Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Where the Ozarks meet the Prairie": There is no prairie there.

I began my first part-time position in Missouri in April 03 working for a quarter more than minimum wage. According to everyone I left back home in New Orleans, I was too old to be working for so little pay, for the hours I worked, for the menial jobs I did (to justify my employment to superiors) between sampling vegetation and running a two year long breeding salamander survey. I earned so little, knew hardly anyone, and was located emotionally and culturally far, far away from my New Orleans neighborhood situated as I was in the Western Ozarks.

I didn't care to meet people, and didn't have any interest in doing anything else but learning about Missouri's natural history. Native landscapes, though degraded, were everywhere around me then. Often, after my shift ended at 3:30, I drove Hwy 52 to the charming German town of Cole Camp to poke around Hi Lonesome Prairie. I could make it to the prairie in time to watch the sunset, usually catching a handful of swamp sparrows in the prairie swale, and an upland sandpiper in the distance.

Cole Camp took great pride in their prairie heritage back then. A big, charming billboard rested outside of town on 52 with a sunset, the town's name in Fraktur font, and their slogan: "Where the Prairie meets the Ozarks." You can see it, too, how the rolling hills coming out of post oak savanna country become less and less populated with trees, replaced by low hills of historic prairie--mostly destroyed by grazing. Hi Lonesome typified this landscape, and the citizens of Cole Camp were eager for ecotourism opportunities. Why, there were prairie chickens on that prairie, a quirky little winery downtown, a bed and breakfast, an Amish bakery, a few restaurants (including Der Essen Platz--complete with dark wood paneling inside).

Having seen Niawathe and Taberville Prairies in the early part of the 2000s (formerly Grade A prairies, now destroyed by overgrazing), I could recognize that Hi Lonesome lacked the floral attributes of high quality prairie. But the visage, the swale and woody draws, the openness of the prairie was stunning (and a world away from the woodlands I worked in, even though it existed an hour's drive away).

So we returned to Hi Lonesome this past weekend to find the prairie destroyed, a landscape of ragweed and sumac. Oh, there was a stand of Salvia azureaa long way off, and scattered old field goldenrods, but not a single clump of prairie grass on the prairie. I wasn't alone feeling we were gypped out of a field day--we all bailed into the cars, "what do we do now?"

I did what I always do in similar situations. I found a winery. Montserrat Vineyards is located outside of Knob Noster, a charming little area of two wineries side by side, with only one open. I appreciated the directions given to me over the phone as I sped down 50: "follow the sign for Rat Hole, go down a gravel road, and you can't miss us." I passed the sign for Rat Hole, and ended up parking in their neighboring (but closed) winery parking lot.

With my pitiful paychecks in 03, I collected and summarily drank Missouri Norton, thrilled that this great state could make great wine. I regret, of course, not cellaring some of the 01s and even 98s that were being sold in 03. If I hadn't been so broke, I could have had a great vertical tasting this weekend. Alas, I drank them all too young, out of a water glass, in a cabin with a Peromyscus leucopus problem--not a trashy Mus musculusproblem, but a cute little woodland animal with big doe eyes that always found a way to get inside through the gaping holes in the walls. They had the run of the cabin. Every morning I dumped a small mammal and a brown recluse out of my coffee mug.
On the eve of the 10th anniversary of my 29th birthday, I think of how I really haven't lived here long enough to call it home, and yet how sad that even I have seen the prairies of southwest Missouri turn into something very different, very sad, very ugly, chocked of grazing increasers and lacking all integrity. There are few Missouri prairies worth visiting anymore.

I have great empathy for folks who have grown up here to see the changes happening through their lifetimes. I think of my mentors who have worked in natural history for 30 years. I try to imagine what visitors to the Cassville area in the 1920s and 193s saw, dissected hills of open savanna (though with open range grazing destroying forb diversity) and then imagine them returning to their favorite haunt and not even recognizing it. Today, the Cassville area is a dense, overstocked thicket with relict savanna trees gasping for dear life in the fire starved woodlands. But the prairies. The little tiny postage stamp prairies that were saved from grazing are now being destroyed by the very process that left us without prairies to begin with.

For my birthday, I do wish I had early vintage Nortons from my $7.25/hr job, but I don't. I wish more than anything that fighting to protect biodiversity in Missouri wasn't a losing battle, but it is, and I will likely see more destruction and conversion the longer I stay here.


Sabatia said...


So can it be blamed soley on grazing, and if so why would MDC allow that to happen? I.m familiar with the mechanics of the politics, but who benefitted from being allowed to graze there, or was it related to a study, or who is in charge now at MDC that favors grazing?

Anonymous said...

I've only begun my career in Missouri natural resources, however I understand your grief in terms of the loss of natural diversity. I went to a few MDC 'prairies', however what I found resembled more of a weed patch.

What gives me hope are Missouri's woodlands. Although population growth and further fragmentation may threaten that as well.It's scary to think what will happen when these lands change hands as the baby boom generation ages. But over the past 5 years I've seen a handful of sites respond to management.

In lieu of pessimism, I'd like to think how far worse things would be if folks had not stepped up in terms of natural resource management. Maybe it's time you jump into a good 'ol glade and woodland for a few hours.

Allison Vaughn said...

You're right about the woodlands-thousands of acres of restorable woodlands throughout the Ozarks. Only a few places have the native integrity left from the 80 years of open range grazing, and those are the woodlands I migrate to.
What's so sad about the prairies not being worth visiting anymore is that they were the first ecosystems that were treated with fire back in the 1970s. So, these once high quality sites had been managed with fire or haying for many years, and in a very brief period they've been destroyed by overgrazing. Sorry I'm's difficult to be otherwise in this climate.

Allison Vaughn said...

S.-thanks for reading. It's actually the agency in charge of managing them is now responsible for destroying them. They're not conducting any real science or even any rigorous vegetation monitoring to measure the impacts. Seems to me they're doing nothing but placating ranchers. Check out their article "Win-Win for ranchers and prairie chickens." According to bird conservation groups in Missouri, grazing is not helping grassland birds, sure didn't help them at Hi Lonesome where they're now extirpated, and in the long run they've destroyed the only habitat that could have possibly sustained them.

Sabatia said...

To destroy the last of the best native prairies in Missouri is insane. The abundance of Ambrosia artimisiifolia in one of your photos says it all - that is the area was grazed to the ground (or severely burned - the sumac looks like it was burned this past year) and the annual AMAR2, being opportunistic, did what it does best - colonized that open piece of bare soil. But, the soil shouldnt have been laid bare to begin with. AMAR2 is a very competitive weed - the allelopathic effects of AMAR2 are known to inhibit germination of soybeans and corn, so its logical to believe it will have the same effect on the native veg as well. Having that open AMAR2 patch is like having a sore that wont heal properly. Sigh. Cant we have just 1 or 2 native prairies in some semblance of a pristine state? Seems now we have cattle and pheasants trumping everything native prairie-related on MDC lands. Sad. But, dont get me wrong - cattle and pheasants have their place - just not on the last of the best native prairies, or woodlands, or glades, etc.