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Building Natural Wealth

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Published on: Nov. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

"I'm out planting a forest," says Leo Drey's answering machine. "Please leave your name and number, and I'll try to get back to you before it matures."

Leo Drey owns more land--160,000 acres in the Ozarks--than any other private landowner in Missouri. The answering machine in his downtown St. Louis office is his sole concession to modern technology. His old Underwood typewriter still stands ready for action. Ledgers written in his tiny, neat script record his land acquisitions back to 1951. They reside in an unlocked safe that looks like it was new during the California Gold Rush.

Drey purchased his first chunk of land from "Doc" Jim Buford of Reynolds County. He bought more than 1,400 acres for about four dollars per acre.

"Doc Buford was a real doctor, Drey said, "but he only had one patient his entire practice. He decided that was enough for him and took up cattle ranching. He once claimed that he walked through a log yard and spotted a tree that had come off his property. He said he went to check, and sure enough, it was gone."

Drey bought a lot of his land for back taxes. Most had been heavily logged. That suited Drey because he was committed to restoring a resource that had been virtually exhausted during the massive timber harvests in the early part of the 20th century. He also contacted potential land sellers throughout Reynolds, Carter and Shannon counties by mail. He occasionally visited with them in person, too, but with mixed results.

"I visited a fellow in his home once," Drey recalled. "He wasn't very talkative. I told him his land would have value if he could keep the cows off, but he just kept looking at the fire. I rambled on about cattle and so forth and finally got back around to asking if he'd sell his land. He never stopped looking at the fire, but he said, 'Best go out this door. I'll watch to see the dogs don't get you.'

"I really respect the people of the Ozarks," Drey continued. "They managed to make a living from those hills through sheer hard work. They'd find a spring, clear some land, and be pretty self-sufficient with what they could grow and raise."

The most profound improvement in Ozarks land management occurred when open range was finally closed in the 1960s.

"That was a vast, vast change for Ozarks forests," Drey said. "Before that, cattle and hogs were turned loose in the woods to forage. People would burn your land to encourage grass for them. Spencer Jones, a local landowner, was a 'onestring guitar' who persisted and finally succeeded in getting the laws changed to overturn open range."

Attitudes changed, too, and people began to value the oaks, hickories and pines that grow on the steep slopes, dry ridges and deep hollows of the Ozarks.

"People take better care of their timber, now," Drey observed. "I compliment the Conservation Department for their forestry education efforts. It's had a major impact. People understand that timber is a crop, that it grows, and if you handle it right you can come back later and take another crop. Oh, you still find instances of arson and grudge fires, but nothing like it used to be."

A forest fire led to Drey's largest land acquisition. He owned about 37,000 acres in 1954 when he was called out to help fight a fire on public land. After working all night, he sat down to rest by Charlie Kirk, who was a forester for National Distillers, a company which owned and harvested vast amounts of white oak for making whiskey barrels.

Kirk said that National Distillers had directed him to "liquidate" (clear cut) the rest of the white oak on their 90,000 acres of land. After the fire was out, Drey immediately went to New York to make an offer for their land to prevent the clearing.

"I ended up buying it, and I've been in over my head ever since," Drey said.

The acquisition was the largest single land purchase for conservation in Missouri history. Drey hired professional foresters to help. Lee Paulsell was the first, along with Charlie Kirk and present-day manager Clint Trammel. Trammel has managed the Pioneer Forest since 1978.

Drey's forest management philosophy is to harvest individual trees as they reach maturity and maximum value, and to remove trees that are defective. This "uneven-aged" management strategy contrasts with "even-aged" management, where all the trees in a given area are harvested at one time. The trees that replace them are all the same age.

Drey expanded a program called Continuous Forest Inventory begun by National Distillers in 1952 . Pioneer Forest was divided into 498, one-fifth-acre study plots. Every five years the plots are monitored for tree vigor, growth, volume and quality. Trammel said that 50 years of continuous monitoring has yielded one of the nation's best databases on oak, hickory and pine forest management. It is often used by university research projects. It documents that selective harvest provides excellent regeneration and growth.

Trammel is also working on a program to encourage responsible forest stewardship while increasing the worth of wood. Called "Value Missouri," the program was begun by a group of private landowners, environmentalists and the wood industry to certify that lumber originated on lands that are managed for sustainable forest harvest. People are willing to pay more for such lumber, especially in specialty markets, said Trammel, and the program can pay real dividends to participating landowners. Programs like "Value Missouri" and the 50-year-old research project are two reasons Pioneer Forest is aptly named.

Drey's long tenure as a large landowner and his dedication to conservation continue to place him in the forefront of environmental issues.

"I'm close to being fought out, though," said the 85-year old Drey, reflecting on battles won and lost. He was involved in the national "Wild and Scenic Riverways" designation of the Current and Jack's Fork rivers in the early 1960s. He advocated that private landowners along the river be allowed to keep their property while receiving scenic easements to protect the rivers from development. Instead, Congress passed legislation that led to condemning the property through eminent domain, creating resentment that still persists.

Drey also organized the Open Space Council of St. Louis. One of its first challenges was to sponsor a bond issue for parks. The measure lost by just 300 votes out of 76,000.

"We licked our wounds and concluded that a broader base of support was needed to address the many environmental needs of the urban area," recalled Drey.

That campaign was the genesis of Coalition for the Environment, the state's first independent citizens' group to address a broad range of environmental issues.

"We were gratified later that St. Louis County was able to acquire some property the bond issue might have funded, and one purchase became one of my wife's favorite areas - Queeny Park," Drey added.

Kay Drey helps Leo tackle environmental issues. He met and married her rather late in life for those times. His mother had worried that Leo's early preoccupation with buying forest land might never lead him to marriage.

When he first took his mother to the Ozarks to view his property, Drey proudly showed off his land and forests. At one point, he embraced a tree to show her its girth. She responded, "That's about the saddest sight I've ever seen."

Before he could marry Kay, he had to put her to the canoeing test. "I was a canoer in the Ozarks long before I was a landowner," Drey said. She passed the test on the Upper Jack's Fork admirably, and the family, which came to include three children, spent many satisfying nights on gravel bars camping under the stars.

His most widely publicized purchase was Greer Spring in Oregon County in 1988. Greer is the second largest spring in Missouri, and its owners saw the potential for commercial development. They received an offer from a large corporation for an amount that couldn't be matched by the state or federal government, both of which were interested in protecting it. Drey stepped in with an offer the landowner accepted, then turned it over to the U.S. Forest Service at a bargain basement price.

Drey also purchased and protected the state's highest waterfall (Hickory Canyon Natural Area in Ste. Genevieve County) and the state's best example of old growth white oaks (Current River Natural Area in Shannon County), not to mention shut-ins, caves, canyons and many other one-ofa-kind natural areas.

The late John Wylie, a Conservation Department natural history chief, once said of Leo Drey, "Yes, there is a Santa Claus for natural areas in Missouri. Every now and then, Santa, in the form of Leo Drey, reaches deep into his bag of goodies and pulls out another jewel to present to the people of Missouri."

What will happen to these natural jewels when Leo Drey is gone? They will continue to be protected by the L-A-D Foundation. That stands for Leo A. Drey, and it was formed to care for the property in perpetuity. Its board is made up of a cross-section of dedicated conservationists who share Drey's views on the state's natural riches and their care.

For a state so rich in natural treasures, Missouri is richer still for having a real life Santa Claus. His name is Leo Drey.triangle

Missouri Natural Areas

Leo Drey contributed to Missouri's outdoor wealth by acquiring outstanding natural features for inclusion in the Missouri Natural Areas system. For a complete list of natural areas, go to: www.mdc.mo.gov/areas/natareas/

Visit Pioneer Forest

Leo Drey established the 160,000-acre Pioneer Forest to demonstrate that Ozarks forests could produce a continuous supply of timber products and still maintain a broad range of environmental values, including wildlife, recreation, water quality and aesthetics.

The Virgin Pine Walk and Pioneer Forest Interpretive Drive are good ways to view the forest and its management techniques. They are located 25 miles south of Salem (one mile south of Round Spring) on Highway 19. Brochures are available on site to guide your tour.

The Roger Pryor Pioneer Back Country will also soon be available for hikers and backpackers. This remote, 61,000-acre area in Shannon and Reynolds counties will provide trails and primitive camping areas in natural surroundings. Hunting and fishing are also permitted throughout Pioneer Forest.

To learn more about Pioneer Forest, visit its web page.

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