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Published on: Jan. 18, 2012

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MDC forestry division unit chief.

Missouri’s vision came about largely due to the efforts of early conservation leaders E. Sydney Stephens and J. T. Montgomery, who believed good forest management was essential for wildlife.

When the Conservation Commission began on July 1, 1937, the Commission appointed I. T. Bode, a forester, as the first director of the Conservation Department. Bode understood the importance of partnering with landowners for forestry conservation success.

In 1938, Forester George White came to Missouri by way of the U.S. Forest Service. He believed the keys to healthy forests were fire suppression, education and protection. He directed the Department to purchase cut-over forestland to serve as models for forest management, and to create a state forest nursery to supply trees for reforestation. He knew landowners who planted trees would be less likely to allow their land to burn. Lastly, White sought to make foresters available to landowners to help them manage their own wooded acres.

The tasks ahead were daunting. Some foresters deemed Missouri’s human-caused forest fires too big a problem to contain. Burning forests was a tradition dating back to early settlers. Once the trees were gone, soil eroded quickly, choking the creeks and the fish in them, and making the landscape unable to support crops.

“Starting in 1937, fire suppression was job number one for the newly created Conservation Department. Everything else came later,” says Gene Brunk, retired MDC forestry division unit chief.

Stories tell of early foresters following their noses to find smoke “thicker than usual.” Soon, steel and wood-braced fire towers dotted the landscape. To a readership well connected by phones and good roads, it is difficult to appreciate the challenges surmounted by early fire tower watchmen. Their’s was an age before effective radio communication. Some towermen even resorted to sending postcards to other fire districts to alert them of distant smoke.

Volunteers and community support were vital to early fire fighting success, and they still are today. Of course, the best way to stop a fire is to keep it from starting.

When the harried foresters weren’t battling fires, they talked to anyone who would listen about forest fire prevention, forest management and conservation.

Slowly things began to change. White led the Department’s forestry efforts for 22 years, becoming the longest-tenured state forester. By the time he retired, his vision had grown into one of the most respected state forestry programs in the country.

White’s keys to healthy forests still resonate

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