Bridge to the Future

Little Tavern Creek isn’t very impressive most of the time. You could wade across it on all but a few days a year. Beneath its surface, however, lies a swirling confluence of interests that for decades confounded both commerce and conservation.

Little Tavern Creek is small, but it drains an area of more than 50 square miles. Two-hundred years ago, that watershed was blanketed with savannas and forest down to the creek banks. Rainfall trickled slowly through the lush greenery, feeding deep holes where smallmouth and rock bass and a host of other fish and wildlife found homes.

Settlers were attracted to the Little Tavern Creek valley, where they cleared fertile bottomland for crops and hillsides for pasture. Further logging supplied firewood, lumber and railroad ties for growing communities like Meta and St. Elizabeth.

Removing trees allowed water to run into the creek faster. As the years passed, new roads, roofs and parking lots made runoff even faster. With streamside forests gone, sediment ran into the creek. Deep holes gradually filled with gravel. Only the flushing action of increasingly frequent floods prevented the stream from being choked by sand and gravel.

Fast forward to 1998. Vic Kemna was farming 300 acres in northeastern Miller County, including 40 acres in Little Tavern’s flood plain. Having grown up nearby, on Big Tavern Creek, he had a lifetime of experience with area streams. The creek occasionally flooded his fields, but that was just part of farming in the bottoms.

Jefferson City dentist Bill Ambrose was a newcomer to the area. He bought a farm that was a mirror image of Kemna’s across the creek. He wanted to keep his land a working farm while doing what he could to encourage fish and wildlife.

Little Tavern Creek was both enchanting and perplexing to Ambrose. It still harbored 17-inch smallmouth bass and abundant sunfish. However, periodic floods were carving away his most productive farmland. He looked for help and found a couple of allies.

One was Greg Stoner, a fisheries management biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. He helped Ambrose design erosion-control structures to protect vulnerable stream banks. Ambrose provided rock for the structures from a quarry on his land and planted 1,400 tree seedlings along the edge of his bottomland fields. Creating a wooded buffer meant surrendering crop land, but it promised to protect the remainder. The plantings also created habitat for many species of wildlife.

Miller County officials got involved, too.