Wildlife Progress Spans Three Careers at Peck Ranch
Great conservation achievements often span several professional careers, so those who start them don’t always live to see their work come to fruition. Larry Houf is lucky in that respect. He not only is seeing the fruits of his labor; they have become a family legacy.
In the early 1980s, Houf took over management of Peck Ranch Conservation Area (CA), 23,000 acres of rugged, forested land in the heart of Missouri’s Ozark Plateau. His first challenge was figuring out what the land wanted to be.
The idea of using “ecological land types” to guide wildlife management is taken for granted today, but back then it was revolutionary. Before Houf could begin his task, he had to peer back through the mists of history. Peck Ranch CA’s history included more than a century of European settlement, iron smelting and cut-and-run logging. That history had obscured much of the evidence of the plants and animals that once inhabited the area. Fortunately, Houf had a guide book of sorts--a collection of maps of ecological land types painstakingly assembled by another MDC worker, Tim Nigh.
The maps revealed a landscape vastly different from what confronted Houf. Where he found cedar thickets, Nigh’s maps showed sun-baked glades with wildflowers and prairie grasses. On moister hillsides Nigh’s maps showed woodlands with a mix of trees and grasses. Ridges were clothed in grassy savannas, with scattered trees. Towering stands of shortleaf pine-–almost entirely absent in Houf’s day--covered large areas of Nigh’s maps.
Houf knew why the original vegetation had disappeared. The mystery was why it had not grown back after the homesteaders, miners and loggers left. He found his answer in earlier history--all the way back to the Paleo-Indian Period 12,000 years ago, when the area’s original inhabitants had set fires to manipulate the landscape to their advantage.
Once he realized that fire had been an important influence on Ozarks ecology for thousands of years, it was obvious to Houf that he needed to bring fire back. He became an advocate of “prescribed burning,” done under controlled conditions with clear management objectives rooted in an understanding of fire’s ecological effects. Acceptance wasn’t immediate, but by the time he retired in 2001, fire crews were burning as much as 1,000 acres at a time on Peck Ranch.
That might have been the end of the Houf family’s conservation saga. However, Houf’s passion for conservation had kindled the same spark in both his children. His daughter,