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Renaissance at Snake Ridge

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Published on: Nov. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 17, 2010

Using chainsaws and prescribed fire, Dick and Esther Myers spend the cool days of spring and fall practicing what they call "a scientific art form." It's all part of their efforts to restore glades and improve timber on the 640 remote acres they own in eastern Taney County.

The couple recently requested their second term in the Missouri Department of Conservation's Forest Stewardship Program. At age 72, Dick says it's even more important to conserve the diverse and fascinating habitat that defines his property.

Their work has created a legacy of valuable hard-wood and wildlife habitat for the native species that are returning to the property. They may even be help-in to preserve the tiny Tumbling Creek Cavesnail, which was recently added to the federal list of endangered species.

"We are trying to preserve," Dick said, "but one of the great joys is to associate; just to live with these things."

To care for this land was the reason the Myers retired in 1991 to Snake Ridge Farm. They named the land for the large copperhead that cost Dick the tip of his right middle finger.

Ambling through a glade once choked by cedars, Dick stoops and tenderly jiggles an endangered purple beard-tongue. Its bell-shaped flowers bloom only on bare limestone outcroppings.

Also here are smoke trees with their puffy, grayish blossoms. They are found only in five Missouri counties. The hardwood, once commonly used for fence posts, now thrives in their front yard, with seedlings sprouting alongside.

"We're just trying to live with this land in a way that's best for it and easiest for us," Esther said.

In their quest, they've gained valuable help from the Missouri Department of Conservation. The federal stewardship program administered by conservation agencies at the state level was authorized in 1989 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While funding for cost-share elements of the program slowed in the 1990s, the 2002 farm bill has boosted those funds, said Brian Brookshire, forestry field program supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Nationally, the program's goal was to place 25 million acres of private forestland under stewardship manage-met. The primary benefit of joining the program is free on-site advice from a local resource forester who designs a specific forest management plan.

The Conservation Department's mission is to manage Missouri's forest, fish and wildlife resources. In formulating plans for the best management of individual proper-ties, one of the Department's foremost considerations is the rights of private landowners. Conservation success, after all, depends on them.

"Of about 14 million acres of forest in Missouri, 83 percent is privately held, and we're relying on private landowners to do the right thing," Brookshire said.

Timber production in Missouri generates $3 billion annually. However, timber production is only one of the program's facets, said Brookshire.

"The landowner can realize a whole set of benefits to that land and maintain it in a healthy and productive state for generations to come," Brookshire explained. "They can live on it, camp on it, provide clean water to the streams, hunt on it and still get economic returns."

Over the past decade, the Myers completed a timber plan on half of the property. They cleared diseased and undesirable trees, such as black oak, to foster the growth of commercially valuable red and white oak. As they cleared their timber, they left "den" trees to provide shelter for wildlife. They do not clear-cut, but maintain trees of various ages.

"It's like weeding the forest with a chainsaw," Dick said.

The Conservation Department can provide valuable assistance to landowners conducting a timber harvest. A conservation forester marks trees to be cut, calculates the board feet, requests bids from prospective buyers and presents bids to the landowners who then choose the cutter. To protect the forest resources and also the interests of the land-owner, the Department al-so specifies "Best Manage-met Practices (BMPs) for timber harvesting.

In the last 10 years, nearly 400,000 board feet of timber have been removed from the Myers's farm. Once an area is logged, the Myers lime and fertilize the skid tracks and seed the ground with clover and orchard grass. They've planted several thousand oak seedlings on the trails.

In addition, the Myers cleared red cedar from 27 acres. That has permitted warm season grasses to flourish, encouraging native plants inhabiting the glades to return. They also built six small ponds and planted food plots with common lespedeza, ladino clover, orchard grass and millet to provide food for deer and wild turkey.

To foster the growth of native plants, they eradicated fescue from certain pastures, using herbicide carefully to minimize the danger of run-off. Fescue grows in a dense mat, eliminating bare ground and crowding out native plants that are beneficial to wildlife. Its thick thatch is inhospitable to insects and prevents quail chicks from escaping from predators.

Quail have returned to Snake Ridge Farm to forage in summer and to take shelter from snow in winter.

Throughout the property the Myers have built trails. Each is named for one of their six grandchildren, who range in age from 9 to 19.

"We wanted to create an environment that would fascinate and educate the grandchildren, and it does," Dick said.

The Myers also imparted land management lessons to the many students who tour the property.

Dick and Esther Myers first became attached to the Ozarks when Dick was stationed with the Army at Fort Leonard Wood. His doctoral dissertation was on the ecology of bats on the Ozark Plateau. He taught biology at two Missouri universities and served for 18 years as the director of the National Weather Service Training Center in Kansas City.

Esther, with a master's degree in public administration, has long monitored clean water activities on behalf of the League of Women Voters. An important consideration in buying Snake Ridge Farm was their desire to help protect the watershed of the Tumbling Creek Cave National Natural Landmark.

In August 2002, the cavesnail was placed on the Federal endangered species list. Its habitat on neighboring property likely was degraded by sedimentation filling crevices in the underground creek's gravel beds.

To control erosion from their upstream property, the Myers recently completed an ambitious project with help of the Department of Conservation.

When the Myers moved to the farm, there was a hollow they could drive across. Years of run-off, resulting from bulldozing on higher property, gradually created an impassable, 6-foot deep gully in the hollow.

After getting federal Fish and Wildlife funding through the Department of Conservation, as well as permits from the U.S. Corps of Engineers and the Department of Natural Resources, Dick and Esther cut 20- to 30-foot tall cedar trees and dragged them to the site with a tractor.

On a cold, wet morning in March, they were joined by Greg Cassell, the Taney County resource forester, and staff from the Conservation Department's divisions of private lands, fisheries and forestry. Using the same kind of anchors that hold mobile homes to the ground, the crew strapped the cedars to the washed-out sides of the slope. With only a short break for some of Esther's applesauce cake, they completed 120 feet of revetment that day, thwarting further erosion. Eventually, the hollow will heal.

"It's so amazing how willingly these people worked so hard, and they weren't working because they were making big bucks," Dick said, "but because they believed in what they were doing, in the conservation ethic."

Since the Myers's land first entered private ownership in 1899, it has been timbered, plowed and grazed down to bare rocks. Hogs last ran on the property about 1946. The oldest remaining trees are about 120 years old, but most are about 80 years old and of poor quality.

Dick sets a worn axe head on the dining room table. It is among the tools and mule shoes they have found during their toil, remnants left by pioneers who had little luck on this fragile, marginal land. They found the axe, dulled from hitting rocks and cracked in half, abandoned where the farmer last swung it.

"They tried to farm this land," Dick said. "They'd get a good spring with the rain. Then their crops would drought out in the summer."

Lightly touching the battered axe head, Esther says, "They were seeking the American dream."

Likewise, Dick and Esther Myers are fulfilling their own version of the American dream, helping their beautiful piece of property regain its regal splendor.

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