A single cannon blast sliced through the silence of a quiet morning on a Missouri River bend on July 4, 1804. The crew of the Lewis & Clark Expedition was celebrating the first official observance of Independence Day in the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase territory. The site today is known as Little Bean Marsh Conservation Area, located 30 miles north of Kansas City.
Among the entries in William Clark’s journal that day were observations of extensive prairies, rivers, a great number of goslings, and a clear lake containing vast quantities of fish and geese. He didn’t write about the oppressive July heat and humidity, the “mosquitors” or the hardships endured. Instead, Clark wrote about the abundance and variety of wildlife, which was stunning even to this veteran explorer.
“The Plains of this country are covered with a Green Grass, well calculated for the sweetest and most norushing hay, interspersed with… trees, Spreding ther lofty branchs over Pools Springs or Brooks of fine water… Shrubs covered with the most delicious froot is to be seen in every direction, and nature appears to have exerted herself to butify the Senery by the variety of flours raiseing Delicately and highly… above the Grass, which Strikes & profumes the Sensation, and amuses the mind, throws it into Conjecturing the cause of So magnificent a Senery… in a Country thus Situated far removed from the Sivilised world to be enjoyed by nothing but the Buffalo Elk Deer & Bear in which it abounds.”
His awe of the natural beauty he saw here is a powerful testament to the connection people have always felt for this land. Yet it would take only a generation of early settlers to forge an entirely different Missouri than what Clark had described.
From Wildlife Depletion to Conservation Action
By the 1860s, the insatiable demand for fur, feathers and meat had virtually emptied the forests. Relentless commercial hunting was rampant and unchecked. By the late 1800s, the largest lumber mill in the world came to the Ozarks to feed the booming railroad industry’s thirst for railroad ties and a growing nation’s need for wood products. In 1912 alone, 15 million hand-hewn railroad ties were sold in Missouri. It was also an age when a third of the Ozarks were burned each year in an effort to bring up the grasses for livestock. Missouri’s forests were soon depleted.
By the 1930s, the country was in the grips of the