Here’s a 1903 photo of the Current River in Carter County, Missouri.
Occasionally on my drives through the countryside I’ll come upon a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (or CAFO), which is the “agriculture industry” name for what most of us call a “factory farm.” The first ones I encountered were big turkey and chicken operations in southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas, and of course there have long been the massive cattle feedlots in the western states. About twenty-five years ago I went to a protest for a big hog factory near Unionville, a protest that like many had no effect. The hog operation went in, one of about 500 such operations owned by Smithfield Foods, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the WH Group of China (that’s a picture of it above).
CAFO is a term that has been created in large part to sanitize the image of these operations; “factory farm” is a bit of a misnomer itself because they in no way resemble a farm. “Animal factory” might be a better phrase, but since “factory farm” is in more common use, I guess I’ll stick with that. Factory farms tend to hit the news when there’s a big failure; the disaster that happened in 2018, for example, when Hurricane Florence overwhelmed North Carolina, sending waste from the many factory farm lagoons in that state into rivers and streams. But for the neighbors to factory farming operations, the ill effects don’t need a disaster to be triggered. They happen every day, in the form of dust, contaminant leaching, and overwhelming odor.
I’ve not met Todd Parnell, the recently-retired president of Drury University, although his novel Pig Farm has been on my to-read list for a while. As it turns out, Parnell is also a clean-water activist, and recently someone directed me to his blog, River Rant. I’ll add a link to this blog on my sidebar for easy access. What prompted this direction was his most recent post, in which he describes the unsuccesssful efforts of some environmental activists to get the Springfield, Mo., City Council to pass a resolution criticizing a law passed by the Missouri legislature in its last session. That law prohibits any local government – a county commission, city council, or whatever – from enacting a health regulation on factory farms that is more stringent than state law. Given that the current Missouri legislature is, for all practical purposes, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Big Ag, it’s easy to envision the level of regulation they intend.
Parnell’s activism has focused on protecting Ozark streams, rightly so, since that’s his location, and since the degradation of Ozark streams is highly visible and psychically devastating. So far, the only large-scale, long-term disaster I can think of on an Ozark stream has been the 2005 collapse of the Taum Sauk reservoir, which wiped out Johnson Shut-Ins State Park for several years, caused about a billion dollars’ worth of damage, and turned the East Fork of the Black River into a muddy blob for quite some time.
But sluggish and muddy waters deserve our concern, too. Like most Ozarkers, I’m subject to clear-water bias; one of the important lessons I took away from Leland and Crystal Payton’s book Damming the Osage was that activists who opposed Truman Dam faced more difficulty because the Osage at that location was not especially “scenic” in the traditional sense. Unlike the uproar over the proposed damming of the Current, Eleven Point, or Meramec rivers, those opposed to the damming of the Osage couldn’t draw on the emotionally powerful images of lonely canoers, crystalline springs, and hidden caves. And thus we have Truman Lake, gradually silting up in its western arms, while the other rivers still flow free.
But back to the most recent act of the legislature and governor to shelter Big Ag from local regulation. The degradation of rural America sometimes happens in dramatic and visible ways, a hurricane or a dam collapse; but more often it happens invisibly, incrementally, through tax policies that cause neglect of essential infrastructure, ideologically-driven decisions that lead to the closing of hospitals and clinics, and laws like this one, which give large companies free rein to override the concerns of the communities where they locate. Apologists for Big Ag often resort to the “farmers feed the world” line, a classic example of the either/or fallacy, as if productive farming can only happen in a regulation-free environment.
These people invariably refer to farming as “the agriculture industry,” which reveals their underlying mentality. Of course, industrial methods have been used in farming ever since the Industrial Revolution began, and horse-drawn machinery was replaced by tractors. And farming can be a pretty noxious enterprise, even under the best of circumstances; ask anybody who grew up near a mink farm. And I resist the impulse to call farming a “way of life” as a contrast to an “industry”; that phrase has a fragrance of nostalgia that doesn’t sit right somehow. I think of farming, or agriculture if you will, more as a significant element of the rural economy and culture – not the only element, to be sure, and not an occupation that has a magical power that would free it from all oversight – but certainly something worth cherishing and guarding. And a factory farm is not a farm, but a factory.
The Tivoli Theatre in St. Louis recently hosted an Ozark Streams Film Festival! I was unable to attend, but was impressed by the list of films.
Luckily for us non-attendees, the festival organizers have posted links to all the films on their website. I plan to watch all of them, one by one, whenever I feel the need for some Scenic Rivers relaxation but can’t get away for a float trip.
Readers of books on Ozarks culture and geography are probably familiar with Leland and Crystal Payton, whose earlier works, Damming the Osage, Mystery of the Irish Wilderness, The Beautiful and Enduring Ozarks, and others, explore elements of the Ozark experience in a reflective and sympathetic though unromanticized way.
Now the Paytons are out with a new book, James Fork of the White: Transformation of an Ozark River, which treats the James Fork (or James River, depending on your choice of nomenclature) much as Damming the Osage dealt with its river: exploring its culture, its notable inhabitants, its controversies, its geography and hydrology, its history, and ultimately its submersion into a manmade lake, in this case Table Rock Lake, which swallowed up many miles of what had been one of Missouri’s great float streams. The James gets less attention than other Ozarks rivers; it doesn’t have the national recognition of the Buffalo, Current, or Eleven Point, nor the long sinuous might of the Osage. But the stories gathered from along the James, and the variety of its topography as it flows west from near Seymour, skirts the southern edge of Springfield, then abruptly heads south through Galena to its meeting with the lake near Kimberling City, make for a book that should be on the shelf of anyone with an interest in the Ozarks, its streams, or its people.
James Fork of the White is an oversized book, 352 pages with full-color illustrations from start to finish. Many of the illustrations are photographs by Leland Payton, whose work has documented the Ozarks for decades. Payton’s photographic gaze is contemplative, sometimes wry, and often focused on the human artifacts that have marked the landscape over the generations: old bridges, buildings, the remnants of milldams and springhouses, signs, and sometimes (though not insistently) an actual human. The overlook-at-sunset-in-autumn photo is not to be found – or if found, is likely to be a tad off kilter. Just as valuable in the illustrations are the vast numbers of historical images the Paytons have collected, including postcards, maps, clippings, pamphlets, labels, and other ephemera. Taken together, the historic images and the contemporary photographs create a rich visual portrait of the James River watershed.
The text of the book, as with Damming the Osage, consists of brief vignettes about people, incidents, and landscapes within the region, grouped together into chapters that converge on a broader topic: the geography of the region, the upper river, the Springfield section, and the famous float trip stretch from Galena to Branson, for example. Each chapter covers a number of topics within that broad subject area, each typically taking two to four pages before moving on. Like the images, the text covers an immense variety of subjects. There were some I was dimly aware of, some I was familiar with, and many, many that I’d never heard of before. The Paytons, who live in Springfield, have made this river a particular project of documentation, and this book covers everything from forgotten industries and settlements to recent controversies over pollution and development.
I found the saga of the creation of Table Rock Dam and its lake particularly interesting. I suspect I am not alone in assuming that Table Rock originated in the wave of flood control public works projects of the mid-twentieth century, part of the “big dam foolishness” chronicled in Elmer T. Peterson’s book of the same name, but I was surprised to learn that the dam had its roots much farther back. The book details the plans of multiple entrepreneurs to dam the James as early as 1908, plans which were thwarted and resuscitated over the decades as the winds of politics and economics shifted. James Fork of the White treats the creation of Table Rock Lake with evenhanded understanding. The lake has brought immense economic development to Branson and the surrounding area, but that development came at the cost of the permanent inundation of hundreds of miles of valleys, farmland, and settlements. The James Fork’s legendary Galena-to-Branson float, itself a tourist attraction in its own right, was lost to the more mechanized allure of deep flat water, stocked trout, and big bass fishing.
James Fork of the White is a book I will return to again and again, both for the richness of its images and for the variety of its information. For residents of Springfield and the White River valley, and for anyone interested in Ozarks history and culture, this is an indispensable book.
Bagnell Dam, Big River, Black River, Bourbeuse River, Clearwater Lake, economics, flooding, Huzzah Creek, Jacks Fork, Marble Hill, Meramec, Missouri, Mountain View, Neosho, Ozarks, Piedmont, rivers, Seneca Mo, Steelville, Table Rock, Wappapello Lake, West Plains
Ozarkers, and those who follow the Ozarks, have been stunned by the widespread flooding that occurred after the past weekend’s heavy rains – more than 10 inches in many areas – and the road and bridge washouts that have happened as a result. (Follow “Love My Ozarks” on Facebook if you want to see the latest crowd-sourced photos and videos.)
If you live in a region of narrow valleys and steep hills, you get used to occasional washouts, and even the occasions when the little creek that runs through town gets out of its banks and floods Main Street. That creek, after all, is usually why the town was there in the first place. But this “rain event,” as the TV people like to call it, was historic. Instead of one town getting the big flood from an intense storm cell, as is usually the case, this time the whole region suffered. Seneca, Neosho, Mountain View, West Plains, Steelville, Marble Hill – towns from one side of the state to the other took the hit.
The flood-control dams at Clearwater and Wappapello, and the combo flood control/power generation dams like Table Rock and Bagnell, did what they were designed to do and held back the floodwater until they reached maximum capacity, and then had to begin releasing water through their floodgates and spillways. The resulting downstream flooding will no doubt be less than it would have been had the dams not been there, but creeping development in downstream areas also means that the damage to property will be more costly.
Meanwhile, as the Big, Bourbeuse, and Huzzah all pour their waters into the Meramec, folks in the lower regions of that river gear up their sandbags to protect as much of its valley as they can, a valiant effort regardless of whether the flooding on the Meramec is exacerbated by earlier human actions. The governor has already had his mandatory photo-op filling some sandbags and has activated the National Guard, but the real work – and by that I mean the work that will tell the difference whether the towns of the Ozarks will survive in the long term – will begin in a few weeks.
Most of the small towns of the Ozarks have a tenuous hold on prosperity to begin with. One economic blow can have immense consequences for the people who live there. When the Wal-Mart in Piedmont closed recently, that closure took more than $200,000 out of local tax revenue, a blow that cannot be remedied in any short or medium term. And in a region that is already disproportionately populated by poor folks and retirees, one can’t just fix the shortfall by raising taxes. All over the region, governments and businesses will be cleaning up the mess, and then they’ll be faced with the decision of whether to try to start over or just give up.
But Ozarkers are not good at giving up. They are, as the saying goes, three kinds of stubborn. So over the next months and years, I hope to do my part to help the region the only way I can, and the only way that makes a long-term difference: by visiting the area and spending some money down there, particularly with those mom-and-pop businesses that don’t send away a chunk of their earnings to the National Headquarters in some distant location, but recycle it into their community as small businesses everywhere do.
The news out of Oregon is not good. A few armed crackpots have taken over the unoccupied headquarters building at a wildlife refuge in order to protest the incarceration of a couple of ranchers who were convicted of arson.
Nobody should break the law in this way. But the history behind this standoff goes a long way back. And Ozarks residents probably hear some familiar notes in the complaints of the ranchers. In a smaller and more geographically limited way, the creation of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways caused the same kind of wounded feelings, and had an impact on the lives of longtime residents, as the actions of the Bureau of Land Management did out West.
Any time a government agency moves in to take control of land for a perceived greater public benefit, or to take ownership of privately owned land, the same tensions will come up.
Here’s an interesting article on the history of land acquisition by the National Park Service for the Ozark Riverways.
Word comes through the news that the Missouri State Park system is creating a new park on the site of the former Camp Zoe. This is about 90 percent welcome news.
First, the good-news part. A tract of this size, this close to the Current River, is almost impossible to find. Had it been sold to a private developer, it would likely have been parceled out into speculative five-acre lots with the promise of future improvements that would likely not have occurred. Almost every county in the Ozarks has one of those would-be vacation paradises sitting undeveloped and abandoned, with a few one-acre, two-acre, or five-acre lots bought and built and the rest waiting for the inevitable tax sale. Or, it would have been developed into an exclusive private preserve, sealed off from public enjoyment for decades to come.
In addition, Sinking Creek has become one of Missouri’s few naturalized trout streams, and the odds of that creek remaining a favorable habitat for trout dramatically improve with a portion of it under state control and oversight. I don’t expect the park system to try to develop it for trout fishing, since there are already plenty of good trout parks in the state, but my point is that there will be a much closer watch on the total ecosystem in that area, which has already suffered plenty of environmental insults in the past.
Finally, there’s the economic benefit. Shannon County is a depressed area by any measure, and even the simple boost of the massive construction project alone will provide a big one-time jolt to the local economy. The ongoing benefits are impossible to measure, but they will be positive. Ask any local resident who lives near Sam A. Baker State Park, Cuivre River State Park, or Elephant Rocks State Park whether they’re glad to have them nearby. The local legislator quoted in the recent Salem News article about the park, who called it a “threat” to the “rights and the money of the taxpayers,” was spouting politicized nonsense of a special order.
But there are concerns as well. First, I’d have to say that the economic benefits are being oversold, as we also see in the Salem News article. The magical “multiplier effect” of economic benefits is a common trope of those is the public development biz, but I’ve never seen it touted at the laughable, nonsensical ratio of 26:1 before. That’s just nonsense. Leland and Crystal Payton, in their admirable book Damming the Osage, describe the sad history of economic wishful thinking as it applied to the creation of Truman Reservoir. This project doesn’t involve the kind of large-scale destruction that one did, of course, but it’s worth keeping in mind that forecasts of economic paradise are always baloney.
I’m also mildly concerned about all the talk of this park being described as appealing to the “upscale market” and other such code words for “people who spend more money than the usual state park visitor.” It’s true that state parks have to pay something back to the government for their maintenance and upkeep, but let’s not forget that a park system is a public trust, not a profit-making enterprise. A state park that chases too much after the luxury clientele that is better served by a private resort has forgotten its purpose for existence — to provide recreation for all the people, not just those who can afford it. Let’s hope the managers of this new park keep that mission in mind.
OK, the Forest Service calls it “Sutton Bluff,” but we always called it “Sutton’s Bluff” – I don’t know which is correct. It’s on the West Fork of the Black River, a dozen miles west of Centerville, far enough upriver that it’s not really floatable. The river at that point is little more than a creek (see photo below), but by some wonderful stroke of luck, the river has a delightful swimming hole at that spot, with lots of water most of the time, a broad gravel beach, and the Bluff itself rising eighty to a hundred feet above the river.
It’s not as peaceful and quiet as some locations because of a nearby ATV/motorcycle trail, so be forewarned. There’s also a trailhead for the Ozark Trail nearby; I’ll write about the Ozark Trail another time. Because of its isolation, the Sutton Bluff area is well populated with common water snakes and copperheads. Just another word to the wise. I’ve known folks who came across timber rattlers up on top of the bluff as well. Continuing west from Sutton Bluff on the gravel road will take you through one of the longest stretches of uninhabited forest in the state, and that by itself is reason enough to go there!
Photos from the Ozark Trail Association’s website.
The recent legal move by the Ameren Corporation to “abandon” a 145-mile stretch of rail line opens the way for a second cross-Missouri hiking and biking trail to be created. There’s a long way to go, but this is exciting news for anyone who loves the outdoors, especially in the Midwest.
The line, which was once part of the Rock Island Line (which as we all know, is a mighty good road), skirts the northern edge of the Ozarks, from Windsor southwest of Sedalia to Beaufort in western Franklin County. The Katy Trail also goes through Windsor, so the two trails would connect there.
I spent a while with my topographical maps today checking out the route of the rail line. It runs through some very wild country, nothing with special grandeur, but oh my goodness some of the vistas along this trail will be outstanding! There are crossings over the Osage River (above) and the Gasconade, and the line follows the Osage for several miles. These sections in themselves would be enough to make me celebrate. But I also think of the wild sections between so many quiet Ozark villages – Gerald, Rosebud, Owensville, Bland, Belle, Freeburg, Meta, Eugene, Eldon, Versailles, Cole Camp, Ionia – even the names are like a roll call of fascination. I don’t know this part of the country well, hardly at all really, but am excited to learn it.
Would this trail ever develop into the kind of serial B&B-and-winery trail that the Katy has become? I doubt it. It’s more remote, farther from urban centers, and the countryside is less hospitable to the casual visitor. But I think it will develop a character of its own, one that will appeal to a different sort of traveler, and will become a valued destination for people wanting to discover an overlooked part of the Ozarks.