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.
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.
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 well.
Natural areas serve as living laboratories and outdoor classrooms for scientists and teachers to use for research and teaching. These areas also are important green space and provide outdoor recreation opportunities including hiking, birding, nature study, photography and, in many cases, hunting and fishing.
Today the natural processes of fire, flooding, native predators and grazers no longer sustain our ecosystems as they did prior to settlement. In many cases, non-native invasive species threaten our natural areas. Land cannot simply be designated as a natural area and left alone forever. Natural areas typically require some form of hands-on land management, such as prescribed burning, to restore or maintain their ecological integrity.
The best way to learn about our natural areas is to visit one. Some natural areas are remote and require good orienteering skills with map and compass to visit. But many are relatively easy to access and not far from metropolitan areas.
This article includes descriptions of and directions to 10 natural areas owned or managed by the Conservation Department. These areas have parking lots and either have trails or are relatively easy to traverse cross-country.
For more information about designated Missouri natural areas, see the links listed below or write to the Natural Areas Coordinator, Wildlife Division, Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102.
416 acres in Platte County
Marsh, slough and bottomland forest rich in wetland wildlife in the Missouri River floodplain between Kansas City and St. Joseph. One and a quarter miles of disabled-accessible paved trail, viewing blind and viewing tower.
Driving Directions: Thirty miles north of Kansas City. From the town of Iatan on Highway 45, drive approximately three miles north. From the highway, turn west at the sign and follow the gravel road that ends at the trailhead and parking lot.
18 acres in Clay County
Old-growth oak-maple forest in the Kansas City Metro Area. The area has a network of natural-surface hiking trails. The Conservation Department owns this land, and the City of Gladstone manages the site.
Driving Directions: Take I-435 to Highway 152. Go west on Highway 152 for 1.8 miles and turn south onto Route 1 for 0.5 mile, then turn west onto 80th Street. Look for the sign on the corner and follow this road, which becomes 76th Street, south and west 0.7 mile to the parking lot on the south side.
37 acres in Polk County
Tallgrass prairie, just south of Bolivar, that is bisected by the Frisco Highline Trail (36-mile Springfield to Bolivar biking/hiking trail, (417) 864-2015) at mile marker 32. Owned by the Missouri Prairie Foundation ((573) 356-7828) and managed by the Conservation Department.
Driving Directions: Go south from Bolivar on Highway 13 and exit to the west at the Highway 13 and Business Highway 13 (Highway 83) interchange. Take the Outer Road south 0.6 mile to East 473rd road; go west on East 473rd road for nearly a mile to the parking lot on the south side.
570 acres in Newton County
Tallgrass prairie close to Joplin, rich in wildflowers and prairie birds.
Driving Directions: From the town of Diamond, go four miles west on Route V, then turn north onto a gravel county road for 1.25 miles to the parking lot on the east side.
3,872 acres in Carter County
Ozark glades, expansive woodlands and deep hollows traversed by over six miles of the Ozark Trail. Area owned by the Conservation Department, the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy.
Driving Directions: Located within Peck Ranch Conservation Area. From the junction of Highway 19 and Route H in Winona, travel east five miles on Route H to the entrance sign, then east on County Road 311 (gravel) for approximately 5.75 miles. Before the gravel road heads south down the hill, look to the north side of the road for a parking lot and Ozark Trail trailhead. Best access is by the Ozark Trail (Ozark Trail Coordinator, (800) 334-6946).
74 acres in Pettis County
Tallgrass prairie south of Sedalia with many wildflowers, regal fritillary butterflies and prairie birds.
Driving Directions: From the intersection of Highway 65 and Route B in Sedalia, drive approximately nine miles south on Highway 65. Then turn east on Manila Road (gravel) for about 400 feet to a parking lot on the north side.
160 acres in Montgomery County
Towering bluffs of dolomite rock rise 300 feet above the Missouri River floodplain near the town of Hermann. Visitors can hike a 1-mile natural-surface trail from the parking lot to an overlook, or they can hike or bike along the KATY Trail State Park ((800) 334-6946) between mile markers 105 and 110 to see the bluffs from below.
Driving Directions: From the junction of Highways 63 and 54, north of Jefferson City, take Highway 94 east for 34.1 miles. Turn left on County Road 291 (gravel) and travel north 0.3 mile to a parking lot and trailhead on the east side.
227 acres in Jefferson County
Just south of the St. Louis Metro Area, near Hillsboro, are large open dolomite glades and woodlands that can be seen along the 2.5-mile natural-surface Valley View Glades Trail.
Driving Directions: From the intersection of Highway 21 and Route B in Hillsboro, go west on Route B for 4.5 miles to the parking lot and trailhead on the north side.
180 acres in Ste. Genevieve County
Sandstone waterfalls, canyons and amazing rock formations that can be enjoyed along the 2-mile natural-surface Trail through Time interpretive hiking trail.
Driving Directions: About halfway between Cape Girardeau and the St. Louis Metro Area. From the junction of Highway 32 and Route W in Farmington, travel east on Highway 32 for five miles, then east on Route AA for 1.7 miles to Dorlac Road (gravel). Turn north and drive 0.4 mile on Dorlac Road to the parking lot on the east side.
385 acres in St. Charles County
Rugged, wooded river hills rise over 300 feet above the Missouri River floodplain just 30 miles west of downtown St. Louis. Visitors to this area can hike either the 8.2-mile Lewis Trail or the 5.3-mile Clark Trail, both natural-surface trails. Hikers and bikers may view the bluffs of Weldon Spring Hollow from below by following the KATY Trail State Park ((800) 334-6946) between mile markers 56 and 53.
Driving Directions: Located within Weldon Spring Conservation Area. From Highway 40/61 at Weldon Spring, travel west on Highway 94, past Route D. Continue on Highway 94 for 1.1 miles past Route D and turn south into the parking lot and trailhead.
Visitors are also welcome at designated natural areas on lands owned by other partners in the Missouri Natural Areas Committee, including Missouri State Parks ((800) 334-6946), the Mark Twain National Forest ((573) 364-4621), the Ozark National Scenic Riverways ((573) 323-4236), and The Nature Conservancy ((314) 968-1105). A number of other entities, such as private individuals, the University of Missouri and the L-A-D Foundation, also own designated Missouri natural areas.
Agency partners of the Missouri Natural Areas Committee are:
Editor in Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Director - Cliff White
Writer/editor - Tom Cwynar
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Arleasha Mays
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Ruby
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler