The Journey Begins Where the Road Ends…
“The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio,but rather the complexity of the land organism”. ~Aldo Leopold
At the end of the road where water and land converge in a pastoral setting, a sanctuary exists. The Missouri State University Bull Shoals Field Station in the heart of the Ozarks provides the backdrop for the Green Leadership Academy for Diverse Ecosystems (GLADE). This site immerses GLADE participants in the ecosystem that they are striving to understand and positively impact. When conducting a leadership academy based on conservation principles and ecological research, a place like this is quintessential.
This land has a story to tell. Its history includes ancient seas, domal uplifts, the powerful erosive force of water, and the human connection to the land. The fossils of crinoids, brachiopods, and horn corals form the limestone and dolomite outcroppings that were carved through the ages by minute droplets from the sky. The dissolved particles of limestone give the surrounding waters a surreal blue tint that is deepened by great depths and brightened by the penetrating light of the sun.
Indigenous tribes populated the hills in the White River watershed for thousands of years before European settlers arrived. This was a time when nothing but fire disturbed ecological succession toward the climax community of the Oak-Hickory Deciduous Forest biome. Centuries old hardwood trees and Short-leaf Pine dominated the ridges, north slopes and valleys. Fire from natural, as well as human causes, periodically swept the land, leaving its mark on the south facing slopes, in the natural prairies, and within the forest itself.
The Schoolcraft Journal
When Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and his team of explorers began their journey of southern Missouri in November of 1818, the Ozarks, its people, its geology, and its biology were documented in written form. Schoolcraft’s journals provide a rich account of a land that we in the field of conservation long to see. His observations have become a guide for modern day conservationists as they engage in restoration after irresponsible deforestation, excessive timber harvest, reckless mining practices, and the resulting erosion and pollution left countless scars upon the land and water.
In order to understand the model which guides land managers in the Drury-Mincy Conservation Area and in other areas of the Ozarks, it is helpful to quote Schoolcraft. He penned this passage on December 13, 1818.
“They have fixed the site of their habitations on the east banks of the river, on the verge of a very large and rich tract of bottom land, occupying a bend in the river. It is covered by a heavy forest of oak, ash, maple, walnut, mulberry, and sycamore, the latter skirting the immediate banks of the river, with a vigorous growth of cane below. The opposite bank of the river is a perpendicular bluff of lime-stone rock, rising at the water’s edge to a height of 300 feet, where it terminates in very rugged peaks, capped by a stinted growth of cedars and oaks, and forming a most striking contrast with the level, rich, and heavy wooded plain below.”
On Tuesday, December 29, 1818, he added:
“The country passed over yesterday, after leaving the valley of White River, presented a character of unvaried sterility, consisting of a succession of lime-stone ridges, skirted with a feeble growth of oaks, with no depth of soil, often bare rocks upon the surface, and covered with coarse wild grass.”
On January 4, 1819, Schoolcraft described the grassland near what is now Springfield, Missouri:
“The prairies, which commence at the distance of a mile west of this river, are the most extensive, rich, and beautiful, of any which I have ever seen west of the Mississippi river. They are covered by a coarse wild grass, which attains so great a height that it completely hides a man on horseback in riding through it. The deer and elk abound in this quarter, and the buffalo is occasionally seen in droves upon the prairies, and in the open highland woods. Along the margin of the river, and to a width of from one to two miles each way, is found a vigorous growth of forest trees, some of which attain an almost incredible size.”
After observing white hunters in the area on December 30, 1818, Schoolcraft wrote what comes closest to the reason why conservationists cling to a sustainable vision:
“The Indian considers the forest his own, and is careful in using and preserving everything which it affords. He never kills more meat than he has occasion for. The white…destroys all before him, and cannot resist the opportunity of killing game, although he neither wants the meat, nor can carry the skins.”
Land Management in the Drury-Mincy Conservation Area
Early in the 20th century, the only wild White-tailed Deer in the entire state of Missouri were confined to the Drury-Mincy Conservation Area. It is said that today the DNA of every deer in the state can be traced back to the original Drury-Mincy herd. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation (2008), a very successful effort restored White-tailed Deer populations to the entire state. Many native cane habitats in Drury-Mincy were replaced with food plots. This proved to be very beneficial for the game species, but the practice, along with the creation of a series of reservoirs along the White River, resulted in a serious decline in canebrakes and in the number of neotropical bird species nesting in the area. This decline in avian populations eventually resulted in the extirpation of nesting Swainson’s Warblers from the White River watershed in Missouri.
Conservationists realize that improving habitat for one species can negatively impact the population of another. It is with this knowledge that today’s land managers strive to improve habitat for many and varied life forms. There is hope that cane restoration, invasive removal, and the encouragement of native plants and woodland species will in time lure back extirpated Swainson’s Warbler and other endangered species to the stream banks and riparian zones of Drury-Mincy Conservation Area.
Bachman’s Sparrow once thrived in the glades of southern Missouri. These fire-impacted areas supported grasses, native forbs, and short-leaf pines, and were grazed by indigenous elk and bison. With fire suppression conservation practices adopted during much of the 20th century, these areas became prime habitat for native Eastern Red Cedars and other woody plants that thrive in the arid, thin soils and bedrock of the south/southwesterly facing glade hillsides. Once the glade region was shadowed by the sprawling evergreen branches of the cedars, the amount of light reaching the surface was greatly reduced and, as a result, biodiversity was negatively impacted.
Today fire is an effective tool for increasing biodiversity and restoring the savannah ridges and arid glades of Drury-Mincy. The fate of many endangered glade-dwelling species depends upon the success of this practice. For the Greater Ozarks Audubon Society, Missouri Department of Conservation, and birders everywhere, hope remains for the return of Bachman’s Sparrow to the area. The GOAS GLADE/MDC partnership provides a possible avenue to that end.
In summary, the journals of Schoolcraft and the knowledge uncovered by current researchers bring us full circle to today’s management plan for Drury-Mincy. Most in the conservation field now embrace a vision of the Ozarks ecosystem with characteristics of the pre-European settlement lands. This vision guides much of the scientific research, land management techniques, and educational outreach of the facility.
Bull Shoals Field Station, located within Drury-Mincy, began operations in the spring of 1999 through a cooperative agreement between Missouri State University, the Missouri Department of Conservation, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corps leased the field station land that is adjacent to Bull Shoals Reservoir to Missouri State University for 25 years. MDC continues to manage the entire Drury-Mincy Conservation Area for the citizens of Missouri.
The flagship of the field station is a two-story native stone house that banker Frank Drury meticulously constructed in 1924. The stonework is a marvel in itself, and a monument to the fine workmanship of the mason. In 2004, the site became the recipient of a $60,000 National Science Foundation grant. At that time, the entire house was wired and plumbed, a well was drilled, and a state of the art septic system was installed. With a federal appropriation to the Corps of Engineers, a series of three photovoltaic panels and a bank of batteries were installed to generate sufficient electricity to power the home off the commercial electrical grid. A classroom building was added to complement the site and further the transformation of a home into a scientific research and education facility. Recently one of the original Drury stone outbuildings was converted into a lab facility and field station office through the use of another National Science Foundation grant.
According to their website, the mission of the Bull Shoals Field Station is to promote scientific research and provide educational opportunities that increase public understanding of southwest Missouri ecosystems. The classroom building and an indoor lab greatly enhance the station’s ability to serve the region’s scientists, educators, and conservationists. As a result, the Bull Shoals Field Station has become a vital extension of the Missouri State University Biology Department.
The GLADE project sinks its roots deeply in this “place where science rules”. Our young conservationists begin their journey here in the heart of the Drury-Mincy Conservation Area, an Audubon Important Bird Area, and home for several imperiled neotropical avian species. It is here that GLADE engages students in habitat restoration activities, water quality testing, and Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) bird banding all designed to help individuals gain an understanding of and improve the health of this unique habitat.
Backed by a network of conservation professionals, GLADE faculty, staff, and participants join forces in a restorative process that will hopefully lead us to a time when this dynamic area, shaped by fire and water, is once again home to 500 year old oaks, plentiful canebrakes, and arid glades. All those involved envision a place where we can return with children and grandchildren to witness the dazzling song and stunning sight of the once extirpated Swainson’s Warbler and Bachman’s Sparrow, along with a parade of other diverse native life forms.