Conor Watkins' Ozark Mountain Experience
Article 64&65 Combined
By Conor Watkins

The Mark Twain National Forest
The "Lands That Nobody Wanted" Become A "Land of Many Uses"

The Mark Twain National Forest, Missouri’s only National Forest, covers a large portion of the Ozarks.  The forest is managed in a way to conserve its resources and allows both recreational and commercial users to coexist while making sure the forests will be useable in the future.  Forest management in Missouri started in 1933 after decades of mismanagement led to disastrous environmental and social problems in the Ozarks of Missouri.  In the early 1930’s, both state and federal governments realized something had to be done.

Miners were the first group of settlers to permanently inhabit in the Ozarks.  They extracted lead, iron, and other minerals from the Ozark hills for over 200 years prior to the 1930’s.  Mining was limited at first but activities increased rapidly during the 1800’s.  Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an early explorer who traversed the Ozarks in the winter of 1819-1820, noticed that mines were often extensive, but poorly managed.  Mining wastes, often from lead smelting, were not recognized as being toxic and just left on the ground.  Cattle grazing in areas with such wastes often fell ill, lost weight, and sometimes died.

Other settlers followed the miners and land was cleared to grow crops and provide pastures for grazing livestock.  Cattle and pigs were also turned loose to forage in nearby forests.  This practice that led to the destruction of much vegetation.  Lumber was also needed for building materials at mining operations.  Miners used wood fires to cook, heat, and power steam driven locomotives and steamboats transporting materials.  One of the miners’ largest uses of timber was to make charcoal, which was then used as fuel to smelt and process the various metallic ores found in the Ozarks.  This use led to the denudation of land surrounding many mines, including the Maramec Iron Works in Phelps County, MO.

The furnaces at the Maramec Iron Works required a constant supply of charcoal
to process its product.  This led the the deforestation of the surrounding area.

Mining in the Ozarks began to decline after the Civil War as larger mines in the eastern United States began extracting ores at more economical prices.  Operations in the Ozarks did continue well into the early 1900’s, although at a declining rate.  As mining disappeared, the timber industry began to take over.  Many men took up the occupation of hacking and/or rafting ties.  This practice involved the cutting and shaping of railroad ties by hand.  After being cut, the ties were hauled to the nearest river and tied together to form large rafts, which were then floated downstream to market.  Many of the ties cut from the Missouri Ozarks were used in the construction of the Trans-Continental Railroad.  The town of Grandin, MO was home to the world’s largest sawmill during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  The cutting of all this timber soon led to uncontrolled erosion.  Large gullies formed as soil was washed away.

Farmers then took over land that had been cleared of its timber.  At first, the land produced crops but erosion of the soil led to the decline of such farms in a short period of years.  Farmers practiced the annual burning of the forest, as they believed that doing so would enrich the soil and clear out snakes and ticks.  This only increased productivity for a short while, as the burning of vegetation encouraged erosion.  Soon, pigs, goats, sheep, and cattle overgrazed the remaining vegetation, further aggravating the erosion.  Six to eight inches of topsoil washed off the slopes, resulting in rocky and unproductive hillsides.

Wildfires were common, as there was no management of the forest to prescribe burns or put out fires.  The combination of fires and erosion resulted in the clogging of streams with sediment and ash.  Once productive floodplains were also covered with debris and sediment.  The resulting turbidity of the water destroyed fish habitat and clogged fish gills.  Much of the cherty gravel present in today’s Ozark streams is left from this era of uncontrolled erosion.

The lack of vegetative cover on the hills allowed most precipitation to run directly into streams.  River flows became more extreme, resulting in larger, more frequent floods and smaller low flows.  Flooding in the Ozarks soon became a regional problem.  Although the Ozarks make up less than four percent of the Mississippi River watershed, they provided over twelve percent of the Mississippi River flood flows in the early 1900’s.  During the disastrous Mississippi flood of 1927, the Ozarks provided an even more disproportionate share of the water in the flood.   Although this figure is suspect and may be on the high side, historic literature states that more than 38.3 percent of the water came from the Ozarks during the 1927 flood.  It seemed the Ozarks were either on fire or in flood, making people aware that the state and federal governments needed to take action.

Wildlife surviving habitat change also faced other problems.  Settlers often shot all animals on sight whether or not they were needed for meat, as they didn’t realize such hunting would harm populations in the long run.  Streams were over fished, sometimes using dynamite.  Populations of most game animals all but disappeared by the early 1930’s.

Social problems resulted from the unsustainable use of the Ozark landscape.  When lumber companies exhausted the timber, jobs disappeared, and most of the unemployed ended up turning to agriculture to make a living.  These farmers went through the typical cycle of growing crops and then livestock once the land gave out.  Eventually the land was unable to support livestock, which resulted in farmers and their families living in extreme poverty and having to sometimes rely on government assistance.  The flooding, erosion, and poverty reduced the ability to maintain roads and schools.  The lack of adequate educational facilities led to widespread illiteracy in certain regions of the Ozarks.  Some settlers simply stopped paying taxes and gave up their lands.  To make the situation worse, the U.S. was experiencing the Great Depression at the same time.

The Clarke-McNary Act, which allowed for federal funding and cooperation with state universities and forestry programs, was passed in 1924.  In 1928, a Department of Forestry was established in Missouri to reduce the widespread burning of forests.  The department did not last and was abolished in 1931 when the Governor cut funding for the program.  The State Forester also resigned and stated that it was impossible to control fire in the Ozarks.

Although the United States Forest Service (USFS) was created as part of the USDA in 1905, it wasn’t until 1929 that concerned citizens formed the Missouri National Forest Association to encourage the State Legislature to establish National Forests in Missouri.  These citizens included faculty at the University of Missouri who knew of the USFS and its work in the area of natural resource conservation.  They also know that jobs were created in the process.  In 1933, they lobbied the State Legislature to pass the Enabling Act, an act allowing the USFS to purchase lands in Missouri.  At first this act limited the USFS to purchase only 25,000 acres per county.  Due to this restriction, the early units of the National Forest tended to be concentrated near the boundaries of counties so that the areas would be easier to administer.  Eight sections known as purchase units were created.  Four in southwest Missouri were named Table Rock, Pond Fork, Gardner, and Gasconade while the four in the southeast were named Clark, St. Francois, Fristoe, and Wappapello.  The USFS in Missouri was originally headquartered at Springfield.

A state tourism map from the 1930's (exact date unknown) shows six of the units
which would later become parts of the Mark Twain National Forest.  It is likely
that this map was created before all 8 units were established, as it was published
somewhere between 1933-1937.

<Click map for larger image>

The legislature soon increased the limit and allowed the USFS to purchase 100,000 acres in each county.  The restriction was removed altogether in 1935 and the USFS began to look to consolidate its existing holdings.  The four eastern units were consolidated into the Clark Unit while the four western units were combined into the Gardner Unit.  Although the Clark unit was left bearing the name of Missouri Senator Champ Clark, the Gardner Unit was considered for renaming.  Over 20 names were suggested.  These included the names of famous people with Missouri ties, the names of nearby locations, and natural features.  Perhaps the most entertaining suggestion was made by James N. Diehl, the Gardner Unit Supervisor.  One of his suggestions was to name the area “Hill Billy National Forest.”  He realized that the name might receive negative publicity but countered that the local slang term “Hoosier” better applied to the negative connotation associated with “hill billy.”  In the end, Mark Twain won out over the rest of the suggestions, as Twain was considered the most recognized Missourian at the time.

Map showing original distribution of Missouri's National Forest Units.
The four hatchured units became the Gardner and then Mark Twain National Forest.
The white units became the Clark and later were merged into the Mark Twain
National Forest.
From "U.S. Forest Service Program In Missouri (Gardner Unit)", 1935.

During the early years of the National Forests in Missouri, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was employed to help in the restoration of the land.  More than 100,000 young men from Missouri worked to plant 43 million trees over 36,127 acres, revegetate 29,475 acres of range land, and construct 111 lookout towers to aid in fire control.  The CCC also built 26 fish rearing ponds which stocked Ozark waterways with a total of 1.2 million fish, constructed 165 miles of foot and horse trails, developed 1,055 acres of campgrounds and picnic areas, built over 1,500 miles of truck roads, and constructed other improvements too numerous to name.  Some of the more noticeable and enduring legacies of the CCC are the stone gateways, cabins, and other structures built throughout public parks in Missouri and other states.  The CCC was disbanded in 1942, as most of the young men in the program left to sign up to fight in World War II, but it is recognized as one of the more successful New Deal programs.

Early efforts focused on clearing out dead and fire damaged timber.  Even after restoration began, problems, mainly fires, still plagued the forests.  On Easter Sunday of 1937, a massive fire burned over one third of the Ozarks.  This fire resulted in the first sale of salvaged timber in the forest.  Much was learned in following years and fires burned less of the forest every year.  Open range grazing gradually decreased until it ended in 1969.  Other programs continued to restore the vegetation and wildlife of the forests.  Perhaps the most influential factor in reducing the burning of the forests was education.  Movies were shown to locals at store, schools, and other locations.  The Smokey The Bear program was added in 1952 to help educate citizens about forest fires.

At the same time, the Missouri Conservation Commission (now Missouri Dept. of Conservation) worked to conduct wildlife research.  Laws were passed in following decades, and hunting seasons slowly returned as wildlife populations were restored.

In June of 1973, both the Clark and Mark Twain National Forests were headquartered at a single office in Rolla.  On Feb 17, 1976, both forests were officially combined and named the Mark Twain National Forest.  The USFS continues work to conserve forest resources today by controlling fire, restoring land, and providing public education.

Modern day MTNF map.
With the exception of the Cedar Creek District, the other districts of the MTNF
somewhat mirror the original purchase units for National Forests in Missouri.

Although the USFS has made great strides in protecting Missouri’s forests, old problems such as fire and erosion continue, but at a much diminished rate.  New challenges have arisen in recent years, some of which result from the early management on the National Forest units.  When the Ozarks were first settled, the land was covered with a mixture of pines and hardwoods of varying ages.  When the trees were harvested, the variety of tree species in the Ozarks declined, as frequent fires killed pine saplings before they could mature.  When the USFS stepped in and groups including the CCC replanted the treeless areas, most trees were planted within a ten year period of time.  Today’s trees, especially red, black, and scarlet oaks, are entering their old age life cycle (70-80 years) simultaneously.  The combination of old age and a mild but prolonged drought have led to the decline of these oak species in Ozark forests.  Fungus and insect infestations have taken their toll.  Perhaps the worst culprit is the oak borer, which attacks weakened oaks.  The once native pines now seem to be slowly making a comeback, as they are better suited to the Ozark climate, which experiences intermittent droughts.

Fire control is a constant concern in today's MTNF.  This helicopter
uses water from Wilkins Spring near Newburg, MO to put out a nearby fire.

Additional Picture of Helicopter

Today’s Mark Twain National Forest (MTNF) comprises over 1.5 million acres in 29 southern Missouri counties and makes up 11% of all forested lands in the state.  Since the establishment of the first National Forest Units in Missouri, much has been done to improve the value of the MTNF and in terms of recreation, timber, and agriculture.  Today, the MTNF is being managed to provide for recreational and commercial uses.  The United State Forest Service motto “Land of Many Uses” is reflected in today’s management policies, as the goal of the forest service is to maintain the land while allowing sustainable use.  Such a policy will allow future generations to harvest and enjoy the forests.

This area close to the Mill Creek Recreation Area holds both forests and
agricultural lands.

The public is most aware of the recreational opportunities provided by the MTNF.  Recreation areas are scattered throughout the forest and several are located within a reasonable drive of Rolla.  The Lane Spring Recreation area is located closest to Rolla and accessibly via a 13 mile drive south on Hwy 63.  This area features a scenic spring, campgrounds, picnic areas, playgrounds, hiking trails, and other amenities.  Day use and camping fees apply.  For more information on the Lane Spring Recreation Area, see

The Mill Creek Recreation Area, located southwest of Rolla near Newburg, provides picnic areas, camping, hiking/biking/equestrian trails, hunting land, and excellent examples of Ozark scenery and landforms.  The popular Kaintuck Trail runs through the area and covers up to 15 miles depending on which portions are traveled.  This trail supports hiking, equestrian, and bicyclist use.  More information on the Mill Creek Recreation area may be found at

The author stands next to Yelton Spring, an intermittent spring in the MTNF near Newburg, MO.

The Berryman Recreation Area is located near Potosi. Although getting here involves a slightly longer drive, the location features one of the longest hiking/biking/ATV trails in Missouri.  The scenic and remote 24 mile Berryman Trail connects to the more extensive Ozark Trail, which is a joint effort between a variety of government and private agencies.  The Ozark Trail runs through much of southern Missouri.  See for more information.  Berryman also features campgrounds and picnic areas.  The scenery at Berryman is typical of that seen in the Ozarks.  Clear spring fed streams flow through the rugged hills of the area and make for a scenic, remote recreation area.

The Paddy Creek Recreation Area is located to the southwest of Ft. Leonard Wood and also offers hiking, camping, picnicking, and excellent scenery.  The area is home to the 17 mile Big Piney Trail, which traverses the ridges and valleys of the rugged Ozarks.  This trail is very remote and offers postcard style views of the Big Piney River in multiple locations.  An excellent review of the trail may be read at

Silver Mines, located between Ironton and Fredericktown, is one of the more interesting recreation areas in the Mark Twain National Forest.  The site is located in the St. Francois Mountains, which consist of Precambrian igneous rocks.  The rocks, landforms, and scenery are extremely different than what is seen in other parts of Missouri.  The site features the remains of Missouri’s only silver mine, camping, picnicking, fishing, and several miles of hiking trails.  For more information on this area, see

The above is just a sampling of the recreation areas available in the MTNF.  Other recreation areas of equal interest exist within the MTNF but are located farther away from Rolla.  For more information on all recreation areas, see

The Mark Twain National Forest also produces a variety of products for industry and has helped drive the economies of small towns located throughout Missouri.  Missouri is a leader in both the mineral and wood products industries, with much of these resources coming from the MTNF.  Although Missouri still produces a consistent output of wood products, stands of trees in the state have been on the increase.  Missouri produces products made from pine, oak, walnut, and other tree species.  Higher quality wood is used to make barrels, bowls, furniture, and other products while lower quality wood and leftovers serves to make pallets, shipping crates, mulch, and charcoal.

One of the more controversial uses of National Forest land in Missouri has been lead mining.  Missouri contains one of the largest deposits of lead in the country and the world, with much of it lying directly beneath the MTNF.  Millions of dollars are contributed to the local economy and the forest service itself through lead mining.  Although this mining contributes greatly to the economy of the rural Ozarks along the Viburnum Trend, some believe that lead mining does irreversible damage to the environment.  Many deposits of lead are located near some of Missouri’s most beautiful springs and rivers, which is concerning to environmentalists.  There is concern that lead mining might damage these resources.  On the other hand, improvements have been made in the mining/processing of lead and the reduction of its impact on the environment.  The mining industry and environmentalists consistently battle over how lands containing deposits of lead ore should be managed.  The debate over how to manage this resource will likely continue for decades.

When the first National Forest Units were purchased, they were often referred to as “the lands nobody wanted” due to the fact that they were left essentially useless from years of abuse.  Those visiting the areas today will find the forests are once again productive and beautiful, thanks to the management of the U.S. Forest Service, Missouri DNR, and the Missouri Department of Conservation.

A setting sun creates a scenic picture of the Kaintuck Hollow area of the MTNF.
Kaintuck Hollow is located in the Mill Creek Recreation area near Newburg, MO.

Thanks to Charlie Gill of the Mark Twain National Forest for copies of informative historical documents, The United States Forest Service (, (,, the Missouri Department of Conservation (, U.S. Forest Service Program in Missouri - Gardner Unit (1935), “The Naming of a Forest” by Kay Hively, “The Lands That Became The Mark Twain National Forest” (1989 – author not known), “Missouri-Illinois Forest Picture” by John D. Woerheide, “Toward a Vision For Missouri’s Public Forests” (1992), and “The Way Things Were” (author/date unknown).

(C) 2006 by Conor Watkins