Thirty Years for Missouri's Natural Areas
When I tell people that I’m the natural areas coordinator for the Missouri Department of Conservation, they often ask me, “Aren’t all woods and prairies natural areas?”
The term “natural area” can be a bit confusing. Missouri’s designated natural areas protect the best available examples of Missouri’s prairies, forests, glades, savannas, woodlands, wetlands, cliffs, caves and streams. Although we have many natural areas throughout Missouri, designated natural areas within the Natural Areas System might be considered the “cream of the crop” of natural communities.
A Network of Natural Gems
Back in 1977, forward-thinking folks from the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources created a partnership called the Missouri Natural Areas Committee. The charge of this committee was to identify, designate and recommend management of the best remaining examples of Missouri’s natural communities.
The Natural Areas System has grown from 43 natural areas 30 years ago to more than 180 natural areas today, with 86 owned by the Missouri Conservation Department. The success of the Missouri Natural Areas System has resulted from a partnership of local, state and federal government agencies, private conservation organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy, and private landowners in recognizing and conserving high-quality natural communities as designated Missouri natural areas.
The citizens of Missouri were promised an expanded Natural Areas System in 1976 as part of the Design for Conservation, and proceeds from the conservation sales tax have been used to establish natural areas either through new acquisitions or through an inventory of existing public lands. Over the next 30 years the Conservation Department promises to establish or expand 40 natural areas as part of its promise in The Next Generation of Conservation.
Missouri’s Living Museums
Our natural areas are storehouses of biological diversity. They support populations of more than 300 plant and animal species of conservation concern, ranging from prairie chickens to pondberry shrubs. In a sense, natural areas are living museums that show what the land looked like prior to the industrial age.
Natural areas contain high-quality natural communities. These groupings of plants and animals and their associated soils and topography have been minimally impacted by humans or have been restored back to a healthy condition. They are an important part of our heritage that we pass on to future generations.
They also are repositories of genetic diversity. The plants, animals and microorganisms found there have high scientific value and may one day have important medicinal or economic value as