Every weekend for the past six years, excluding four (deer hunting, Thanksgiving, Christmas and taxes), from mid-October to mid-April, Dan Drees has been out restoring his land. Even on the most forbidding day, Dan can be found loading chainsaws onto his ATV and heading out to practice what he calls “chainsaw therapy.”
A Professional and Personal Pursuit
Dan, a fire ecologist with the National Park Service, and his wife, Susan Farrington, a plant community ecologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), own 218 acres of land near the Current River in Shannon County, a portion of which encompasses Little Shawnee Creek, a tributary of the Jacks Fork River. The property is shaped like a mirror-imaged capital letter “L,” with its long side running north, the leg jutting west. After designing and building a house, they began a comprehensive land restoration program in early 2005, a year after they bought the property. In recognition of the end goal for the land, they christened it “Blooming Paradise.”
Dan and Susan met, fittingly, on a glade-woodland restoration project at Meramec State Park in 1998. Susan, now 48, was a Sierra Club volunteer that day. Dan, now 54, was a naturalist at the park, supervising the cutting and burning of woodland-invading eastern red cedars. They married in 2003 and bought their Shannon County property the next year. Dan, who worked for many years for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources as a park naturalist and briefly for MDC as a natural history biologist, joined the National Park Service as a fire ecologist in early 2009.
Purchasing Blooming Paradise fulfilled a lifelong dream for Dan. He focused his whole career to live and work, eventually, in the Current River watershed. Born and raised near St. Louis, his childhood, like that of many Missourians, included visits to the wild Jacks Fork and Current rivers country. He remembers camping at Alley Spring, Round Spring and Circle B. Those trips left an impression. “I always knew I wanted to live and work in Shannon County,” he says. By third grade he knew what he wanted to do and where he wanted to live. Forty years later he made it happen. Susan, raised in upstate New York and California and educated in Pennsylvania, arrived in Missouri as a lead horticulturist for the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1996. In 1998, she met Dan and her budding natural resource interests, supported by Dan, inspired her to enter graduate school and change careers. After earning a M.S. in forestry in 2006, she began her current position, which includes managing the ground flora study of the Missouri Ozark Forest Ecosystem Project, an MDC-run, 100-year, 9,000-acre timber management experiment.
Diamond in the Rough
When looking for land, the only conditions Dan and Susan had for prospective sites were that it be more than 80 acres and be located between Eminence and Peck Ranch, an MDC conservation area in northern Carter County where Dan worked at the time. There weren’t too many properties that fit this requirement, says Dan. But Blooming Paradise turned out to be the proverbial jewel in the rough. The property’s east edge borders Pioneer Forest, a sustainably harvested private forest, which added to the property’s initial allure. “Your enjoyment of your property is accelerated by the integrity of your neighbor’s property,” says Dan—a wisdom he and Susan applied. While scouting a section of the land one day soon after buying it, Dan found what would become known as “Blazing Star Glade.” He called Susan excitedly, he remembers, “We’ve got a glade! We’ve got a glade!” It wouldn’t be the only one.
Landowners manage land in different ways depending on what they want it to do: feed cows, grow hay, support wildlife for hunting, develop timber for eventual harvest, raise crops, etc. Dan and Susan’s motivation, given that they have full-time jobs that support them financially, is unusual for private landowners. Their goal is to preserve and restore the greatest amount of native biodiversity that belongs on the property. They use their considerable expertise and knowledge of Ozark ecology (and that of their vast network of colleagues) to determine the context of this belonging—how and where to perform which restoration practice. Since they bought their property, they have undertaken glade and woodland restoration, cool-to warm-season grass conversion, timber stand improvement, erosion repair, wildlife food-plot establishment and prescribed burning.
Most of Dan and Susan’s land work has involved participation in federal and state cost share programs. Cost-share programs offer incentives for private landowners to manage their land in ways that coincide with conservation objectives: erosion control, wildlife habitat improvement, etc. Recognizing that true ecosystem health is met by improving land over vast landscapes, state and federal organizations developed cost-share programs to encourage private landowner work that enhances work done on adjacent public land.
Dan and Susan’s land is a patchwork of ecosystems. There’s a 21-acre low-lying hayed pasture in the southwest portion of the property, which borders the county road that accesses their property. There’s a 26-acre warm-season grass field toward the southern end of the property. The rest of the 218 acres is either restored glade-woodland or overgrown glade-woodland with the exception of both a northeastern segment of the property, which approaches true forest, and, across the county road, an 18-acre creek woods section bought from a neighbor to preserve a forested riparian zone for the creek.
Dan and Susan’s home is located near the middle of the short leg of the reverse-L-shaped property. A driveway winds up from the county road about 200 feet to their self-designed house on the pinnacle of a hill. Designed to take advantage of passive solar energy, it’s aligned east and west with large south and east exposed dining room windows. The windows overlook a large pond, which lies at the base of a hill whose knob rises a little higher than the house and has a dense growth of warm-season grass. As with a lot of pastureland in Missouri, and indeed elsewhere, fescue dominated the cleared pastures of Dan and Susan’s property when they purchased it. Nonnative fescue is a cool-season grass, a group of grasses that green up in spring and early summer. Warm-season grasses flourish throughout the summer, allow space for nesting and foraging, and sustain a variety of wildlife that fescue, and other cool season grasses, do not.
In the winter and spring of 2010, Dan focused on a 21-acre woodland section of the property, which has a dolomite glade at its center. Dan dubbed it “Susan’s Glade,” because she brought him out to see it and pushed for its restoration. Glades, often dotted with exposed outcrops of igneous, limestone or dolomite rock, are one of the hallmark ecosystems of the Missouri Ozarks. They are typically found on south to southwest- facing slopes and receive a lot of sun. Therefore, these glades are drier, and, historically, burned more frequently and intensely than surrounding areas, which kept the red cedar trees out. Eastern red cedar trees are native to Missouri and the Ozarks, but a lack of prescribed fire in the region has allowed their numbers to swell a thousand-fold since historic times, says Dan.
Over thousands of years, the Ozarks experienced periodic landscape fire. This fire sustained a mosaic of glade, woodland and forest, with woodlands being the predominant land type. When woodlands and glades are restored by reducing the numbers of encroaching eastern red cedars and performing periodic prescribed burns, the biodiversity that evolved over time in the Ozarks blossoms. With this in mind, Dan and Susan are careful, aside from the warm season grass conversion, not to plant any plants on their property. They want the land itself to dictate what emerges. And what has emerged has been remarkable. Susan, as a professional botanist, has identified more than 500 native plant species on the property. Dan points out that there are not many 200-acre parcels on Missouri’s designated natural areas that have 500 native plant species on them.
Biodiversity is a boon to the whole ecosystem. A more diverse landscape creates a habitat mosaic that supports different forage, nesting and cover opportunities for a range of wildlife, including quail, turkey, deer and insects. A diversity of plant life results in staggered, steady growth throughout the growing season, which ensures more insects, which in turn become a high-protein food source for a variety of wildlife. As Dan puts it, “Biodiversity ensures that there’s always something on the dinner table.” There’s an aesthetic appeal as well with biodiversity. Colors come and go in the seasons of flowers: glade coneflower and Missouri evening primrose in the spring, rough blazing star in the fall.
Susan’s Glade spreads over the eastern portion of the property, toward the base of the reverse-L. Work on the glade involved cutting and burning red cedar trees. The restoration border emphasizes the immense difference red cedars make on a glade. Even without thinking of the ecology involved, their choking presence becomes clear when juxtaposed with an open glade. The red cedar-free glade has a natural feel; 8-foot-tall big bluestem stalks bend overhead, dolomite outcrops and patches of glade plants dot the hillside among downed cedar skeletons. The work was straightforward. Dan felled the red cedars and cut the larger pieces into logs to be sold to a cedar sawmill. He cut the smaller logs and branches to manageable size, and then Susan (sometimes with visiting friends and family) fed them into a bonfire.
Although it isn’t about the money for Dan and Susan, the federal cost-share program for this 21-acre overgrown glade-woodland helped pay for the cost of tree cutting and two subsequent prescribed burns. Dan and Susan would have done much of the work anyway, they say, but not as many acres or as quickly. “There are some weekends I would’ve been fishing instead,” says Dan.
A little more than a year ago, Dan stood 200 yards from the east property boundary, which is also the border for this cost-share plan. As far as the eye could see, there was a dense stand of eastern red cedars. One hundred yards downhill to the south, eastern red cedar. One hundred yards north, half already open, but above that, eastern red cedar. It seemed there was still so far to go to reach his March 2011 deadline. Cost-share money is only disbursed if all conditions of the written cost-share contract are fulfilled within the given time period, and his project was given three years. But Dan and Susan weren’t discouraged. They realized that work on a glade does get easier after a point. They wouldn’t need to burn up all of the cedar slash, and they wouldn’t have to cut every red cedar tree. They pressed into the final phase of their project.
Thanks to their dedication to the project, and no small amount of personal fortitude, Dan and Susan met their goal this spring. They completed the last of seven cost-share programs on the property, including Susan’s Glade.
In some ways, finishing this project is the end of an era for Blooming Paradise, but as Dan says, prescribed burning and vigilant exotic invasive control will be a yearly process. They have burned 90 acres already this year. Dan and Susan are 80 percent to their restoration goal, says Dan, and evidence of the land’s habitat health is clear. Dan heard quail singing outside his house one recent morning, and that’s not too common in the Ozarks anymore, he says.
This project might be over, but there’s something else that might keep Dan from working on his fishing: He has a contract on 118 acres of land a few miles east of Blooming Paradise, where restoration work will begin all over again.