Thursday, January 03, 2008

Unmitigated sprawl at a woodland's borders

Burdened by the task of providing the sprawling city of St. Louis with affordable hydroelectric power, in the late 1920s the state of Missouri issued a permit to Union Electric (now Ameren UE) to create a dam that would destroy thousands of miles of clear, fast moving Ozark rivers. By April 1929, Bagnell Dam was completed, damming the Osage River and sending millions of gallons of backwaters into the Niangua, the Grand, Grand Glaize and the Pomme de Terre rivers. Entire towns were relocated during this process. Anglers swear that the stone remains of Linn Creek's buildings can be seen during low water events, but I think it's another Ozark myth.

Bagnell Dam created what was at the time the largest manmade lake in the country. It destroyed miles of Niangua darter and hellbender habitat, ruined bottomland forests, and flooded countless caves whose biological resources were never catalogued. The product, Lake of the Ozarks, shortly became a popular vacation destination to travelers from St. Louis and Kansas City. By the 1930s, countless lodges and small hotels were built to accomodate the increased tourism to an area considered a "country getaway." Missouri's only African American resort town was located at Lake of the Ozarks; it supported hundreds of families well into the volatile 1960s.

By the 1950s, Branson had been unofficially tapped for widespread tourism development. Branson's sprawl continues today and visitors can still have "explosive laughter" at Yakov Smirnoff's Soviet-themed theatre. They can still see the robotic Andy Williams crooning Christmas carols to Anne Murray and have their choice of over20 dinner theatre options. The development of Branson put a halt to rampant building at Lake of the Ozarks, but not for long. In the past 10 years in the Lake of the Ozarks region, entire natural communities (namely dry chert woodlands and dolomite glades) have been erased to make way for hundreds of slipshod condominiums. Small towns that had a single stoplight 18 years ago now have not only a Super Walmart, but a Target and a Bed Bath and Beyond and a Starbucks. Miles of shoreline are being developed in what is nothing more than a shortsighted capitalistic exercise in bank erosion.

Lake of the Ozarks still manages to attract families from St. Louis and Kansas City seeking a country getaway, but the country is rapidly disappearing before their eyes. Private landowners, once the protectors of vast stretches of oak-hickory woodlands in the Ozarks, are selling their land to developers. The few protected areas are now feeling the stress of urban encroachment in an area once prized for its wild character. Aerial photos of state parks in the area are disturbing (I'll try to rustle one up from the files tomorrow). Cell phone companies are applying for permits to place their towers in designated wilderness. Tracts of woodlands that served as buffer zones between the urban areas and the parks are quickly disappearing. My sister agency complains that deer tag sales are down because there are no more places to hunt in the Lake of the Ozarks area. I complained vociferously about the island of trees in a sea of agriculture down in southeast Missouri, so I'll lodge my complaint about parks in urban areas that have also been reduced to island status. The stresses to wildlife and sustainability of ecosystems are insurmountable.

They keep building highrises, but who's buying? When the character of an area is removed, when the country is no longer the country but a series of stores and bad traffic, those seeking the solitude of nature go elsewhere. It happened in the Hamptons in the 1990s, in the Florida Keys in the early 2000s. As my former boss in the Ozarks declared, "once they've ruined this, they'll just leave here and bring their cities elsewhere." He owns a great tract of well-managed oak-hickory woodlands that keeps appreciating. The county has just paved his gravel road and charged him for it. He's hates urban expansion as much as I do and is waiting for his property to reach the million dollar mark. Today, he's only a couple thousand away from it.

No comments: