Henry Rowe Schooclraft explored the Ozarks in 1818 before many whites had settled the region. The journal he published the following year details what animals and plants he saw. Now, 200 years after Schoolcraft took the grand tour of southern Missouri by foot, we look at the forces that have altered the landscapes he saw.
Schoolcraft encountered a landscape that was unaltered by white me. While the unmolested forests and prairies provided plenty for Schoolcraft to write about, there were alos times of deprivation on hiw trip. For example, on Sunday November 22, 1818, he wrote in his journal:
Night was closing fast around us and as the sky darkened, the wind began to rise and it murmured among the pines, which crowned the high bluffs by which we were encompassed. It seemed to forebode that were destined to pass a cheerless night. We stopped to survey the scene around us and at this moment observed a small spring of water trickling among the stones at our feet. Returning towards its source a cave in the rock situated about midway up the bluff yawned before us.
In the 200 years since Schoolcraft walked through the Ozarks, whites have settled the entire region. Along with them they brought ranching, agriculture and timber harvesting. These forces have had major changes on the lands that Schoolcraft saw and documented. Agriculture continues to be a way of life and a livlihood for many in the Ozarks. This includes Colin Collins. Working with his family on land he inherited, Collins runs cattle on the ridge tops and grows corn in the rich bottom-lands.
In the 1960s when I went off to college, forage production for cattle was very difficult. When I came back from college, fescue had literally taken over the Ozarks and was one of the best things that ever happened to our farming economy. All of a sudden... we were able to grow many more cattle here than we ever cpi;could before. The transition from kind of subsistence, diversified hogs-milk-eggs-chickens, all changed and most everybody became a beef rancher... We had no real feed to feed them, but fescue grass allowed all that to happen.
Collins marvels at how exotic fescue grass has changed Ozarks agriculture and landscapes. He also observes how species are different now from when he was a young man growing up on an Ozarks farm:
The plants have changed and the animals have changed dramatically. When I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, if we saw a deer, that was something to talk about. There was deer season, but we never hunted them because there was none to hunt. I never deer hunted until I came back in the mid-70s. Now they are a pest for us. We try to control them with controlled hunts on our grounds.
Besides deer, Collins has also seen a major uptick in turkeys during his lifetime. At the same time, Collins notices fewer quail and foxes then when we was a young man 60 years ago.
While farming has altered large swaths of Schoolcraft's landscape, another force has probably had a more major impact. Foresrty has brought jobs to the Ozarks while harvesting much of the native trees that Schoolcraft walked amongst. One Howell County resident who continues to make his living is the timber industry is Mike Renfro.
Back in the Ronald Reagan days, that was in the 80s, the Forest Service was all about cutting timber. I mean, they cut everything. Humongous clear-cuts out here, which probably public perception of that was probably awful. that to me was kind of the wrong way to do things. Then, in the 90s they kind of just locked it all back down and we kind of had a shortage of timber for awhile. Here in the last 10 years, they've kind of opened that back up. Now the quality of timber was probably better 30-40 years ago than it is now. People think all the timber is gone. I think there's more now than there was back then... it really grows back pretty quickly.
Landscape change from ranching and timbering has been dramatic across the Ozarks. While timber harvesting and ranching remain valuable parts of the Ozark economy, there are citizens who imagine a restored landscape. Howell County resident Hank Dorst has lived in the Ozarks for 300 years. He got involved in the struggles against chip mills 20 years ago. Today, as a mark Twain Forest Watcher, Dorst monitors timber sales on public lands. He imagines what a restored Ozarks landscape might look like:
Everybody has their ideal forest, which his big old trees widely spaced. What they call the park-like vision and also going back to man's roots on the savannahs of Africa, you know, swinging from the trees and jumping down into the grass. And that happens to be the pre-settlement condition of a lot of the Ozarks vegetation was widely spaced trees over a grassy understory.
We come across a piece of ground and we should ask ourselves 'What was this? What was here? What was this like? How is it different?' And then once we come up with an idea of what we think was here, the question is can we work with that? Can it be restored? [Sometimes] woodland restoration is appropriate and can work perfectly with timber management, thinning the forest and instituting a fire regime... That's always guided me ever since... People are really more aware now of what used to be on-site and how that may influence what they can do with that site now.
Would Schoolcraft recognize the paths on which he walked almost 200 years ago? Many Ozarks places that Schooclraft crossed by in 1818 are today altered beyond recognition. Farming and timber harvesting have cleared some areas for profit-making. Other, less profitable soils have been allowed to grow thick with stands of white oak and grasses. It is these same landscapes in which some see potential for profit while others an ideal Ozark forest in the making.
A version of this program originally aired on KBIA on May 3, 2016.
Listen for new episodes of Thinking Out Loud Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m. on KBIA 91.3FM.