A Natural Treasure

By Gus Raeker | August 16, 2010
From Missouri Conservationist: Sep 2010

All of us benefit from Missouri’s forests. Our trees protect soil from erosion, filter the water we drink and clean the air we breathe. They provide shade in the summer and fuel in the winter. Living trees shelter plants and animals, and when it’s time for harvest, those same trees become lumber used to build our homes. In addition to their practical value, trees provide us with stunning scenery, memorable recreational opportunities and an important connection to the natural world.

Missouri is well endowed with trees. Vast blocks of forest in the Ozarks cover millions of continuous acres, and wooded corridors line most Missouri streams. Almost every farm or ranch contains forest land, either as woodlots or windbreaks. We also have countless trees shading our urban streets, enhancing our parks and yards and enriching our conservation areas.

In all their forms and wherever they are found, Missouri’s forests provide real benefits and services.

Soil and Water

Trees keep soil on the land and out of streams. Tree canopies, leaf litter and extensive root systems of forests offer such good protection to soils that erosion in forests is virtually nonexistent compared with cropland, pasture and areas of development.

Forests adjacent to streams are especially important. They help hold stream banks in place and filter pesticides, nutrients and sediments before they can reach the water. They also offer shade, which is important for maintaining water temperatures suitable for the plants and animals that live there.

By intercepting precipitation, storing it and releasing it slowly, trees and forests reduce the volume of stormwater runoff, lessening the threat of flooding and keeping stream water levels more consistent and reliable.

These are just a few of the reasons Missouri’s forests are able to produce clean streams, rivers and lakes. Clean water results in high-quality, affordable drinking water, great fishing and other premier recreational opportunities, as well as critical habitat for numerous plants and animals.

Clean Air

Forests produce much of the oxygen we breathe. This is important in itself. However, in recent years, we’ve seen concern growing over the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels for heat, electricity and transportation. Much effort is being put into finding ways to reduce these emissions.

Forests are one of our greatest tools in the battle to reduce atmospheric carbon.

Missouri’s forests already store more than 5 million tons of carbon, and this number continues to climb. Each year, an acre of forest captures between 1 and 4 tons of additional carbon.

It may sound odd, but forests effectively reduce atmospheric carbon even when they are harvested, as long as the forested land is not converted to a non-forest use in the process. Harvested trees used for forest products, such as lumber or furniture, continue to store carbon. Even harvesting trees for biofuels favors the carbon equation because we can leave underground the coal or oil necessary to produce the equivalent amount of energy. And, in time, the forest will grow back to capture the same amount—or even more—carbon in the future.

Although some fossil fuels are burned when harvesting and transporting forest products, the amount is typically a small fraction of the resources needed to extract other materials, such as metal and coal. This offers yet another way in which using tree products can help combat greenhouse gasses.

Forest Products

Missouri’s forests are an important supplier of numerous wood products used not only in our state, but worldwide. Wood from Missouri’s forests is used to make furniture and cabinets, flooring, barrels, tool handles, charcoal, pallets, shavings, firewood and much more. Through the production of these and other wood products, Missouri’s forest products industry contributes approximately $5.7 billion to Missouri’s economy annually, supports 31,700 jobs, and generates $57 million each year in state sales tax.

Forest products have several environmental advantages over alternative resources:

  • Trees and forests are renewable resources when managed properly. As trees are harvested, new trees quickly emerge and fill in the gaps left behind.
  • Harvesting trees is generally much easier and less intrusive than the extraction of resources like metals, coal and oil.
  • Wood products are generally biodegradable, recyclable or both.
  • When done properly, the harvest of forest products can provide an economical means of improving forest health and wildlife habitat.

Community Trees and Forests

We have focused on the benefits of forests, but community trees also provide numerous benefits.

For example, trees reduce stormwater runoff in areas where there is a high concentration of buildings, streets and other impervious surfaces. This helps local governments and citizens save money by reducing the amount of stormwater that needs to be collected and treated.

People realize further benefits as community trees shade dwellings, reducing summer cooling costs. They also provide an oasis of shade when city temperatures become stifling hot. In the winter, trees help slow the wind, reducing winter heating bills.

Trees improve air quality and public health by reducing common urban air pollutants such as ozone, nitrogen dioxide and particulates. Trees also allow urban residents the opportunity to see and enjoy nature in the places where they live.

Wildlife Habitat and Biodiversity

In Missouri, we are fortunate to have very diverse landscapes. This great diversity is largely attributed to the fact that four unique ecological sections converge in Missouri. The glacially deposited Central Dissected Till Plains to the north, the Osage Plains to the west, the Ozark Highlands to the south, and the Mississippi Alluvial Basin in the Bootheel each have unique geology, soils, topography, weather and contain unique plant and animal communities.

The Missouri Natural Areas Program has classified some 85 distinct kinds of terrestrial natural communities (including 33 forest and woodland communities) and many other aquatic natural communities. These communities support more than 2,000 native plant species, more than 150 native breeding bird species, 108 native reptile and amphibian species, 67 native mammal species, 200 native fish species, 65 native mussel species, 32 native crayfish species and more than 130 native dragonfly and damselfly species.

Several of these species are found nowhere else but in Missouri!

Although these plants and animals reside in a wide variety of habitats and natural communities, many depend partially or wholly on healthy woodlands and forests. These include everything from ruffed grouse, which rarely leave the woods, to Ozark hellbenders, which live in Ozark streams but depend on forests and woodlands for clean, cool water.

Recreation and Tourism

Missouri citizens are fortunate to have more than 2.6 million acres of federal and state publicly owned forestland within our state. These forests provide places for kids (young and old) to explore, as well as countless recreational opportunities, including hiking and backpacking, canoeing and kayaking, hunting and fishing, collecting mushrooms and berries, wildlife viewing, camping, picnicking, scenic drives and much more.

The importance of these opportunities is well demonstrated in the 2003 Conservation Opinion Survey, which reveals that more than half of Missourians consider spending time outdoors to be their most enjoyable activity.

In addition, Missouri’s forests, both public and private, provide the backdrop for much of Missouri’s tourism industry. It is hard to imagine a Saturday trip to Missouri’s wine country, a weekend trip to the Current River for floating or a family vacation in Branson without the scenery afforded by Missouri’s forests.

This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler