Where the River Bends

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Published on: Oct. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

Half the citizens of Missouri now have a 4,318-acre conservation area on their doorstep. It's the Conservation Department's Columbia Bottom area, located at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers on the north edge of the St. Louis metropolitan region.

The Conservation Department bought the tract from the city of St. Louis to provide an urban conservation area for residents. It's several times the size of the city's vaunted Forest Park, a comparison that provides most people a way to understand how really large it is. But unlike a city park, it's going to provide hiking and biking in a rural landscape, provide fishing and hunting and also give people a view of the meeting point of two of the country's greatest rivers.

Columbia Bottom Conservation Area occupies almost all of a sweeping curve in the Missouri River as it meets the Mississippi. It also includes an adjoining 110-acre island. Some 3,300 acres are now in crop fields, with much of the remainder (about 900 acres) covered with forest. The crop fields fall inside a levee that encircles much of the tract; the forest lies largely outside the flood protection provided by the levee.

According to the Conservation Department's conceptual plan, land and resource management efforts at Columbia Bottom Conservation Area will be directed toward creating a mosaic of bottomland habitats. This will include wetland, forest, grassland and crop land. Once these diverse habitats are established, a variety of management techniques such as prescribed fire, mowing, water manipulation and agriculture will be used to maintain them.

Tom Leifield manages Columbia Bottom for the Conservation Department. Lots of people are bouncing their ideas for use of the area off him. "People are telling me we shouldn't build any roads at all (the area already has 16 miles of farm roads) to suggesting we build a tall lookout tower down there at the confluence of the rivers. Opinions really vary.

"We want to do good things for the natural resources and for wildlife habitat at Columbia Bottom," Leifield says, "but we know that public use and recreation are going to be a huge part of whatever we do, too. Some of the access roads and facilities might need to be a little more elaborate than what we would normally do on a conservation area."

As an example, the conceptual plan calls for a boat launching ramp on the north end of the area; Leifield says the road to

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