Vol. II, No. 4, Spring 1989

A Region Preserved
a Region of Preserves

by Robert Flanders

This issue of OzarksWatch is dedicated to the subject of public land preserves in the Ozarks. It grew out of the proposition that the various public land preserves in the Ozarks play a dominant role in the life of the region, and go far to define its character, both for those who reside here and the many who visit. Indeed, the Ozarks in the late twentieth century can scarcely be imagined apart from those preserves, their utilization, and the continuous controversy surrounding their management. But the historic character of the Ozarks may well proceed from its having been a kind of preserve from the beginning.*

The modern world came late to the Ozarks. Late, selective, and spotty, it came along the few late-built railroad corridors, to the few railroad and lead mining towns. Commercial row-crop farming, the prime-mover of modernization elsewhere in rural mid-America, was unsuited to most of the Ozarks. Nor did any gold rush, oil boom, or coal mine fever disturb its quietude. Its timberlands were exploited by outside developers in the post-Civil War decades. But the net effect of absentee timberland owners and industrial clear-cutting was as often to retard as to advance "progress" in the once forested wilderness. Land rushes left the Ozarks unaffected- at least until our own generation.

Settlement was slow. Its urban "centers'' remained outside -- St. Louis, Kansas City, Memphis, and Tulsa. In 1930 the only towns over 2,500 were Bonne Terre, Carthage, Webb City, and Joplin, all mining towns; and Jefferson City, Fayetteville, and Springfield, each a special case. The Ozarks remained predominantly rural, sparsely populated, economically and culturally isolated. Paved roads did not come until the 1930s or later. The sheriff of Ozark County, Missouri, did not use a car until 1937 because he could negotiate the roads and ford the unbridged streams more quickly on horseback. Mail continued to be delivered on horseback in Marion County, Arkansas into the 1950s for the same reason (a mounted postman recalled delivering a mail-order cookstove a piece at a time over an extended period). The first paved road in Stone County, Arkansas was 1957.

The Ozarks remained, in many ways, a perpetuated frontier, resistant to modernization, development, and progress. To use a striking anthropological figure, the Ozarks remained more raw than cooked. Outsiders understood and still understand the Ozarks to be backward, rustic, sometimes crude -- schools, churches, government, health care-with much of its economy, society, and culture "behind."

In fact, Ozarks institutions tend to be relatively new, not yet fully developed and connected to the outside, as on all frontiers. The people they serve, as well as the people who run them, have long cleaved to old ways --actually other ways than the ways that dominate our international cosmopolitan superculture.

1937 photo from the U.S. Forest Service to the entrance to Clark National forest at Hwy N -- Old Highway 67 -- Black River Dist. Wayne County, Missouri.


The Ozarks has remained a perpetuated frontier because it has been historically an inadvertent preserve, a region left out of the so-called main stream of development in American history. The primary settlers were mostly displaced Native Americans and Southern Highlanders. Whether red or white, they were among the most culturally conservative of Americans, resistant to change and often in fact refugees from the modernizing commercial- industrial-demographic revolutions of the East from whence they migrated -- or were driven. They liked the Ozarks "raw," and were not eager to "cook" it. They were perpetual frontiersmen, so to speak, peopling a perpetuated frontier. Inadvertencies of geography and history were to preserve both the people and the land for a time from the mainstream of progress. The Ozarks as thus preserved, a region noteworthy both for nature and natives, even in the nineteenth century fascinated and attracted certain cosmopolitan elites of its neighboring cities. Among them were gentlemen sportsmen, who considered the Ozarks their own particular hunting and fishing preserve. It seemed to be "theirs." It was nearby, and its very remoteness and difficulty of access limited its sports clientele to those such as themselves with sufficient time, money, and style for the safari-like expeditions required to enjoy it. By the twentieth century railroads opened the Ozarks to the middle class, not only for rod and gun sport, but also to the possibility of family camping vacations, a new pastime of Late Victorian Americans. In 1907, publication of Harold Bell Wright's Shepherd of the Hills made Ozarks rusticity not just fashionable, but popular. In the 1920s, new improved roads made automobile touring possible -- if still adventurous.

But, just at the time popular interest in the Ozarks as a natural area developed, the cumulative effects of rapacious timbering, ignorant agriculture, and excessive killing of game and fish spoiled the Ozarks as a pristine wilderness preserve. Worse, the great wilderness resource base that had supported the traditional self-sufficient socio-economy was so reduced that the inhabitants themselves were reduced in proportion, often to virtual penury and want. The stage was set for events that are the subject of this issue of OzarksWatch, the creation of intentional preserves in the region.

In 1924 at Round, Big, and Alley Springs in the Current-Jack's Fork basin, the State of Missouri purchased small tracts of land to be its first state parks. Forty years later, the United States procured a large tract in the same river basin to establish the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, the first national park in the Ozarks and the first of a national system of wild and scenic rivers. In that 40 years a vast system of intentional preserves was created to preserve (the noun and verb are the same and have the same meaning) pieces of the Ozarks for purposes that varied with the philosophies and charters of their founding agencies. The preserves share in common the characteristics of public ownership, public service, and the public good --though which public service and which public good is a matter of chronic dispute. They also share a common philosophical origin: environmental conservation, one of the great master ideas of the modern world.

National and then state forest preserves began in the 1930s to restore and manage large reaches of timberlands. Work projects of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) advanced timberland, soil, and water conservation objectives, and built facilities that helped convert the state park lands from primarily wildlife preserves to real parks. Such depression-born enterprises had economic relief and development as primary objectives. But they also embodied a conservation ethic which, over time, they institutionalized and made permanent,

In 1937 the Missouri Department of Conservation was established by constitutional amendment, a fish and game agency unique in its comprehensive approach to habitat conservation and its independence from political pressures. Although the Conservation Department now has land preserves --wildlife, wilderness, and forest -- all over the state, in the beginning its attention was focused primarily upon the Ozarks.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been a crucial player in the history of passing Ozarks land from private to public ownership -- but in a peculiar way. The Corps dammed major Ozarks watersheds and buried their valleys forever underwater. (An often-heard Ozarks saying is that time here is divided into two parts: B.C.E., Before the Corps of Engineers, and A.C.E., After the Corps of Engineers.) The Corps' purposes were essentially developmental -- downstream flood control (mostly outside the Ozarks) and hydroelectricity -- purposes largely inimical to conservation. The Corps destroyed rather than preserved the land. Paradoxically and ironically, Corps reservoirs have over time produced regional income and employment beyond all the possibilities of valley farming and valley towns which they destroyed -- and beyond the intentions of the Corps which conceived and constructed them.

The fights mounted by conservation interests to save the Current-Jack's Fork Rivers in Missouri and the Buffalo River in Arkansas from the relentless and seemingly invincible Corps of Engineers became high drama. When opposition succeeded the consequences were momentous. The question was, how to assure that the rivers would be saved in perpetuity? The answer: make them into riverine national parks. It was an extreme -- and still controversial -- means of preservation. The river parks are composed not just of the rivers, of course, but of land preserves formed to enclose the rivers. The preserves thus formed are perhaps the most extraordinary of all in their composition, control policies, and management.

The preserve managers and preserve users constitute new, influential population elements in the Ozarks. They include some of the native population, especially young people, who might otherwise have departed the region. The paradox is that while preserves have disrupted and diminished certain traditions of Ozarks life, they have added jobs, directly and indirectly, and have contributed to the quality of life by preservation and restoration of the region's resources and early character. The cumulative effect of preserves upon the Ozarks has not been calculated; but surely it is immense.

*Lynn Morrow first suggested to me the concept of the Ozarks as a preserved region, and as a region of preserves.


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