Magazine article American Forests

Saving a Beanfield Oasis

Magazine article American Forests

Saving a Beanfield Oasis

Article excerpt

Towering hardwoods, canebrakes, and hooded warblers are only a few of the resources at risk in this green remnant drowning in an agricultural sea.

Big Oak Tree is one of 78 state parks and historic sites in Missouri, which celebrated the 75th anniversary of its state park system in 1992. With a modest park fund established in 1917, one year after the creation of the National Park Service, Missouri began acquiring its first parks in 1924. Within four years, it joined the front ranks of the states in the size and quality of its holdings.

Though park advocates had thought initially of a chain of parks centered on the stunningly beautiful big springs of the Ozarks, citizens in other regions of the state organized to ensure that their heritage was preserved as well. No campaign attracted more notice and support statewide than a 1937 effort to prevent the logging of the last remnant of old-growth hardwoods from the great forest that once blanketed "swampeast" Missouri, the northernmost reach of the ancient delta of the Mississippi River. At the time, much of the focus was on a single gigantic oak that has since fallen. But today the very ecosystem is in danger--a classic case of a fragmentary island in an agricultural sea.

This essay, printed with the permission of the University of Missouri Press, appears in Exploring Missouri's Legacy: State Parks and Historic Sites, book edited by Susan Flader and co-authored with R. Roger Pryor, John A. Karel, and Charles Callison. It is available for $29.95 through your bookstore or directly from the University of Missouri Press; phone toll-free 800/828-1894.

If you drive south on State Route 102 from East Prairie, across the table-flat farmlands of Mississippi County, it's easy to pick out the boundaries of Big Oak Tree State Park. The 1,000-acre preserve stands out as an oasis of tall trees surrounded by miles of soybeans, a living time capsule for an environment that once stretched across the entire bootheel of southeast Missouri. Big Oak Tree is a monument to both the original forested wilderness of "swampeast" Missouri and to the dedication of citizens who wished to ensure that at least some part of that once-great landscape would be forever protected from logging and drainage.

Your first impression is of the height of the forest and the size of the trees. The canopy rises to 120 feet, with some of the park's giants grabbing another 20 feet of sky. For a time in the 1960s, this small park was home to nine national champions on AMERICAN FORESTS National Register of Big Trees, the directory of the largest trees of some 750 species in the United States. Tiny Big Oak Tree State Park outranked Washington's Olympic National Park, which had seven champions on nearly a million acres and, in turn, was outranked by only Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which had 15. Today Big Oak Tree is home to at least eight state-champion trees and a national-champion persimmon. One swamp chestnut oak--near the picnic grounds at the park's entrance--has a height of 142 feet and a crown spread of nearly 100 feet, making it Missouri's tallest tree. The circumference of this old oak is fully 21 feet. That makes it only a foot shorter and four inches less in circumference than the giant for which the park was named.

The great bur oak that gave its name to the park lived there for 396 years. Once scheduled to be cut down as a curiosity for visitors to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, the stately tree survived another half-century before finally succumbing in 1952 to tree rot and lightning strikes. So in 1954 the giant came down, but the park it inspired and the bottomland forest in which it grew both lived on.

The big oak and all the incipient state and national champions were found on an 80-acre tract of virgin hardwoods that, in 1937, became the object of an urgent campaign by local residents to save some remnant of their natural heritage. …

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