Conserving Public Lands

By Brett Dufur | April 17, 2012
From Missouri Conservationist: May 2012

For the past 75 years, MDC has been developing an extensive network of conservation areas. These are the places we go to hunt, fish, hike, birdwatch and enjoy nature.

The Department’s aim has been to balance conserving and managing the state’s forest, fish and wildlife resources while providing ample opportunities for all citizens to use, enjoy and learn about them.

“Conservation areas belong to the people of Missouri and are for their benefit. These areas have always provided room for people to enjoy the outdoors,” says MDC Director Robert L. Ziehmer. “They also do much more. We manage these areas to re-establish habitats for native species and to protect unique natural communities, which results in a wider range of ways that the public can benefit from these areas.”

Design for Conservation

Missourians have long supported conserving lands for public use and to support wildlife. Beginning in the 1970s, the Department made a pledge to embrace a broader conservation approach called the Design for Conservation. It was a plan to preserve the best examples of forests, prairies, marshes and glades; to obtain land for recreation, forestry and protection of critical habitat; to increase services to the public in the areas of wildlife and forest conservation; and to create a system of conservation nature centers throughout Missouri. Voters approved the Design for Conservation plan in 1976 with a one-eighth of 1 percent sales tax, providing reliable funding for fish, forests and wildlife conservation.

“This citizen-led initiative created an interconnected and accessible network of public lands that conserve natural resources while providing the public with quality recreational and educational opportunities,” says MDC Deputy Director Tim Ripperger.

Prior to Design for Conservation, the Department managed 294,000 acres of public land. During the initial 20 years of implementing the Design, the Department purchased an additional 440,000 acres to serve as conservation areas. These early efforts were based on broad guidelines and willing sellers. While the combined acreage of Missouri’s conservation areas is remarkable, it totals less than 3 percent of the state.

Incredibly, a full 20 percent of MDC’s public land holdings were donations. “Donations of land are the ultimate expression of the commitment to conservation and to the future that a landowner can make,” Ripperger says.

Today the Department holds approximately 789,000 acres in public trust and manages another 197,000 acres owned by conservation partners, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, The Nature Conservancy and others. The Department’s emphasis has shifted away from acquiring substantial new acreage, and is now more focused on improving infrastructure and access to existing conservation areas, as well as ongoing efforts to manage habitat to benefit wildlife.

The land acquisition budget back in 1979–87 averaged 29 percent of the Department’s budget. Today, land acquisition comprises less than 1 percent of the Department’s annual budget.

Managing Conservation Areas for Wildlife and People

To benefit the greatest number of wildlife species, MDC maintains a high level of active management on conservation lands—especially for quail and grassland birds.

In 2011, this included habitat-management activities on nearly 185,000 acres, including: 43,000 acres of wetlands; 21,000 acres of woodlands, forests and savannas; 76,000 acres of croplands (including 12,000 acres of food plots); 24,000 acres of grasslands and prairies; 20,000 acres of old fields; and 1,000 acres of glades.

“MDC intensely manages a number of conservation areas for increased hunting opportunities for rabbit, squirrel, dove and quail in an effort to recruit and maintain a strong hunting heritage,” says DeeCee Darrow, MDC wildlife division chief.

The Department continues to rehabilitate five of the state’s oldest wetland conservation areas: Fountain Grove, Duck Creek, Montrose, Schell-Osage and Ted Shanks. Ted Shanks Conservation Area (CA) restoration is complete and future development plans are underway for sections owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Work at Fountain Grove CA is nearing completion and initial planning efforts are underway at Montrose CA. Learn more about Missouri’s public wetlands at

The Department manages 440,000 acres of public forestland on conservation areas throughout the state. Last year, MDC completed more than 49,880 acres of active management, including forest inventory, tree planting, timber sales, forest stand improvement, wildlife-management practices, and glade and savanna management.

“The Department also stewards the state’s forests by leading statewide wildfire-suppression efforts,” says Lisa Allen, Missouri state forester. “MDC foresters work with more than 770 fire departments to offer training, provide fire equipment grants and promote wildfire prevention activities.”

MDC’s conservation area management continues to connect citizens with nature through the recent completion of the following major construction projects: Eminence City Park access, Eagle Bluffs CA office and draw room, Kansas City Regional Office, Central Regional Office, improvements to the Shepherd of the Hills, Lost Valley and Roaring River hatcheries, Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center, the Jay Henges Shooting Range renovation, Roaring Rivers Fish Hatchery improvements and levee work at Ten Mile Pond CA.

The Department also works to improve access to the outdoors in other ways. “More Missourians enjoy the outdoors because of MDC’s managed hunts and the construction of disabled-accessible docks, hunting blinds and trails,” says Darrow. “Special hunting and fishing events for people with limited mobility provide additional opportunities for people of all ages to pursue outdoor activities and to learn first-hand about conservation.”

Missouri’s Crown Jewels

Another way the Department works to steward Missouri’s forest, fish and wildlife resources is by conserving the best remaining examples of Missouri’s rich and varied forests, woodlands, savannas, prairies, glades, cliffs, wetlands, caves, springs, streams and rivers. This effort began in 1970. Today, the state more than 180 designated natural areas in the Missouri Natural Areas Program, totaling 72,060 acres.

“The success of the Natural Areas program is due to an outstanding conservation partnership between MDC, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the Mark Twain National Forest, the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy,” says Michael Leahy, MDC natural areas coordinator. “These organizations have come together with the common goal of conserving the natural communities of Missouri for the enjoyment and benefit of today’s citizens and future generations.”

These habitats support many native plant and animal species. Missouri natural areas provide habitat for more than 350 Missouri species of conservation concern, including endangered species such as the Niangua darter and the western prairie fringed orchid. Designated natural areas also conserve multitudes of species that are not endangered but are uncommon due to habitat loss. In this way, natural areas help to keep species off of the endangered species list by ensuring these plants and animals have the habitat they need.

Designated natural areas help connect us to our outdoor heritage. They provide opportunities for many forms of outdoor recreation, including hiking, nature photography, bird watching, nature study, hunting and fishing. Learn more about natural areas at Or, purchase Discover Missouri Natural Areas: A Guide to 50 Great Places, available at MDC conservation nature centers statewide (see Page 7) and at

MDC Partners with Communities

In addition to actively managing the state’s conservation areas to benefit people and wildlife, MDC also partners with communities to improve access to the out- doors, especially fishing. Since 1981, the Department’s Community Assistance Program has provided close-tohome fishing opportunities throughout the state.

“These programs benefit our partners and the local communities by providing an extremely cost-effective way of providing citizens with more quality fishing and boating opportunities,” says Marlyn Miller, the Department’s fisheries programs supervisor.

The Department has cooperative agreements with 117 partners to manage 168 public lakes, 42 stream access areas, four lake access areas and nine aquatic resource education ponds. At 78 of these lakes and streams, MDC developed or improved motorboat access thanks to the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Program, which funds up to 75 percent of total project costs.

The Department strives to provide high-quality fishing opportunities for all Missourians, including those living in urban areas. MDC’s Urban Fishing Program stocked more than 50 ponds in St. Louis, Kansas City, St. Joseph, Sedalia and Springfield with trout, channel catfish and sunfish.

“Department surveys have found that the majority of the anglers at these lakes fish nowhere else,” Miller says. “MDC is providing fishing opportunities to people who may not otherwise venture out of the city to fish.”

Conservation Area Stewardship Continues

Missouri’s rich history of supporting conservation efforts now benefits people and wildlife throughout the state. “The majority of Missourians feel the Department is doing a good or excellent job of providing services to them, their families, the community and the state,” says David Thorne, MDC policy supervisor. “According to recent surveys, 91 percent of Missourians agree that it is important for outdoor places to be protected, even if you don’t plan to visit the area. And 75 percent of Missourians agree that land should be acquired for fish, forest and wildlife conservation.”

MDC is committed to ensuring that Missouri’s public land stewardship continues to balance the needs of people and wildlife. “By focusing on partnerships and being adaptable, we can continue to build upon Missouri’s quality land conservation history and boldly advance the Department’s land conservation and stewardship,” Ripperger says.

Together with Missourians, MDC will continue a land-conservation heritage that will protect key natural resources, continue to improve access and opportunities for people to enjoy these areas, continue to support our outdoor heritage, and provide educational opportunities for future generations of Missourians.

Conservation Areas for Nature and You

MDC’s public land stewardship goals balance the needs of wildlife and people. “The Department has planned and implemented one of the best long-term public land strategies in the nation,” says MDC Deputy Director Tim Ripperger.

MDC’s public land stewardship goals aim to achieve the following:

  • To provide the land base necessary to assist in the conservation of the state’s forest, fish and wildlife resources.
  • To identify, acquire, protect and manage Missouri’s most significant land and water resources for appreciation and use by future generations.
  • To preserve Missouri’s outdoor heritage through public access.
  • To promote hunter and angler recruitment while providing outdoor education opportunities, as well as providing outdoor and resource-related recreation.

Missouri Prairie Foundation: Conserving Public Prairies

Tallgrass prairie once covered 15 million acres of Missouri—nearly one-third of the state. Today, less than 1 percent remains. Our prairie remnants are stunning in their ecological wealth and complexity— they provide habitat for hundreds of plant species, thousands of invertebrates (including as many as 400 different pollinating insects) and dozens of animals.

The Missouri Prairie Foundation, the Department, The Nature Conservancy, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and other groups own approximately 30,000 acres of original and restorable prairie.

These areas are maintained for the public to enjoy and to ensure that prairie is forever a part of Missouri’s natural heritage.

The Missouri Prairie Foundation partners with other conservation groups and private landowners to enable the restoration and management of prairie on a larger scale than any one group or individual could accomplish alone. In 1998, the Foundation spearheaded the formation of the Grasslands Coalition—20 conservation groups and private landowners working together to pool resources and make a lasting impact on native grasslands and the animals that live there.

The Foundation works with landowners to improve prairie habitat, share technical knowledge and leverage funding for restoration work. In one example, the Foundation recently completed a three-year $70,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore native prairies and manage grasslands in the Mystic Plains Conservation Opportunity Area in Adair and Sullivan counties. The Foundation partnered with the Department and private landowners to improve more than 2,000 acres by eliminating woody cover, removing fences, resting hay fields, controlling invasive species and assisting with prescribed fires. This resulted in greater prairie species diversity, expanded open vistas and created more continuous habitat needed by grassland birds and other wildlife—for less than $55 an acre.

Join in the fun at the Foundation’s annual Prairie BioBlitz, where outdoor enthusiasts can become “weekend citizen scientists” by discovering and documenting plant and animal species on a prairie. This event increases biological knowledge of prairies and generates greater interest in Missouri’s native grasslands. Learn more at

The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy and MDC have a long history of working together, sharing resources and knowledge to help achieve the conservation goals of both organizations.

In the Current River watershed, for example, MDC and the Conservancy team up to implement prescribed fires, which improve native habitat, watershed quality and reduce the threat of severe wildfires. This watershed is a top priority for both groups, as it provides habitat for an incredible array of native species and supports local economies through the timber and tourism industries.

This partnership has also created an “outdoor laboratory” along the Current River at the Conservancy’s Chilton Creek Preserve, where a long-term research and land management collaboration is assessing the effects of fire and other practices in woodland restoration. This research provides valuable information for conservation groups and other landowners.

“The cooperation and coordination between The Nature Conservancy and MDC also allowed for a significant expansion of the Sunklands Natural Area, which features the longest sinkhole in Missouri, unusual sinkhole pond marshes, remnant shortleaf pine woodlands and over a dozen rare species of plants and animals,” says Michael Leahy, MDC natural areas coordinator.

The vast majority of land in the Ozarks is privately owned. In some instances, however, MDC and the Conservancy partner to acquire unique habitats that are managed as public land for the benefit of both nature and people—such as the 83,000 acres obtained in 1991 from the Kerr-McGee Corporation.

“For nearly half a century, the Conservancy and MDC have partnered to the benefit of Missouri’s forest resources,” says Todd Sampsell, Missouri state director for the Conservancy. “Missourians are fortunate to have an abundance of healthy, productive forests, and we value MDC’s expertise and commitment to sustaining this natural heritage for future generations.”

MDC and the Conservancy also work with private landowners to help keep their lands economically productive, while at the same time providing conservation benefits such as watershed protection or improving natural habitat. Along the Meramec River, the two organizations assisted rancher Susan Wallach with the installation of a crossing over the Meramec River. The crossing connected Susan’s pastures, allowing cattle, trucks and farm equipment to cross the stream safely. The crossing also prevented sediment and nutrients from entering the Meramec.

“As a people, we all depend on healthy natural systems to sustain our economy and quality of life,” says Doug Ladd, the Conservancy’s director of conservation science. “To conserve these resources for the benefit of present and future generations, our society must weave conservation into the fabric of everyday life, building on partnerships such as the one between MDC and the Conservancy.”

Learn more at

Also In This Issue

Destination Discovery
Family nature outings in your own neighborhood.
Oak tree
Diagnosing and managing urban tree stress

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