Friday, May 31, 2013

A Short History of Missouri Forests

Second Article in Managing Missouri's Public Land for All
If you are like me you are predisposed to the assumption that things were better “back then.”  In the case of the forests of Missouri, it depends on which “back then” you mean.  The forests of Missouri are indeed quite different today than what one would have encountered in 1850, 1870, 1910, or 1930.  These four years are very approximate dividing lines regarding the history of Missouri forests.  Stepping across these lines one way or the other would have taken the observer into forests, or at times almost no forests, that were radically different.  

I want to be clear that I am not a historian, and one would almost certainly take some minor issues to
Shortleaf Pines near Rocky Creek in
the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
Theses trees once dominated the Ozark
Plateau landscape.  Oak and hickory now
have taken over their dominant role after
the excessive logging between
 1870 and the 1920's.
time frames and events that I will share from my research.  Part of the problem with that is in the fact that some of the issues are not 100% agreed upon in the research that I did.

Prior to 1850, the forests of Missouri, both the sprawling forests of the Ozark highlands in southern Missouri and those of northern Missouri had not seen radical change from their natural state.  In the 1850’s, some immigration began to occur into the Ozarks, but by-and-large, the impact on the landscape was minimal.  Some trees were cleared for very small farms and the buildings for the immigrants, but the impact up to now were minimal.  The primary species of trees in the Ozark Highlands during these years and those preceding them was shortleaf pine.  

This status quo, in other words some minor impact from new settlers to the Ozarks, continued to carry the day, with some increase in logging as St. Louis and other cities utilized the forest resources up until the Civil War.  The Civil War had an immense impact on everything throughout Missouri in general, and perhaps most greatly in the Ozarks.  The Ozarks became a den of thugs throughout the war and for sometime after.  The population was decimated in the region, and there was no possibility for commercial endeavors such as logging to occur.

That all changed in a slow and steady manner beginning in about 1870.  Gradually, as rule of law began to take hold through the region, logging interests began to buy up vast tracts of the Ozarks.  Land was dirt cheap, and the resources, as is so often the case, seemed inexhaustible.  It truly was amazing how quickly this premise was proven wrong.  Timber for railroads and the construction of postwar America was in high demand.  The Ozarks essentially were an enormous logging camp until the resource was in fact exhausted.

Logging hit its peak right around 1910.  By the 1920s, there was nothing left whatsoever to log.  The shortleaf pine was essentially extirpated from the Missouri Ozarks.

As the logging companies no longer needed their land, much was put on the market.  Some of it was subsequently mined.  Other parcels were sold off at bargain prices.  With the source of income for the locals gone, they turned to farming.  Without going into great detail, the assumption by landowners was the best way to increase the quality of the soil was to burn off whatever trees and other vegetation had managed to survive the logging era.  This was not done just once, but would be done on a regular basis.  One source asserted that in some years, 50% of the landscape was put to the torch.  The truth was that the burned vegetation would provide a short term flury of growth, but made no meaningful difference in soil quality.  

That is unless you mean that it had the impact of creating enormous erosion nightmares.  The clean running Ozark streams would run as dirty as the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers.  What’s more, what little decent soil there really was across the Ozark Plateau was being quickly transported to the Gulf of Mexico.  

By the 1930’s, there began to develop a sense that the Ozarks and Missouri in general were in trouble.  At this time, two things started to turn the tide.  First, the Missouri Conservation Commission was created.  This non-political organization is an example to this day of the way common sense conservation can be executed at the state level.  Many states have tried to emulate the success of this organization, but few have matched its effectiveness. (Author’s Editorial Comment: Missouri state legislators have recently tried to politicize the operations of the MIssouri Conservation Commission as well as the Missouri Department of Conservation.  This would be tragic for hunters, fishermen, hikers, water sport enthusiasts, campers, and so on.)

The other thing that dramatically affected the forestlands of Missouri at this time was the depression era Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC).  These men planted millions of trees to replenish the depleted forests and built parks, trails, and other facilities to enhance the opportunities for visitors to enjoy this potentially beautiful region.

Also, it would be leaving out a lot to not mention that the first purchases of Federal land began to be purchased during this era.  What’s more, recognizing the poor land management practices of the local population, efforts were made by the Federal government to educate residents on the matter.  Since few areas had electricity, trucks with mobile movie projection equipment would go from settlement to settlement showing movies for people who might never have seen a motion picture on how they could better manage their land.

At this juncture, Missouri’s wildest region had few of its native trees remaining, as well as almost no wild game.  Turkey and deer numbers were wiped out across the entire state.  But a foundation was in place for a gradual improvement in all of these areas and that process had begun.

There are shortleaf pine to be found now in the Ozarks, but the forests more closely resemble those of northern Missouri in that they are predominantly oak and hickory.  The forests of the Ozarks and the state as a whole are in infinitely better shape than they were then.  Game populations are in relatively healthy shape.  But could they be better and what are the practices being employed by the United States Forest Service and the MDC?

These will be topics for our subsequent explorations.

"Forests | Missouri Department of Conservation." 2010. 31 May. 2013 <>

"CCC Strong: Historic 1930s structures in our state parks | Missouri ..." 2011. 31 May. 2013 <>