Midway through “Missouri River Country,” there is a satellite map that shows how dense development in St. Charles County runs into the Busch and Weldon Springs conservation areas and abruptly stops. The protected areas have so far held the line against urban expansion.
Upriver, between the conservation areas and Hermann, a restored German settlement, is an enchanted valley blessed by low density land use where people grow North American grapes for Missouri wine, groundcover in interlocking trays that can be assembled into green roofs, vegetables for St. Louis locivore restaurants and native trees for environmentally conscious landscapers.
Washington University in St. Louis readers will recognize many of the 60 contributors to “Missouri River Country.” Peter Wyse Jackson, PhD, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and the George Engelmann Professor of Botany in Arts & Sciences at WUSTL, tells the story of the Shaw Nature Preserve.
It was originally a “disaster preparedness site,” he writes, a refuge to which the garden’s plants, particularly its famous orchid collection, could be moved to protect them from the coal smoke that polluted the city in the 1920s.
William H. Danforth, WUSTL chancellor emeritus, contributed a short but moving essay to the book. Standing on the bluffs of the family farm overlooking the Missouri River, he remembers the people who came before him and those who will come after.
WUSTL graduates pop up here and there throughout the book. At the turn of the century, St. Louis water was so muddy it had to be left to settle before it could be drunk. The mayor promised clear water for the 1904 World’s Fair, and a WUSTL-trained chemist came up with the flocculating agents that let him keep his promise.
Joan Stack, PhD, who earned a doctorate in art history in Arts & Sciences at WUSTL, contributed the chapter on painters Thomas Hart Benton and George Caleb Bingham, the first of two chapters about river paintings.
“Missouri River Country” was edited by Dan Burhardt and his wife, Connie, whose farm and vineyard is protected by a conservation agreement. All proceeds from the sale of the book go to the Katy Land Trust, Magnificent Missouri (a group that organizes fundraising events to benefit conservation and environmental groups) and The Nature Conservancy.
The enchanted valley
The land along the Missouri River has remained idyllic because the river never became a commercial thoroughfare. One of the book’s contributors, who has lived on the river’s banks since the 1930s, describes how hydroelectric dams built on the river under the Pick-Sloan Plan of 1944 made it unnavigable above Sioux City, Iowa. “Most of the traffic on the river is the Corps maintaining the river,” he writes.
But despite efforts to tame the river, building or planting in the floodplain is still a risky proposition. The spur of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, commonly known as the K-T, connecting to St. Louis, was built inside the floodplain. After rebuilding it repeatedly because of floods, the railroad abandoned the line between Sedalia and Machens in 1986. That stretch was converted to a 240-mile-long bike trail, the Katy Trail, the nation’s longest rails-to-trails project.
The story of the Katy Trail is emblematic of this book that discusses history, art, food and water quality but returns again and again to the creation of nature preserves or conservation easements — legal agreements that restrict future development according to the landowner’s wishes and ensure the land will stay in open space, agricultural or forestry use.
Many of these efforts to conserve land began in strife. The Busch and Weldon Spring conservation areas exist today because the U.S. Army took the land from 200 families at the beginning of World War II, burning their houses and churches to make room for an ordnance works.
Even the Katy Trail was controversial. The opposition argued “that hikers and bicyclists would trash the route, and frighten and maim livestock,” and that “city-born ‘thugs . . . would use the route to rob remote farmhouses.”
The constitutionality of “banking” railroad land in the form of a trail had to be decided in court.
It’s clear the contributing writers love the land along the river, its vineyards, historic towns and century farms, but the effort to conserve must push against strong pressure to use.
Peter H. Raven, PhD, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden and the George Engelmann Professor of Botany Emeritus at WUSTL, reminds readers that the global human population currently uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and will need the equivalent of two planets by the 2030s. What will happen to Missouri’s enchanted river country then?