Vol. II, No. 4, Spring 1989


The OzarksView feature of this special issue of OzarksWatch consists of the following two essays by two of Missouri's conservation professionals.

Ozarks Preserves:
Some Linkages

by John Karel

I came to the Ozarks as a visitor in my youth more than 25 years ago. Over the years, I have floated the rivers, hunted in the forests, walked the ridges, and come to know many wonderful people. While I was a student at the University of Missouri, a number of us became passionately interested in Ozarks conservation issues. For 15 years or so we have continued active in campaigns for establishment of land preserves in the Ozarks -- primarily in Missouri, but also in Arkansas.

The issues that confronted conservationists when we entered the field were mostly river-related--Meramec Dam, Ozark Riverways, Eleven Point and Buffalo Rivers. The issues surrounding all of these symbolic streams were sharply controversial in each particular locale. Partisans waged verbal and almost physical warfare upon one another. Passions have cooled only slowly and fitfully.

Controversies over the rivers are not new; they are part of a pattern of conflict that has characterized the history of preserve establishment in the Ozarks from the beginnings of the "conservation era" in the 1930s. We must understand it if we are to understand the situation of the preserves today, and especially if we hope to work toward a positive future for them.

We should start with the acknowledgment that the idea of large land preserves as conceived in the 20th century was not native to the Ozarks. In fact, it was an idea promoted largely by outsiders, particularly by state and federal agencies.   Distrust and opposition were almost inevitable consequences of outsider plans to establish large, controlled-use public land preserves, diametrically opposed, as they would seem to be, to the local tradition of open-range use. In order to conserve sizable tracts of natural landscape for "wise use," whether for parks, forests, game preserves, or wilderness, controls were to be placed on such things as hunting seasons, bag limits, timber cutting, open range, and woods burning. Cherished traditional practices, especially open hunting, open range grazing, and seasonal woods burning, were deeply held within folk concepts of freedom and the social structure. Such traditions of land use practice were especially strong in the interior, non-German Ozarks, and derived from the Upland South, of which the Ozarks is a part. When federal and state governments first proposed large forest preserves which threatened to curtail such practices, bitter opposition surfaced. But the government people and the supportive private conservationists had sturdy preserve rationales to buttress their actions, rationales which included economic values of soil and timber productivity, as well as the augmentation of recreation, sport hunting, and fishing opportunities. They were rationales that were argued from ethics, history, and science.

Even though land preserve and land control rationales originated outside the Ozarks, some of them could be linked with traditional Ozarks values. Such linkages included the high value Ozarkers place upon an abundance of game to hunt, the value to them of restored and ultimately profitable forests, and protection for clean, clear-flowing waters. They were linkages that partially counteracted the negative implications of the preserves. Over time, the agencies responsible for preserves management learned to utilize these linkages -- to emphasize those elements of their programs which are consistent with traditional Ozarks values. The attempt has not always been successful, and conflicts still exist; but it is probably fair to say that most Ozarkers today accept or even support the large, first-generation land preserves, most particularly the national forests.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a new generation of conservationists brought two new kinds of preserves to the Ozarks: protected streams and wilderness areas.

The stimulus for action to protect streams was in every case the threat of a federal dam that would destroy a free-flowing river. Extremely high value, an almost sacred status, had always been placed upon natural streams by Ozarkers and visitors alike; and these values became catalysts for resistance to the trend to convert more and more streams into reservoirs. Some residents who had supported early Ozarks dams because of their economic benefits began to cry out against damming such rivers as the Current and Jacks Fork. Anti-dam campaigns became campaigns to permanently preserve selected threatened rivers. Thus was invented the concept of Scenic Riverways. It was to be a new kind of preserve, accomplishing widely popular and agreed-upon benefits of dam prevention and stream conservation. Unfortunately, it also brought the old unpopular land-use controls of the earlier large forest preserves, and then some. Exacerbating the situation, the aggressive (and some, including me, would say insensitive) land acquisition tactics of the federal agencies were so bitterly resented by many Ozarkers that the very concept of river and stream protection in the Ozarks has been crippled ever since.


The other new kind of preserve to emerge during the 1970s was the wilderness area. Wilderness designations required no new public land acquisition, but did overlay a stricter level of controls upon selected portions of already existing federal land, primarily in the national forests. Such controls included restrictions on commercial use of trees and minerals, and on the use of vehicles. Although they did not involve anything like the large acreage of the earlier preserve systems, the wilderness designation campaigns were highly controversial.

The Wilderness Area concept, with its critical land use controls, conflicted with traditional values such as unrestricted freedom of access and, for some, biblically ordained thrift in the use of resources. Wilderness designation was also perceived as a possible hindrance to local economies.

In order to create new wilderness areas, serious political campaigns were waged. Because wilderness designation requires an act of Congress, and because Congress tends to defer on such issues to members in whose states and districts the areas in question are located, the campaigns for virtually every wilderness designation in the Ozarks included not only statewide appeals, especially to urban constituencies, but also campaigns for local Ozarks acceptance, if not support. The efforts were successful enough that the local Congressmen did not actively oppose designation. In the case of the Irish Wilderness, a major industrial lobby was extremely vigorous in campaigning against the designation, and a favorable consensus was not clearly achieved.

The success of the local campaigns for wilderness designation, like those on behalf of the national forests earlier, depended upon the articulation of linkages between wilderness and traditional Ozarks values, usually by a local proponent. Such linkages included sport hunting in a wilderness, or "pioneer," setting, and protection of some unspoiled small streams. Another linkage was the protection which wilderness designation provided from the relatively new and locally unpopular government practice of clearcutting timber stands. In several cases opposition to clearcutting linked wilderness with local hunters, especially coon and turkey hunters.

The wilderness area campaigns focused attention on local history, and so forged another link between conservationist and local values. The most noteworthy example was the case of the Irish Wilderness; but local Ozarkers in other places found grounds for supporting wilderness based upon the stories associated with the families along Shut-In Creek at Bell Mountain; the archaeological remains at Rockpile Mountain; baptizings, old house places, and early day cattle drives through Paddy Creek; pioneer schools and cotton gins in the neighborhood of Hercules Glades; and so on.

Probably the most potent linkage between wilderness and traditional Ozarks values was the simple notion of just leaving the old land, the regional landscapes of home and memory, unchanged. In a region undergoing increasingly rapid development and consequent landscape change, wilderness was perceived by more than one Ozarker as a sort of hedge against the loss of the old traditional visual and physical landscape. In a related way, some Ozarkers found biblical grounds for the value of "setting aside" some land not subject to commercial development.

For me, and for other conservation workers, participating in all of this was enormously instructive. Along the way we came to love the Ozarks more deeply, and to gain some powerful and lasting friendships. We believe that the achievement of diverse systems of landscape and riverscape preserves are largely a success story, important to the character and identity of the Ozarks. We are also convinced that if they are to continue to play a positive role in the region, their managers need to understand, respect, and champion the linkages that exist between preserve philosophies and the Ozarks culture in the midst of which they are located.

In closing, I return again to the subject of streams. No mystique exists that is more powerful in the traditional Ozarks than that of the magically clear, sweet, flowing waters of our streams and springs. The environmental community considers this resource of water to be inadequately protected from abuse, whether inadvertent or intentional. Important values are at stake for all concerned, about which an almost universal consensus has been achieved. Its conclusion: the finest Ozarks streams should remain undefiled. The ultimate proposals to insure such a happy future will succeed only if proponents exercise consideration and respect for Ozarks traditions; and if they find and emphasize the powerful linkages between traditional Ozarks values and clean flowing water.

In the end, the role of our Ozarks land preserves may be an ironic one. Conceived originally by outsiders, and born amid controversies over values with which they seemed in conflict, the preserves may, over time, help to conserve and illuminate characteristics that all Ozarks watchers value about our unique region. They could come to be treasured as anchors of authentic Ozarkness, perhaps even more important as cultural resources than as natural ones.

John Karel is Director of Tower Grove Park in St. Louis and formerly Director of the Division of Parks and Historic Preservation for the State of Missouri.


the Irish Wilderness

The Curious History of an Ozarks Place

This is the second OzarksView article.

by James M. Denny

The Irish Wilderness has long been known as a wilderness place in popular Ozarks legend. The actual gaining of formal wilderness designation by the U.S. Forest Service, however, has only recently been achieved. The title was bestowed on a 16,500 acre tract in Oregon County, Missouri in 1984, only after a drawn-out struggle between conservationists and a mixture of timber and mining industry interests allied with pro-development local citizens and politicians. The call for Wilderness designation for this special place was sounded as early as 1949 by Ozarks conservationist and publicist, Leonard Hall. By the early 1970s, the Irish Wilderness had become foremost on the wilderness agenda of most environmentalists. Staunch resistance to this proposal was raised by the lead mining industry which suspected that needed reserves of ore might lie, embedded deeply in Paleozoic strata, some two-thousand feet below the wild expanse of hills, hollows, forests, and clear running waters.

The struggle continued for more than a decade before there was a clearing in the political clouds of congressional politics that allowed the Irish Wilderness to belatedly join six other areas in the Missouri Ozarks as a designated wilderness area.

While the Irish is now an official wilderness, and the largest one in Missouri at that, it is a wilderness of a special kind --one not of primeval landscapes and towering virgin forests (those were completely cleared during the early twentieth-century timber boom to be replaced by a mixed hardwoods second-growth forest). The Irish Wilderness, instead, attains its character by what John Karel has characterized as an "authentic sense of vastness." Dan Saults wrote that the place possessed a "space and breadth and clean loneliness." The Irish is one of those places that is becoming rare, even in the Ozarks Highland -- a place where one can meet nature on its own terms, where one can taste deeply of the mystery and haunting power of the natural world, a place where, if one is not guided by map and compass, it is possible to become very, very lost in a maze of ridges and hollows.

Add to this vastness an amazing resiliency and you have some sense of the basic essence of this locale. Without these qualities, the Irish Wilderness would be a wasteland, the product of some of the worst things that Americans have done to their environments, and to each other. The wilderness that is the dark side of the human soul is reflected in the history of this brooding place, as well. But far more powerful is the sense of nature's will and determination to reclaim man's spoiled landscapes. It is an improbable story with an appropriately improbable beginning.


Woven into this beginning are the complicated strands of several events: the Irish potato famine of 1848 that emptied out a good portion of Ireland's people, scattering them about the globe; one of the destination points of this tragic diaspora, St. Louis, where the Irish came to make up one-third of the burgeoning city's population; the grim realities of oppression and poverty that greeted Irish families; and, finally, the brave and hopeful dream of a young Catholic priest named Father John Joseph Hogan. It is Father Hogan who, in his autobiography, On the Mission in Missouri, left the only First-hand account of the venture into the wilderness of the Oregon County Ozarks.

Father Hogan conceived of his wilderness venture, during the years 1854-55, while ministering to the congregation of St. John's Catholic Church in St. Louis. Here, the thirty-thousand Irish refugees crowding the city were regarded with disdain by their established German- and Anglo-American neighbors. While Irish women could find work as domestics, males were often forced to travel in search of it, frequently following the vagabond life of the railroad worker.

As a conscientious and idealistic pastor, Father Hogan despaired about effects on family life that inevitably resulted from the hard and difficult straits, and the forced separations, of his parishioners. He came to envision a solution to this social dilemma that was both bold and imaginative, yet quaint and utopian at the same time. His vision was mixed in parts from a kind of Jeffersonian pastoralism, and a pre-industrial notion of a way of life derived from the quasi-peasant Irish agrarian system. He would found a settlement in the Missouri Ozarks.

Hogan believed that it was possible for a people of small means who were industrious, patient, and frugal, to settle the Ozarks with advantage. A people, who as renters in their native Ireland were able to maintain a living, could "...using the same thrift and energy in southern Missouri, successfully cultivate land, and establish on it for themselves and their a permanent homestead."

And so it was that an Irish settlement was founded in Oregon County along the banks of the Eleven Point River in the wild country that would forever after bear their name. But tragedy continued to dog these ill-destined people and found them even in their wilderness retreat. Scarcely had they settled in before the Civil War unleashed upon them a hardship as great as any entailed by the great famine they fled in 1848.

Too much time had been consumed between the inception of Father Hogan's vision and its implementation. Not until 1859 did the colony finally get under way. Father Hogan reported that a good start had been made by spring. Trees had been felled, rails split, farmsteads assembled, fields cleared, broken, and sown. Masses were well attended at the forty-foot square log church the settlers built in the forest. Nowhere, Hogan proclaimed, could people "so profoundly worship as in the depth of that leafy forest...where solitude and the heart of man united in praise and wonder of the Great Creator."

The situation they found themselves in was not Edenic, however, and Father Hogan's own actions may well have placed the colony in peril. While Hogan found his established neighbors, the local Ozarks hill folk, to be generally kind-hearted, sincere, and sociable, he may have seriously erred in his estimation of their seeming willingness to receive his instruction in the Catholic religion. This proved to be an unwise move that incensed the fiery and ill-educated circuit riders who held sway over whatever religious sentiments existed in the area. The response to Hogan's efforts to generate new Catholic converts was swift and impassioned. An inflammatory sermon was preached against Catholicism by a preacher who later became a notorious guerrilla leader, and Hogan was nearly attacked. Hogan devotes some space to revealing his magnanimity, how he forgave his potential assailant, concluding that the preacher was simply misinformed about Catholicism. He evidently did not consider the possibility that his own actions were needlessly provocative. He may have exposed the fragile settlement to jeopardy by arousing the ire of the established community.

During the Civil War, the dark side of human nature was given free rein in places like the Irish Wilderness. The region became a desolate, ravaged no-man's land, claimed by neither side. The deep forests of the Irish wilderness became a refuge into which bands of bushwhackers could vanish after raids. Periodically, detachments of Union cavalry on retaliatory sorties swept through, killing any man they encountered and burning or confiscating any scrap left behind by the guerrillas. Father Hogan reported that the wilderness had been picked so clean that soldiers venturing through it were obliged to carry feed for their horses with them.

Only the hardiest and most resourceful of hill folk could have survived in such a wasteland.

What happened to the Irish? In October of 1863, a Union Major James Wilson reported dispatching a detachment to Pilot Knob with some prisoners and a train of refugees from Oregon County. If none of the Irish were in that sad train, it was only because they failed to hold out that long. Father Hogan was in Chillicothe, where he had a parish, when the Civil War erupted, and never again returned to Oregon County. During the war, hostilities prevented travel; after the war, there was no colony to travel to.

What was launched as a hopeful alternative to the harsh and degrading realities of Irish-American life in an industrializing nation endured only the most ephemeral of existences as an experimental society, and came quickly to a tragic end, defeated by the irony of time and place. There may have been an unrealistic and fatal yearning for pre-industrial simplicity in this venture into the wilderness, but there was also something unique in the colony's approach to the Ozarks environment that is intriguing when viewed against the backdrop of subsequent Ozarks land-use, which has too often been wasteful and exploitative. Father Hogan's experiment demanded an harmonious and sympathetic stewardship finely attuned to the carrying capacity of the Ozarks ecosystem. There is in his vision an untried alternative and a missed opportunity.

The years immediately following the Civil War saw the Irish Wilderness lapse back into the wild, trackless state it has always sought when left alone. For the next quarter of a century, vast, somber wilderness reigned; the area is remembered as a legendary hunting ground.

In the 1890s, the timber boom began. The Ozarks, with its great stands of virgin pine, was ripe for harvest by timber barons eager to fill the nationwide demand for the lumber to throw up houses and businesses and accommodate the swelling populations of industrial cities.

Before the short-lived timber bonanza ended, hundreds of millions of board feet of what was once the vast forests of the Ozarks departed the region annually. It was the Ozark Land and Lumber Company, operating out of Winona, Missouri, that relieved the Irish Wilderness of its great stands of virgin and hardwoods. But the boom didn't last long, and when the timber company pulled out, only stumps were left behind. So thorough had been their clear cut policy that there was nothing left worth taking.

By the end of World War I, the Irish Wilderness had again reverted to a wild state; not the lofty, park-like forest of before, but a dense tangle of vegetation, thickets and scrub timber. The terrain was broken by forgotten hollows lurking in perpetual gloom. Only the trail-wise locals would dare to venture into it -- only they and moonshiners. By the dawn of the Depression, the land had lain for years producing nothing but a mounting burden of unpaid back taxes.

It was at this time that the influence of the New Deal rippled out to the reaches of the Irish Wilderness. This great force of modernity in the Ozarks encountered an area, a whole geographical region, destitute from too long a period of land misuse. Improper timbering and unwise agricultural practices had left streams choked with gravel washed down from bare hillsides, depleted wildlife, and a greatly diminished potential for sustaining any population, even at the subsistence level which still persisted in the "arrested frontier" regions of the Ozarks. It was a different land from that encountered seventy years earlier by a priest with a hopeful but star-crossed dream.

Between 1935-1940, the Irish Wilderness experienced the beginning of another chapter in its uncertain history: it entered the U.S. Forest Service's system as a part of the Fristoe Purchase Unit. The Civilian Conservation Corps moved in, sending unemployed youth into the wilderness (where they frequently got lost and had to be rescued) to build roads and thin the forest, reestablish pines, and construct fire lookout towers.

Through the early 1950s, there existed the White's Creek Wildlife area. This and similar areas were utilized by the CCC, the Forest Service, and the Missouri Conservation

Commission to reintroduce wildlife, particularly deer and turkey, that were nearing extinction in southern Missouri.

If for no other reason than the sheer inability of anyone to figure out a way of making a sustained profit off of it, the wilderness state began to assert itself once again.

Still, new schemes continued to be hatched. Some local promoters tried, with no luck, to get a hydrogen bomb plant located in the wilderness. Efforts to discover uranium failed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in pursuit of more dam building projects, set their sights on the Current and Eleven Point rivers, threatening to inundate the entire region. An unusually outraged public response delayed that project until more permanent protection became available in 1964 with the designation of the Current, Jacks Fork, and Eleven Point as National Scenic Rivers.

There have been, and continue to be, those who come to the Irish Wilderness with exploitative intentions; but there have also been many who accept the area on its own terms, concluding its best asset to be precisely that wilderness quality which has managed to persevere with remarkable resiliency despite persistent efforts to obliterate it. The vastness and haunting qualities of the Irish Wilderness have left many with a unique and unforgettable impression. It may be that wild places have a more vital role than we might have imagined as refuges of sanity and solitude, and as fragments or evocations of a primordial environment that is vanishing before our spreading civilization with chilling swiftness.

Such qualities may be even more rare and precious than lead.

James Denny is a parks operations officer for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. He has spent much time roaming the cultural landscapes of Missouri, especially the Irish Wilderness.


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