A Natural Area Anniversary

By Rick Thom, Karen Kramer | April 2, 2002
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2002

The Missouri Natural Areas system is now 25 years old. The Missouri departments of Conservation and Natural Resources created the system to protect and manage examples of the forests, prairies, glades, marshes, caves, streams and other natural features that covered Missouri before European settlement.

It was important to act before some of these natural features disappeared. For example, only a small amount of prairie hadn't been converted to farmland, and only a tiny amount of old-growth Ozark pine forest had avoided the saw. Only a few of our streams contained natural marshes along their floodplains that still supported rails, bitterns and blue flag iris. Once recognized and protected as Missouri Natural Areas, the enduring values of these areas would be secured.

The Mark Twain National Forest and the Ozark National Scenic Riverways later joined MDC and DNR on the Missouri Natural Areas Committee. Other agencies, organizations, businesses and private landowners participated by registering their special lands as Missouri Natural Areas, signifying their status as natural areas with the system's hallmark "Jack-in-the-Pulpit" logo.

Today the system contains 179 areas encompassing more than 56,000 acres. It protects some of the best remaining examples of wild Missouri for public education, enjoyment and research. Although not yet complete after 25 years, The Missouri Natural Areas System has come a long way in achieving the initial vision.

The program's roots can be traced back to 1970, when the Department of Conservation began a system of natural areas. The Department had no funds to acquire new lands, so it looked for qualifying lands on its existing holdings. Early natural areas were fairly small and often contained only one or a few natural features, such as bottomland forests or glades. Mule Hollow Glades, Clifty Creek, Grassy Pond, Elmslie Forest and Blue Spring were some of the earliest Conservation Department Natural Areas.

The Department promised to expand its natural areas system if voters passed the Conservation Sales Tax. The public agreed, and since 1976, sales tax revenue helped acquire wonderful new lands that became Missouri Natural Areas. The additional Conservation Department resources, and those of other agency partners, protected more and different types of natural areas. Big Oak Tree Natural Area in Big Oak Tree State Park became one of the first DNR sites to be designated into the new, interagency natural area program in 1977.

The Missouri Natural Areas Committee recognized the importance of designating larger areas to include complexes of natural features within their landscapes. For example, the Sunklands Natural Area contains caves, collapsed canyons, sinkhole ponds, Ozark pine forests, glades, springs, dolomite cliffs, and a headwaters stream combined with its upper watershed. The 6,000-plus acres that comprise this area lie within the Sunklands Conservation Area in Shannon County. The Sunklands Natural Area represents the mosaic of interrelated natural communities, plants, and animals that define this part of the Ozarks. It is large enough to sustain certain plant and animal populations that could not be maintained on a smaller island of habitat.

To help celebrate the Missouri Natural Areas System's 25th Anniversary, it is fitting to highlight a few individual Natural Areas, including some newer additions and potential additions.

French traders in the early 1700's visited the village of the Oumessourit (or Missouri) Indians above a bluff overlooking a channel of the Missouri River in what is now Van Meter State Park in Saline County. Today the remnants of that Indian village are preserved within the park, along with some of the natural communities that provided the resources for this culture's survival. A natural marsh occupies an old oxbow channel of the river. This marsh is a living remnant of a natural community that has all but disappeared. River bulrush, water parsnip, giant bur reed and more than 100 other plant species, along with marsh wildlife such as least bitterns and muskrats, show visitors how thousands of acres of floodplain once appeared.

Last year the DNR added this marsh to the existing Van Meter Forest Natural Area to create the 300-acre Oumessourit Natural Area.

Another high-quality marsh and associated bottomland forest and wet prairie occur on Four Rivers Conservation Area in Vernon County. The 227-acre Horton Bottoms Natural Area is one of the best examples of natural emergent marsh along the Little Osage River. The Four Rivers Conservation Area Plan calls for consideration of expanding Horton Bottoms Natural Area to include suitable adjacent land.

The Jacks Fork River is part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, a popular recreation area administered by the National Park Service. Canoeists who float downstream from the Highway 17 bridge encounter some of the most striking and beautiful scenery in Missouri. Some of the best of this scenery, along with springs, caves, and rare plants, occurs along the 3.3 miles of stream in the 996-acre Jacks Fork Natural Area. This is another example of a Natural Area that has been expanded to include more natural features and the landscapes they comprise.

Jam-Up Cave Natural Area, designated in 1980, features a massive cave that exits a cliff face in a meander of the Jacks Fork River. In the geologic past, a rear entrance of the cave captured a surface stream and rerouted it through the cave. This phenomenon is called "stream piracy."

False bugbane, harebell and American barberry, plants that are relicts of the Ice Age, grow along this stretch of the river, but they exist in few other places in Missouri. In 1995, the National Park Service expanded Jam-Up Cave Natural Area, creating the Jacks Fork Natural Area to capture additional features within the rugged river hills landscape.

Tucked among the hills above the Missouri River floodplain in Holt County, Little Tarkio Prairie is an isolated relic of the once dominant dry-mesic prairie type. Dry-mesic means the prairie moisture level is moderate, and the types of organisms present are adapted to conditions that fall somewhere between dry and moist.

While the "Little" in Little Tarkio does reflect the area's small size (15 acres), the term does not depict the area's true value. Seeds from Little Tarkio are the building blocks of future prairies. More than 100 species of plants growing there will provide a harvest of restoration opportunities for years to come. In early June, coneflowers, prairie clover and prairie phlox dress this little prairie in multiple shades of purple. Such splendor can be found in very few places north of the Missouri River.

The small pieces of prairie like Little Tarkio, Helton Prairie in Harrison County, and Tarkio Prairie (not much bigger than Little Tarkio Prairie) in Atchison County hold the hope of recreating a portion of the former prairie ecosystem in Northwest Missouri. This local, homegrown seed is thought to be more likely to succeed in prairie restoration attempts because its source has adapted over time in this region's climate instead of the climate in a distant region of the country.

In Dent County, the dolomite glades within Indian Trail Natural Area are beautiful rocky openings surrounded by post oak and pine woodlands. One route of the Trail of Tears, taken by the Cherokees from the Appalachians to Oklahoma, reportedly traverses this area. By about mid-May, thousands of brightly blooming Indian paintbrushes dot the landscape. This is an atypical display, for it is the yellow form that dominates the Indian Trail glades, not the more common, vivid red-orange version.

Periodic prescribed burns maintain not only the paintbrush, but also a diversity of grasses and other wildflowers by keeping the glades open and free of woody invasion. In some areas, the glades run all the way down the slope to the scenic, paintbrush-lined creek. In addition to the glades and woodlands, the 700-acre natural area also supports a prairie fen, a wetland fed by underground water flow. The natural area is part of a larger natural community focus area that is being restored, with the long-term goal for the 2,500-acre focus area to attain natural area quality.

If one views the Bootheel on a land cover map showing existing forest, prairie and other grasslands, wetlands, farmland, and urban areas, it is obvious that few opportunities exist to represent and restore the large Mississippi River flood plain forests that formerly dominated the landscape of southeast Missouri. Donaldson Point, a 2,000-acre candidate natural area in New Madrid County, located within Donaldson Point Conservation Area, is the best known example.

Trees in some areas are small or double-trunked, and stumps from past cutting are numerous. The drainage ditches and other human impacts are here to stay until rearranged by the next large earthquake, flood or other unforeseen catalyst. Nevertheless, the components of the wet-mesic, bottomland and riverfront forests, and swamp natural community types, are still present in varying numbers or can be restored to some extent.

Native vegetation in these areas includes cottonwood, sugarberry, green ash, silver maple, sweet gum, pecan, overcup, bur and pin oak, sycamore, cypress, paw paw, cane, grapes, lizards tails (a plant) and crossvine. Native wildlife includes swamp rabbits, Mississippi kites, and Swainson's warblers.

Restoration will be difficult here. Fast growing vines, such as greenbriar, raccoon grape, trumpet creeper and others that compete for growing space with the trees, must be curbed. Overabundant numbers of hackberries need to be reduced. Canebrakes and cottonwoods require some openings for regeneration, and the species composition needs to be continually studied.

The vision of restoring the bottomland forest landscape at Donaldson Point mirrors the intent of natural area restoration statewide. We start with known components of the relatively intact, best remaining examples of natural communities and work to rebuild the missing, connecting elements of the surrounding natural landscape. Restoring natural communities and their landscapes will be important work during the next quarter century of the Missouri Natural Areas System.

This Issue's Staff

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
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer