffic. The restricted period is designed to reduce conflicts with other area uses such as deer and turkey hunting.
The area is a great place for birdwatching, photography, and general nature viewing. Ovenbirds, wood thrush, and American woodcock are just a few of the bird species you might encounter. It is rare to visit the area and not see at least a few deer or turkey.
Also, Little Lost Creek Conservation Area supports hundreds of different species of wildflowers and other unusual plants, including gray headed coneflower, compass plant and prairie willow. In the spring and fall, each visit will treat you to a new and exciting display of colors. Autumn colors on the area's rolling, forested hills provide a dazzling display of colors.
Primitive camping and picnicking are available at the four parking lots. However, restrooms, running water or trash receptacles are not available, so plan accordingly.
Little Lost Creek Conservation Area is open to hunting under statewide regulations. The only exception is that only antlered deer may be taken during firearms deer season. The area does not have any roads open to vehicles, so most hunting requires a hike into the area.
To reach Little Lost Creek Conservation Area, take Highway 70 to the Pendleton/New Truxton exit (exit 188, 5 miles west of Warrenton). Go south on Highway B for about 1.5 miles to the intersection of Highway B and Highway EE. Take either highway and go about 4 miles. There are two area parking lots on each highway. At each parking lot, you will find a supply of area maps and regulations. For more information, contact the Warrenton Forestry Office at (636) 456-3368.
Editor - Tom Cwynar
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