Healthy Forests for Generations

By Brett Dufur | January 18, 2012
From Missouri Conservationist: Feb 2012

This year, MDC celebrates the 75th anniversary of putting the state’s citizen-led conservation efforts into action. In this issue, we highlight successful efforts to restore and conserve Missouri’s forests. This is the story of how Missourians have worked together to improve our forests to benefit wildlife and people, for generations to come.

Easter Sunday, 1941, was a day the fate of Missouri’s forests seemed to glow red hot. Smoke hung heavy in the air. Much of the Ozarks was ablaze. Yet Missourians were determined to forge an entirely different fate for the forests of the state.

Since that Easter Sunday, generations of Missourians have worked with backfires, shovels and education to curb the tradition of burning forestland. Missourians have restored healthy forests and created a sustainable timber industry that embraces wise use of Missouri’s forests.

Today, millions of acres of healthy forests once again blanket more than a third of our state. And in just the past 20 years, Missouri has actually gained 1.4 million acres of forest.

From Abundance to Ashes

In the 1800s, forests covered 70 percent of the state. Explorers wrote of the dark swamps of the Bootheel, the park-like pine forests of the Ozarks, the balds of southwest Missouri and the mix of prairie and forest in northern and western Missouri. Early settlers found a landscape rich with the essentials of frontier life—wood, water and wildlife.

Then, things began to change. By the late 1800s, lumber mills sprang up to feed a country hungry for wood products. Western trains ran on Ozark pine—3,500 ties per mile. In 1912 alone, 15 million railroad ties headed west, and Ozark lumber shipped east to build a growing nation.

Within a short timespan, the boom of Ozark timber went bust. The rolling Ozark hills that had afforded early settlers with all of their basic needs could no longer provide for people or wildlife. By the 1930s, only about 2,000 deer were thought to exist in the state. Turkeys declined to a few thousand birds in scattered flocks. For all practical purposes, bear and ruffed grouse were gone, and most other species were in dire straits.

MDC’s Roots in Forestry Run Deep

In November 1936, Missourians came together to pass a state constitutional amendment to create an apolitical Conservation Commission to restore and conserve Missouri’s fish, wildlife and forests. This was a progressive concept for its time.

“Their foresight is one thing that makes Missouri’s conservation model so unique,” says John Tuttle, MDC forestry division unit chief.

Missouri’s vision came about largely due to the efforts of early conservation leaders E. Sydney Stephens and J. T. Montgomery, who believed good forest management was essential for wildlife.

When the Conservation Commission began on July 1, 1937, the Commission appointed I. T. Bode, a forester, as the first director of the Conservation Department. Bode understood the importance of partnering with landowners for forestry conservation success.

In 1938, Forester George White came to Missouri by way of the U.S. Forest Service. He believed the keys to healthy forests were fire suppression, education and protection. He directed the Department to purchase cut-over forestland to serve as models for forest management, and to create a state forest nursery to supply trees for reforestation. He knew landowners who planted trees would be less likely to allow their land to burn. Lastly, White sought to make foresters available to landowners to help them manage their own wooded acres.

The tasks ahead were daunting. Some foresters deemed Missouri’s human-caused forest fires too big a problem to contain. Burning forests was a tradition dating back to early settlers. Once the trees were gone, soil eroded quickly, choking the creeks and the fish in them, and making the landscape unable to support crops.

“Starting in 1937, fire suppression was job number one for the newly created Conservation Department. Everything else came later,” says Gene Brunk, retired MDC forestry division unit chief.

Stories tell of early foresters following their noses to find smoke “thicker than usual.” Soon, steel and wood-braced fire towers dotted the landscape. To a readership well connected by phones and good roads, it is difficult to appreciate the challenges surmounted by early fire tower watchmen. Their’s was an age before effective radio communication. Some towermen even resorted to sending postcards to other fire districts to alert them of distant smoke.

Volunteers and community support were vital to early fire fighting success, and they still are today. Of course, the best way to stop a fire is to keep it from starting.

When the harried foresters weren’t battling fires, they talked to anyone who would listen about forest fire prevention, forest management and conservation.

Slowly things began to change. White led the Department’s forestry efforts for 22 years, becoming the longest-tenured state forester. By the time he retired, his vision had grown into one of the most respected state forestry programs in the country.

White’s keys to healthy forests still resonate in modern forest management. “The keys to healthy forests remain sound forest management, education and protection from land conversion practices,” Tuttle says.

“Tremendous progress in Missouri’s forest management has been made in the last 75 years, with MDC leading the way,” Tuttle says. “The once impossible task of fire control in the Ozarks is a reality. Deer and turkey are found in record numbers. Restoration programs have supported many native species of fish and wildlife. And once again, Missouri is a leader in wood products.”

Fire management today is the best it has ever been. MDC’s Rural Fire Protection program remains one of the Department’s most effective statewide programs. It began in the mid-1960s to organize, equip and train rural fire departments. MDC foresters also provided on-site training for fire suppression. This program has protected nature, lives and property.

To date, MDC has provided 776 fire departments with firefighting equipment valued at more than $58 million and firefighting grants totaling more than $3.8 million. MDC’s fire prevention efforts also include helping communities and homeowners to adopt federal Firewise principles to greatly reduce the chances of fire damage.

Well-planned prescribed fires continue to be a useful management tool to mimic natural processes and effectively manage large areas. Prescribed fire on a landscape scale increases habitat diversity for all woods and prairie.

Prescribed fires encourage native species, increase wildlife food supplies and reduce wildfire potential.

MDC Works With You to Sustain Healthy Forests

Partnerships are vital to ensure healthy forests. MDC, the U.S. Forest Service and landowners work together to improve Missouri’s forests for wildlife, recreation, timber and watershed protection. MDC’s state land program manages more than 400,000 acres of public forestland. But those acres are but a fraction of Missouri’s total forests.

“Landowners own 83 percent of the state’s forest, and what happens on private forest lands has a major effect on the state’s forest health,” Tuttle says. “Private landowners are the key to forest conservation.”

To that end, the Missouri Forest Action Plan was developed—a strategy for sustaining Missouri’s forests and the benefits and services we expect from them.

“The plan serves as a call to action. While Missouri’s forests are increasingly threatened, they offer tremendous potential to help with many of our most pressing social and environmental challenges,” says Lisa Allen, MDC forestry division chief.

MDC works with landowners on long-term stewardship of their property, which can span multiple generations. Most landowners realize that forest management is an investment in the future and want to leave their land better than they received it.

“If managed wisely, a healthy forest will keep producing quality trees for years to come, creating tremendous economic, environmental and social benefits,” says Mike Hoffmann, MDC forestry division unit chief.

Department foresters can advise landowners on all phases of forest management such as tree planting, thinning and harvesting; wildlife habitat development; and pest control. In addition, the Conservation Reserve Program and other federal programs have encouraged more landowners to reforest open land for erosion control, wildlife habitat and future timber supply.


Although forest management helps to conserve this valuable resource, our trees and forests face threats from many fronts. Invasive insects, plants and diseases threaten the health of our forests. Our forests can also be damaged by extreme weather events such as ice, windstorms, droughts and floods.

“Forests have always faced challenges, from uncontrolled fires, oak decline, chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease to our present-day challenges with gypsy moths, emerald ash borers, urban sprawl and thousand cankers disease,” says Nick Kuhn, MDC community forestry coordinator. “We must be ready for future challenges.

When our forests are healthy, they are better equipped to deal with new challenges.”

Health, Wealth and Happiness

Trees and forests are Missouri’s greatest renewable natural resource. “Healthy forests provide clean air and water, habitat for hundreds of species and even conservation areas to be enjoyed by all Missourians,” Kuhn says. “No matter where we live—in the country, suburbs or cities—trees and forests are vital to our health, wealth and happiness.”

Through wise-use forest management practices, Missouri is once again a leader in wood production. Railroad ties and lumber are still important products, but the wood industry has become much more diversified. Missouri is a national leader in the production of charcoal, barrels, walnut nutmeats and shell products, and red cedar gift items. In 2011, Missouri’s forest industry supported 41,200 jobs, contributed $7.3 billion to Missouri’s economy and generated $77 million in state sales tax.

But timber is far from the only benefit of the forest. Our forests provide habitat for an incredible diversity of plants and animals. Because forest ecosystems are very complex, good forest management and good wildlife management are closely linked. Missouri is home to about 730 species of wildlife, many of which live in the forest during a part of their life. Animals ranging from the white-tailed deer and wild turkey to the rare Ozark zigzag salamander are found in Missouri’s forests. The pileated woodpecker, ovenbird, black-and-white warbler and screech owl are just a few of the many birds that inhabit the forest. Each bird or animal has a specific place and role, or niche, within the forest ecosystem. The more niches that can be created within a forest, the greater the number of species it can support.

To support a diversity of wildlife species, today’s forest management and timber harvest practices need to be diverse. Correctly locating logging roads to protect Missouri’s streams is just one example. Leaving older trees for cavity-nesting species, cultivating acorn-producing trees as a food source and creating young stands of trees for food and cover are other examples. The aim is for a balance of habitat types to support all species over the long term.

Missouri’s Largest Outdoor Classroom

Forests are long-lived and management decisions can have lasting impacts. With this in mind, MDC established the Missouri Ozark Forest Ecosystem Project (MOFEP) in 1990. This 100-year project studies the impacts of various forest management practices not only on the health of the forest, but also on plants and animals.

Forest and wildlife scientists are learning more about the impacts of forest management practices and harvesting techniques in Missouri thanks to this important study.

This will help foresters, wildlife biologists and forest landowners make better-informed management decisions to ensure healthy forests and wildlife well into the future.

Missourians Care About Conserving Forests

Missourians have achieved some amazing results in conserving Missouri’s forests. Together, we have transformed forestry into a sustainable industry that now grows more trees than it harvests. We restored and conserved dozens of fish and wildlife species and ensured that Missouri is a great place to hunt and fish. We created a system devoted to serving both rural and urban landowners and established accessible public lands and facilities throughout the state. MDC works with citizens to sustain healthy forests for the benefit of people and wildlife—a job that began in the face of flames and was hard won.

Community Forests

The trees in our communities are valued for their economic, social and environmental benefits. Because the urban environment is hard on trees, urban foresters use specialized techniques to maintain our community forests.

“MDC’s TRIM grants, in cooperation with the Missouri Community Forest Council, provide up to $10,000 for community tree inventories, removal or pruning of trees, tree planting and educational programs,” says Nick Kuhn, MDC community forestry coordinator. “This helps communities provide safe and healthy trees, while the trees work for all of us by cleaning the air, and improving the soil and water.”

This program assists agencies, public schools and nonprofit groups with the improvement of trees on public lands. In 2011, the Department awarded more than $306,000 to several dozen Missouri communities and schools throughout the state.

“The TRIM grants have allowed the City of Columbia to extend our resources and develop greater projects. MDC’s TRIM grants also show our city leaders the importance of wisely managing our community forests,” says Brett O’Brien, Columbia park natural resource supervisor.

With help from MDC, communities, college campuses and electric providers all over the state participate in wise tree care by being a part of the Arbor Day Foundation programs known as Tree City U SA, Tree Line and Tree Campus. These programs foster tree plantings as well as best practices for tree care. Missouri has 81 cities, 11 electric utilities and three colleges recognized by the Arbor Day Foundation for helping trees where 3.7 million Missouri residents live.

Learn more about MDC’s Community Forestry Programs at the link listed below.

The Showboat

When the Missouri Department of Conservation formed in 1937, burning forests in the rural Ozarks was a land management tradition dating back to early settlers. To improve forests and wildlife, the young agency created a new way to spread public information on conservation: the Forestry Division’s Showboat. V ehicles, such as this 1946 Chevrolet paneled delivery truck, were equipped with a portable generator and a movie projector. The Showboat visited rural schools throughout the Ozarks, showing movies about fire prevention and conservation, and handing out free popcorn. For many, these were the first films they had ever seen, since electricity had yet to make it to many areas. The Showboat operated from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. One is on display today at the Twin Pines Conservation Education Center in Winona.

You Can Help Missouri’s Forests

MDC partners with numerous organizations to ensure that Missourians can contribute to Missouri’s healthy forests.

As part of the Missouri Forestkeepers Network, more than 2,000 Missourians protect and enhance forests through monitoring, advocacy and education activities. Learn more at or call 1-888-473-5323.

Missouri Forestkeepers Network is administered by Forest ReLeaf of Missouri, a nonprofit organization that provides thousands of trees for public and nonprofit plantings throughout the state. V isit or call 1-888-473-5323.

MDC also partners with the Missouri Community Forestry Council to conserve, protect, expand and improve our community forests. Visit to learn about how to help the trees where you live.

The Forest and Woodland Association of Missouri serves to connect Missouri’s 360,000 private woodland landowners with resources to more productively manage their forests, as well as to act as a statewide advocacy group. Visit to learn more.

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 - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler