Pining for The Dwindling Shortleaf

Forests of the Ozark region look much different today than they did 200 years ago. That's largely due to a decrease in the number of shortleaf pine, Missouri's only native pine.

At the time of early European settlement, Missouri, particularly in the Ozark region, had an estimated 6.6 million acres of shortleaf pine. Today, shortleaf pines occupy only about 500,000 acres, a net loss of about 6.1 million acres. Their decrease brought major changes to the appearance and the ecology of the forests they once dominated.

The first European explorers came to the Ozark region around 1800. Their job was to report their observations of these new lands to their employers and benefactors in the eastern states. Their information informed incoming settlers about what types of natural resources and potential prosperity they could expect to find in Missouri. Reports of the Ozarks described a region of rugged, hilly terrain with an abundance of iron, lead, salt, and wild game. Some believe that the iron industry, needing wood fuel for its furnaces, first touted Missouri's wealth of shortleaf pine to lure eastern sawmill operations to Missouri so they would come and supply wood fuel for their smelters.

In "The Missouri Handbook (1865)," Nathan H. Parker described a portion of the Ozarks: "There are millions of acres of land in the southern and southeastern portion of the state, covered with a growth of yellow or hard pine. In Pulaski and Texas counties, up the Piney Fork of the Gasconade from fifteen to twenty-five miles of the railroad crossing, are millions of acres of yellow pine forests. Like many other sources of wealth in Missouri, our pine forests still rest in primeval solitude, waiting the hand of intelligent industry and enterprise to develop their wealth."

In 1865, large sawmills had not yet begun to operate in the Ozarks, but by 1880 they could be found throughout the region, particularly in the Current, Black, and Piney river drainages. Sawmill owners bought land for about a dollar an acre, and they typically cut all pines greater than 12 inches at the base. Logs were sawn into appropriate lengths and transported to mills by rail, wagon or river.

To transport logs down a river during a "log drive," they bound logs together to form a long raft, atop which workers stood to guide the raft downstream. Log drives were sometimes hundreds of feet long, and they occurred year-round.

The period from 1880 to