Yale and Alicia Muhm live a few miles north of Marthasville, nestled in the quiet, rolling landscape of the Missouri River Hills. They own more than 1,000 mostly wooded acres, which are dotted with small ponds and streams, and home to an abundance of wildlife. Not far to the east is St. Charles County and the fastest growing urban population in the state. Strip malls and subdivisions mark the growth, which appears to be on a collision course with the Muhms.
They began to worry several years ago about what development could do to the area.
“Many of the areas I saw as a child that were beautiful or pristine are now part of some kind of development,” Yale says. “We could sort of see the writing on the wall.”
Last year, the Muhms donated a conservation easement of more than 1,000 acres to the Ozark Regional Land Trust. The arrangement allows the Muhms to retain ownership and for their children to build one home each on the property, but it also guarantees the land will never be subdivided.
“It says in the simplest of terms that it can never be developed,” Yale says.
The Ozark Regional Land Trust is one of more than 1,600 such organizations nationwide working to help landowners protect property well into the future through conservation easements and land preserves. Edward Heisel is the group’s executive director, and says that since the trust’s founding in 1984, it has arranged roughly 100 conservation agreements to protect more than 21,000 acres in the lower Midwest.
“Our mission is really to offer landowners tools to accomplish conservation goals,” he says.
When landowners donate a conservation easement to a land trust, they generally set terms that forfeit some development rights while retaining the right to live on the property. The land can be sold or handed down, but future owners will be bound by the terms of the easement. The land trust’s job is to act as a steward, and to make sure the easement’s terms are followed.
“Most land trusts feel that we have a higher bar set because we’re taking on permanent obligations,” Heisel says. “We’re basically making a promise to these landowners that we’re going to be able to do that.”
The trust is responsible for maintaining a relationship with future generations of owners and for monitoring the condition of the land.
“Every year we’ll be in touch with the landowner or whoever buys or inherits the land,” Heisel says. “We’ll walk around on the property and do a monitoring, and we’ll write a short report. The most important part is the relationship we maintain with those landowners.”
The Muhm’s property lies in the Missouri River Hills Priority Forest Landscape—a roughly 200,000-acre stretch of forest that the Department of Conservation has designated to be a priority for biodiversity. The area constitutes the largest continuous stretch of forest north of the Missouri River in the state and is sanctuary to a unique wildlife population that includes deer, salamanders, frogs, migratory songbirds, wild turkey and a small population of ruffed grouse.
Gus Raeker works for the Missouri Department of Conservation and has served as a resource forester in the Missouri River Hills. He helped the Muhms get in contact with the Ozark Regional Land Trust and says he immediately recognized the value of the land’s conservation.
“What’s really unique about that property is where it’s at and its size,” Raeker says. “In the midst of all that development, you’ve got a 1,000-acre block in one ownership. That in itself is pretty huge.”
In addition, the Muhms have worked with the Conservation Department to improve hundreds of acres of forest through a combination of contract work made possible by cost-share funds, and through their own hard work. They thinned out the trees to improve forest health and restore healthy ground vegetation, and made the area more hospitable to native species. Raeker says that prior to the last century, wildfires did the job.
“Our woods now have more trees per acre than they ever have,” he says, “and the trees are much more crowded than they ever were.”
Encouraging healthy ground vegetation is one of the Department’s main priorities in the area. The Department has worked to remove encroaching fire-intolerant maple trees that grow tall and keep sunlight from reaching the forest floor. It’s also worked to encourage desirable trees and shrubs, and to re-establish native wildflowers and grasses.
A healthy forest floor is essential to several native species, including the ruffed grouse, whose population has been on decline statewide. Ruffed grouse are related to quail, but are about four times larger. They thrive in woodlands with thick undergrowth and typically spend their entire lives within a few square miles.
Raeker says he is impressed by the health of the Muhm’s property. “There’s been a bit of logging out there but it seems like it was done well,” he says. “You see very little negative disturbances out there.”
Alicia Muhm says she and her husband have lived on the property for more than 32 years. She says about half of the land has been in Yale’s family for more than 50 years, but the rest has been purchased from neighbors along the way.
“Rather than seeing it be developed, we’ve purchased the land from them,” she says.
The Muhms are both retired; Yale from a career as a thoracic surgeon and Alicia from nursing. The two met on the job while working in an intensive care unit. Alicia says they originally moved to Marthasville on a trial basis. “It was 38 miles door to door to get to the hospital,” she says. “But we’ve lived here ever since and we love it.”
The Muhms have four adult children and four grandchildren. It is important to the Muhms that their kids and grandkids have the ability to enjoy their property into the future. The conservation easement allowed this flexibility while also providing peace of mind from knowing that their property would be well cared for in a conservation friendly manner forever.
Heisel says the Muhm’s donation is among the largest transactions his group has been a part of. “It’s an extraordinary gift,” he says. “It’s not going to be public land, but it will help keep the landscape intact. Any time a landowner makes that kind of donation, they deserve some recognition.”
Raeker agrees. “The Muhms are outstanding citizens and they’re really doing a great thing for Missouri,” he says.
The Muhm’s property, located just north of Marthasville, is mostly wooded with small ponds and streams and has an abundance of wildlife.