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Current River Natural Area

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Published on: May. 2, 2005

Last revision: Nov. 17, 2010

Thunder rumbles in the distance as dusk approaches. A Native American woman studies the rapidly growing clouds. She senses that cold rain and high winds will soon break the drought that lasted throughout summer.

She returns to camp and tells others in her tribe. The approaching storm will rain down acorns as well as water. The next day, they will gather them as a part of their winter food supply.

Some of the trees that sustained Native Americans are still around to nurture us at a secluded and pristine place called the Current River Natural Area. White oaks nearly 400 years old reign over the area.

There's a story about how these ancient oaks in this rough heart of the Ozarks escaped the logger's saw. The area was part of a large acreage in the Current River Hills assembled over the course of several decades by the Pioneer Cooperage Company of St. Louis.

New York-based National Distillers Products Corporation acquired Pioneer Cooperage in 1947. The company wanted to use the oaks to replenish its stock of white oak for barrels. White oak imparts color, aroma and smooth, mellow flavor to fine whiskies.

Two Pioneer Cooperage foresters, Ed Woods and Charlie Kirk, transferred to National Distillers with the land. Their goal was to persuade their new bosses to manage the forests for a continuous yield of white oak. To help their cause, they even invited one of the most influential foresters in America, Yale emeritus professor H.H. Chapman, to tour the forest. Chapman pronounced the area's oak reproduction as “nothing short of spectacular.”

Realizing that the ancient trees had economic, scientific and spiritual value, National Distillers abandoned its plans for four of six intended stave mills. Instead, the company tried to capitalize on its conservation consciousness along with its fine whiskies. One of its slogans was “90,000 Acres of Natural Beauty ... and Barrel Staves, Too.”

In 1953, The Society of American Foresters began negotiations with National Distillers to protect 10 acres containing a grove of virgin, old-growth white oaks under a natural area program the society started in 1947.

The negotiations broke down, however, when the cooperage department head at National Distillers died unexpectedly, and other officials decided to liquidate the white oak. Woods and Kirk, still employed by the company, were dismayed.

Kirk was helping to fight a fire on the Conservation Department's Peck Ranch area one night in late 1953 when he ran into Leo Drey of St. Louis. Drey had begun purchasing woodland in the Ozarks in 1951, in part to prove that it was possible to manage Ozark forests sustainably. As the crew took a breather at 3 a.m., Kirk plopped in the weeds beside Drey and told him about the sad turn of events at Distillers.

Although Drey had already purchased some 37,000 acres—more than the 25,000 he originally intended—he was a soft touch for land under threat. He immediately began negotiations with Distillers to purchase the entire 90,000-acre forest. Distillers insisted on cutting all the oaks over 15 inches diameter at breast height. They also wanted to cut the big white oaks in the proposed natural area if the designation failed to go through. But Drey bargained for the right to select 300,000 board-feet of white oak of his own choosing—not to cut but to protect.

Drey completed his purchase of the 90,000 acres June 1, 1954, and the Current River Natural Area was officially designated in March 1955.

Leo Drey became increasingly active in SAF and The Nature Conservancy, and in 1964 set aside a tract of old-growth eastern red cedar as the Pioneer Research Natural Area, the second SAFdesignated site in Missouri. By this time he had also established the L-A-D Foundation (1962), through which he would purchase additional sites of natural or cultural value. He transferred to the foundation 961 acres of Pioneer Forest that were under scenic easement to the National Park Service for the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.

When the Missouri Department of Conservation initiated a state system of natural areas in 1970, the two SAF sites on Pioneer were among the first to be included. By the end of the decade, eight L-A-D properties had won designation. Several of them were leased to the Conservation Department for management. Two other properties, Grand Gulf and Dillard Mill, were leased to the Department of Natural Resources for management as state parks.

In the 1980s, Leo Drey came to the rescue of yet another spectacular area, a 7,000-acre tract of forest surrounding Greer Spring, the most pristine spring in the Ozarks. The spring is now part of the Mark Twain National Forest.

In the 1990s, ecologists came to believe that large natural areas were necessary to provide for normal ecosystem functioning. Sites as tiny as the 10-acre Current River Natural Area seemed too small to be viable, and some thought that it should be declassified, despite the fact that it was the first designated natural area in the state.

Conservation Department naturalists who visited the area were surprised to find that much of the surrounding forest was nearly indistinguishable in quality from the original 10-acre tract. Leo Drey had provided a buffer around the area by allowing only minimal salvage harvesting of storm-toppled trees.

Drey's conservative management of the forest created an opportunity to expand the original 10-acre natural areas to 256 acres in commemoration of the Current River Natural Area's 50th anniversary.

The addition is now the property of the L-A-D Foundation rather than Leo Drey himself, thanks to the most spectacular gift of real estate ever in the state of Missouri and perhaps in the nation. On July 6, 2004, Leo and Kay Drey signed over nearly the entire acreage of Pioneer Forest, some 144,000 acres, to the L-A-D Foundation for protection as a conservatively managed, producing forest in perpetuity.

In the article “Building Natural Wealth” in the November 2003 Missouri Conservationist, Leo Drey is referred to as “a Santa Claus for natural areas in Missouri.”

The new addition to the Current River Natural Area is certainly a spectacular gift. The area includes old-growth white oaks, a fen, small cliffs, a spring-fed stream, and part of the Brushy Creek Backpacking Trail.

A Remote Haven

The Current River Natural Area is in the 61,000-acre Roger Pryor Pioneer Backcountry, a large and undeveloped area of Pioneer Forest.

The natural area is remote and difficult to access. The 20-mile Brushy Creek/Crockertown Trail, still under construction, will pass through this forested tributary hollow. Access to the trail will be at Himont, in Shannon County. You can find more information about the area and the trail at <www.pioneerforest.com/PF_Recreation3.html>.

There is marvel in this place, and it is marvelous that Leo Drey has given us even more to explore.

The Current River Natural Area is more than massive trees coated with soft and moist, emerald moss. Melodic bird songs fill the forest, and each spring a profusion of wildflowers, including showy orchids and large and small yellow lady-slippers, bloom before dense leaf canopy blocks the sun. Satterfield Creek has carved a chute in the dolomite bedrock, and numerous springs moisten the soil.

Though a mile of maturing forest separates the Current River Natural Area from its namesake river, this old-growth forest is one of the most beautiful places within the river's watershed. Those who fought to preserve the Current River Natural Area more than 50 years ago obviously saw an inseparable connection between the river and this ancient forest of white oaks.

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