Browsing Nature’s Library

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Published on: Apr. 18, 2014

Last year, someone mentioned that the Missouri Natural Area (NA) program began in 1970, when the Department of Conservation set out to preserve the best examples of the Show-Me State’s natural communities. That got me thinking how few of the 180-plus natural areas I had visited. Part of my job is helping people connect with places like these. You can’t do that without leaving the office. Visiting every NA wasn’t practical, so I decided to visit a sample of these remarkable places and then report on what I found.

Why Natural Areas?

Missourians spent a century taming their wild lands. Why try to save leftover bits and pieces?

Think of forests, prairies, glades, and swamps as libraries. On their shelves are plants and animals whose DNA holds all the ways nature has devised to survive on Earth. Each species is a book containing information found nowhere else. And there is much left to learn about how species interact within their natural habitats.

Allowing every acre of Missouri to be converted to cropland, subdivisions, cities, and highways is the same as discarding most of the books in a priceless and irreplaceable library. We would have plenty of corn, tulips, and cars, but nothing else. Where would we turn for new, life-saving drugs? For plants resistant to pests? For birdsong and butterflies to inspire composers and artists?

Natural Areas include the best — and sometimes the last — examples of Missouri’s original forests, prairies, glades, fens, swamps, caves, streams, and geologic features. All but 11 are open to public access. Most of those owned by the Department of Conservation or the USDA Forest Service are open to hunting and fishing. To plan your visit to one or more, visit

Fifty of Missouri’s most interesting natural areas are profiled in Discover Missouri Natural Areas: A Guide to 50 Great Places, by Mike Leahy, the Conservation Department’s natural areas coordinator. This 140-page guide to natural features, plants, animals, and points of interest includes numerous color photos and costs just $9 plus sales tax and shipping and handling. To order, call toll free 877-521-8632 or visit Or buy your copy at one of the Department of Conservation’s nature centers or regional offices and save shipping and handling charges.


Clifty Creek

  • Size: 230 acres
  • Location: Maries County
  • Designated: 1971
  • Owner: The L-A-D Foundation

I arrived at Missouri’s oldest NA on a January

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