Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Place Where Science Rules

When setting up a leadership academy based on conservation principles and ecological research, it is essential to immerse the participants in the very habitat that they are attempting to understand and positively impact. At the end of the road where the water and land converge, one such sanctuary in the heart of the Ozarks exists. The Bull Shoals Field Station provides the backdrop for the Green Leadership Academy for Diverse Ecosystems.

Map of Drury-Mincy Conservation Area (courtesy of Bull Shoals Field Station website)
  The site has a history that exhibits evidence of ancient seas, the powerful 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 miniscule droplets from the sky.

Aerial photo of Drury-Mincy Conservation Area (courtesy of Bull Shoals Field Station website)
 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 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, the natural prairies, and within the forest itself. Short-leafed Pines and oaks dominated many ridges and savannahs, glades, and prairies co-existed in this wilderness ecosystem.

It was not until Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and his team of explorers began their journey of southern Missouri in November of 1818 that the Ozarks, its people, its geology, and its biology were documented. Schoolcraft’s journals provide a detailed narrative of a land that we in the field of conservation can only dream of restoring, but his observations have become a guide for modern day conservationists as they attempt to restore the lands and waters 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. This quote was penned on December 21, 1818.
"The bottom-lands continue to improve both in quality and extent, and growth of cane is more vigorous and green, and affords a nutritious food for our horse. The bluffs on each side of the valley continue, and are covered by the yellow pine."

From January 4, 1819, a description of the grassland east of 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, he 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.”

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 remaining herd in Drury-Mincy. During a very successful effort to restore White-tailed Deer populations to the entire state, canebrakes were replaced by 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.

Map of prescribed burn sites in Drury-Mincy Conservation Area (courtesy of Bull Shoals Field Station website)
 In the case of the Bachman’s Sparrow once inhabiting the glades of Missouri, habitats that once were regularly exposed to fires supported grasses, native forbs, and short-leaf pines, and were grazed by native elk and bison. Bachman’s Sparrows thrived under these fire-impacted conditions. In the absence of fire during much of the 20th century, these areas were taken over by 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 is shadowed by the sprawling evergreen branches of the cedars, the amount of light reaching the surface is greatly reduced and, as a result, biodiversity is negatively impacted.

We have come to the realization that improving habitat for one species may very well 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. To date, fire is the most effective tool for increasing biodiversity and restoring the savannah ridges and hillside woodlands, as well as the arid glades, of the area. In the fertile bottomlands, Giant Cane restoration, invasive removal, and the encouragement of native vines and woodland species serve to lure extirpated and endangered species back to the stream banks and riparian zones.

The journals of Schoolcraft and the knowledge uncovered by current researchers bring us full circle to today’s management plan for Bull Shoals Field Station. Many in the conservation field now embrace a vision of the Ozarks ecosystem with characteristics of the pre-European settlement lands, and this vision guides much of the scientific research, land management techniques, and educational outreach of the facility.

Missouri State University began operations at the station 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. MDC manages the Drury-Mincy Conservation Area, and the corps owns the land adjacent to Bull Shoals Lake where the station is located.

The back entry to Drury House is the focal point of GLADE during meal time! (photo courtesy of Bob Ball)
 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 renovated, a well was drilled, and 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 and open air pavilion were added to complement the site and further the transformation of a home into a scientific research and education facility. Most recently, one of the original Drury stone outbuildings was converted into a lab facility and office for the field station.

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 increase the station’s ability to serve the region’s scientists, educators, and conservationists. As a result, it has become a vital extension of the Missouri State University Biology Department.

The back entry of the Drury House provides a great place for creative expression during GLADE.
(photo courtesy of Bob Ball)
 The GLADE project has sunk 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. Habitat restoration sites and a MAPS bird banding station ensure that both the habitat is improved, and the scientific research increases our knowledge of this fragile land. 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, giant canebrakes, and arid glades. All 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 and colorful native life forms.