Ted Shanks Conservation Area in Pike County isn't very old as conservation areas go. The Conservation Department bought the land in the 1970s. However, the land's history as a magnet for wildlife, hunters, anglers and nature lovers goes back much farther.
The area is part of a complex of braided seasonal channels, sloughs, backwaters and tributaries that once bordered the length of the Mississippi River. Like much of the great river's historic flood plain, Ted Shanks supported a lush growth of oak, ash, pecan and sycamore trees. These bottomland forests sheltered millions of ducks, geese and other migratory birds.
The birds came to eat acorns. This staple food provided fuel for ducks' annual migrations. Hunters stood among the Shanks area's towering pin oak and swamp white oak trees and watched hundreds of ducks swirl into the flooded timber.
Looking at Ted Shanks Conservation Area today, a first-time visitor would never imagine such a scene. What you do see at the Shanks area today can differ drastically, depending on who you are.
Duck hunter Steve Hoepf began visiting the 6,700-acre area in 1979, soon after the Missouri Department of Conservation bought the property. "We often had 40 or 50 thousand ducks on the area," Hoepf remembers. Today, when he looks across the Flag Lake tract near the middle of the area, he sees only dead trees and lost opportunities.
Resource Forester Kristen Goodrich looks at the same area and sees history in the making. She also sees a bright future for the next generation of hunters.
Both visions are accurate, as far as they go.
Hints of the changes that Hoepf witnessed first appeared in aerial photos of the area. Pictures taken in the 1980s showed many more dead trees than photos taken in the 1970s. They also showed water standing in Flag Lake, which had been dry in the earlier photos. Area managers believed the trees died due to manipulation of water levels to improve wildlife habitat.
Then they discovered that Flag Lake appeared in photos taken in 1956, before the land was under Conservation Department management. The water was rising even before the area was being managed as a waterfowl area. Where was the water coming from?
Ted Shanks' bottomland hardwood forest originally occupied land that stood a few inches or feet above the normal water level of the adjacent Mississippi River. Floods rose among the timber, but for most of the year, the forest floor was above water. This allowed trees to thrive and enabled seedlings to survive, guaranteeing the future of the bottomland hardwood forest.
In 1942, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed its navigation system on the upper Mississippi River. Locks and dams turned the river into a series of lakes and raised the average water level adjacent to the Shanks area several feet. The soil of the flood plain acted like an enormous sponge, soaking up water until its level under the soil rose to the river's new level.
The effects of the extra moisture were subtle and slow to appear. Few trees died outright. Instead, the increased moisture reduced tree vigor and cut into survival of seedlings. Low-lying areas, including Flag Lake, were affected first.
The decline took a catastrophic turn when the Great Flood of 1993 breached levees at Ted Shanks' north end, covering most of the area in several feet of water from June through October. Already stressed by decades of low level flooding, tens of thousands of trees died within a year.
The forest decline worsened the problem. Trees constantly draw water out of the soil up to their leaves, where it evaporates. A healthy, mature tree cycles approximately 150 gallons of water from the ground on a typical summer day. Researchers estimate that a 10 percent loss of forest canopy is the same as having an inch of additional rainfall. The death of 90 percent of the trees in some parts of Ted Shanks was equal to nine extra inches of rainfall annually.
Goodrich is one of the many Conservation Department personnel working to make the Shanks area to become a waterfowl Mecca again. She never saw Ted Shanks in its heyday, but she knows that, given proper conditions, forests will restore themselves. With human help, this natural restoration can be accelerated.
Although they can't do anything about the higher river level, researchers believe that many parts of the area still are suitable for growing trees.
"When the Department bought this area, just over half of it was being farmed," Goodrich said. "We have continued to grow corn and soybeans on 800 acres of the area to provide food for wildlife. Some of that land is at the right elevation relative to the water table for bottomland hardwood forest. We are going to convert a good part of that cropland to bottomland forest."
After identifying pilot sites for active forest restoration, the Conservation Department's multidisciplinary management team planted more than 10,000 oak, sycamore and pecan seedlings in the area's Cabin, Perry, Central and Nose Slough management units.
The Conservation Department also is encouraging natural restoration of forest in sites where trees have survived on their own. In some of these areas, natural regeneration has been suppressed by a tangle of exotic Reed canary grass and other plants that took hold in the wake of flooding. On 900 acres in the Nose Slough and Horseshoe units, the team will help forest land re-establish itself. In areas that no longer are suitable for forest, the Department will develop marshes with vegetation that benefits wildlife.
Dale Humburg, who heads the Conservation Department's Resource Science Division, said the importance of forest restoration at Shanks extends far beyond the substantial recreational benefits it promises to hunters and birdwatchers.
"Flying over the Mississippi River Valley, you see how little wildlife habitat is left in the flood plain," Humburg said. "Ninety-five percent of the historic wetland acreage has been converted to agriculture, highways and industrial parks. Millions of waterfowl and other migratory birds depend on this corridor for their survival. Thanks to our ongoing efforts, Ted Shanks will contribute to their survival in the future."
Three-quarters of the money used to purchase the original land for Ted Shanks Conservation Area came from the Pittman Robertson Act. Under this landmark law, passed by Congress in 1937, hunters pay an 11 percent excise tax on hunting equipment and ammunition. The money supports wildlife areas like Ted Shanks.
Ted Shanks Conservation Area isn't the only place in northeast Missouri where the Conservation Department is restoring Mississippi River wetland habitat. The 2001 acquisition of more than 2,700 acres nearly tripled the size of B. K. Leach Conservation Area, near Elsberry. This complex of islands and sloughs was part of the old King's Lake area.
With the financial help of Ducks Unlimited, the Conservation Department is developing a system of levees and water control structures to permit intensive management of the area for waterfowl. The Leach area should be open to the public in 2004.
Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler