It's in Our Nature: A Podcast Celebrating the Connection Between People and Nature
We're sharing inspiring stories and lifting up the people and partners making positive impacts on conservation in Missouri and beyond.
It’s in Our Nature is a new podcast that shares inspiring stories and highlights Missourians who are making positive impacts in our communities and to conservation at large.
"I feel fortunate that on a regular basis, I get to be deeply involved in conversations with partners and colleagues celebrating the large and small wins of our work," said Adam McLane, Missouri State Director—and host of the podcast. "We hope you enjoy this dive into some of those conversations."
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Collaboration for Water Quality
Episode 4: Guests talk about what they are doing to protect the quality of Missouri's rivers and streams.
Opening: You're listening to It's in Our Nature, the podcast that celebrates the connections between people and nature with host, Adam McLane, The Nature Conservancy's Missouri state director. For more information, visit nature.org/missouri.
Adam McLane: Hi everyone. I'm Adam McLane, Missouri state director for The Nature Conservancy. Thanks for joining us today. This is episode number four of our podcast, where our goal is to share stories that highlight the connection between people and nature and the amazing things that can happen when we work together. Today, we are talking rivers and streams. We're lucky here in Missouri to be surrounded by some of the most beautiful rivers running through the Ozarks and the state. We're going to talk with two people who are dedicated to improving our water resources through practices that they are implementing on their own land and what they are doing to help others who want to sustain and improve our rivers and streams. But before we get started my request always as if you like this podcast, share it with others. So joining us today, all virtually by zoom, tis the season for that for the first time ever in our long four episode podcast history we have, I haven't had anybody face to face to talk to in the studio. So I'm looking at two screens and they are as well, but I'm excited to talk to both of them. So Rachel Hopkins is a county engagement specialist in agriculture and environment for MU extension and one of TNCs partners with her family farm on the Huzzah Creek and Mike Kromrey, who's the executive director for The Watershed Committee of the Ozarks. Thank you both for joining us so much today.
Mike Kromrey: Glad to be here. Thank you.
Rachel Hopkins: Thank you for having us.
Adam McLane: All right. Let's get started. I'm going to start since we're in two parts of the state Mike's down in the Springfield area and Rachel is in the Huzzah watershed, which is over on kind of mid-Western or mid-Eastern part of the state. So I'm going to start with Mike and just having him tell a little bit about himself and then we'll bounce to Rachel, and we'll just kind of figure out how to counter conversation about the shared theme that we're talking about, which is water and streams. So, Mike I know Mike pretty darn well, and we've had great days of field and pretty recently we're fishing. What was it? The SAC? He promised me millions of fish and we caught like eight. But it was still a blast. So, Mike, tell us a little bit about The Watershed Committee of the Ozarks.
Mike Kromrey: Yeah, The Watershed Committee of the Ozarks is a nonprofit organization working to protect the drinking water in Southwest, Missouri since 1984. In order to keep our water clean and make it cleaner we focus on projects and education. So we have a robust watershed center, lots of field trips and education for students of all ages kindergarteners through engineers professionals, and then a lot of a groundwork out there in the watershed where we try to install practices, it'll make the water cleaner for the future. And an interesting connection, I think, between the history of The Watershed Committee and The Nature Conservancy is both were sort of formed out of crisis. Here in Springfield, Missouri, our water supply was jeopardized our drinking water lake called Fellow's Lake had algae blooms and our water tasted bad and the community got together and said, hey, how can we fix this? And one of the outcomes of that, that conversation was the formation of The Watershed Committee and our mission to keep focused on our local water supply and water quality. So anyway, it's an honor to do the work and we're making some headway, I think.
Adam McLane: I would completely agree. I think you're doing amazing things down there and thanks for doing it. Rachel, how about you, a little introduction about you and it's always hard for listeners in my mind to like get themselves somewhere when they're just listening to words. It's sometimes hard to make them feel immersed in, in a place, but I would love it if you could do that, if he can kind of take us to your family farm in Davisville, Missouri and Crawford county. And just tell us a little bit about the history of how you and your family came to partner on that management.
Rachel Hopkins: Okay. Sounds good. So just to kind of give the listeners a description of our place, our farm lies, it's nestled in the Huzzah valley. So just think of a moderate sized creek not necessarily a large river, but a moderate size creek. We mainly have the river bottoms and then upland hills from that. So, it's fairly rugged. It's very stony ground, not very good for crops or traditional type ag that everyone thinks of. They used to plow it. But then I guess in about 2010, 2011, we stopped, which made things go a lot easier to be completely honest. Our ground is very rugged, very hilly, lots of trees, lots of brush, upland pastures, natural springs, just traditional Ozarkian grounds. They're not conducive to anything but growing grass, trees, and cattle, that that's really what it's conducive for. So our family farm was purchased by my great-grandfather in the mid-1930s. He purchased the original track for a, actually a retreat for his salesforce. He worked for Warever. He purchased the original farm and then about the mid-1940s, he moved down there full-time out of St. Louis, right as World War II was beginning. They gradually added onto the farm and everything. And it came to compose about 1100 acres by the mid two thousands. So, we put it, or my family put it all together. And dad and I started partnership in 2012 when my grandfather passed. So, this a little back history as well in the 1947, 1948, when my grandfather came home from the second world war, they started a dairy farm and they dairied until 2000. In 2000, they stopped the milking and then they went full-time to beef 2012. My grandfather passed and dad and I formed a partnership. And that's when we slowly started to do more conservation work. There had been a lot of not adversity, but a lot of hesitation by my grandfather due to some of the practices that were tried to be shoved down throats with the Meramec dam and different things that had happened. He was very averse to giving too much control away and working with too many organizations from those experiences. So, we had hesitation. What led to it all the start of it was back in 2009. We started, we, we were having a lot of erosion in our stream banks. We worked with MDC and Ozark land trust to bevel banks. That was our first experience. And we fenced out of the Huzzah at one of the farms.
Adam McLane: ok
Rachel Hopkins: It was a very, it was stepping out into that unknown step. I mean, you just did not see a step there. Very, very unknown. So we made that leap, and we found out we didn't die. Everything's still held together. And in some ways, it made the management easier because then we weren't trying to maintain cross fences on th Huzzah. It made things easier. That was the first catalyst. The second catalyst out of that was through that beveling of the banks, we met Abigail Lambert with Ozark Land Trust. And late 2009, I believe a piece of property came up for sale. Mom and dad purchased it with the help of Ozark Land Trust, and they put it into the first conservation easement so that we figured out we didn't die with that one either. And we had to fence out of the Huzzah and everything with that figured out we didn't die. So that was another little baby step. And then we started doing more practices. Dad sent me to grazing school in the fall of 2012. So, we could participate cost-share. We didn't really know what we wanted to do, but we knew we wanted to do something. Start, start something. I went to it thought this is never going to work, but I did it to check the box, to get the money. We started doing more and more practices. We found out we didn't die. It was so we were becoming more and more receptive to it. The Beckham Place, what we call the Beckham Place is about a 500-acre tract of land up at Davisville. And in 2000, and I guess it was 14, we installed the watering system. We did miles of fencing up there, excluding Rock Branch, which is a tributary of the Huzzah at different, we did several different items that moved us to the catalyst of working with The Nature Conservancy. I guess it was in 2016 or 201, Rob Pulliam with MDC came to us and said, we think we have a partnership with you guys. We kind of need a guinea pig here. The Nature Conservancy and Steve Herrington is wanting to do a project here in the Huzzah. We need a guinea pig. We think you guys would be a good fit because you've got everything lined up together. We said, okay, let's, let's see what this is about. Right. And so that's what led us to doing the big practice with Steve Herrington and The Nature Conservancy was that contact with Rob Pulliam and Abigail Lambert and all the work we had done before then. So, each step was a little baby step that has brought us to today. We didn't plan to come in. We didn't ever plan to make it today, but this is where we let up from all the little baby steps that we took.
Adam McLane: I love it. Thank you for walking us through that. And I'm excited to explore a little bit more about what the project was in a second, but I want to pull Mike in by saying how, how much did that resonate with you? The, the, the required leaps of faith that we either take ourselves, or we have to ask people to take to move a little bit, to gain confidence and trust in things that involve conservation ring a bell?
Mike Kromrey: Yeah. So much. Rachel, I was just glued to your story. And, and I have a question along those lines. Would you say that trust you know, you said you found out you didn't die at each step, but would you say that building trust with the folks who are working with was a part of the reason that you continue to take additional steps?
Rachel Hopkins: Absolutely. Absolutely. Without that trust there, we would have never made it to where we did. We trusted Abigail, we trusted Rob. And that was after knowing them on a personal level, a personal level for seven, eight years, we trusted them. We probably would not have had that trust if a year into it they would have come to us and said, Hey, do you want to do this? We wouldn't have had that trust. We've become very good friends with them. And that having that personal relationship, that personal trust and the knowing that they're looking out for not only our interests, but the interests of the land, the interests of the water quality of making something better, that has helped as well. In addition to reaching their organizational goals. So, trust is a huge component of it. If you don't have the trust, you don't have that partnership.
Adam McLane: Yeah. And I it's. So it's so neat to see corollary things across the whole state and actually across the whole field of conservation. I mean, I was just a while ago to a levee setback project that we were working on up near Rock Port. And you all, all our listeners will have a have a podcast to that showcases that work. But Governor Parson came up for that visit for a visit there and a round table discussion. And there was some quote along the lines of like everything good comes from relationship. Like it's always, the secret sauce is always going to be relationships when you pull off big projects. So, so Mike talked to us a little bit about the work that you do with Watershed Community of the Ozarks, and how you, I don't know, like give us a flavor of a program down there that you, that you work with.
Mike Kromrey: Sure. and I'll just echo that the more I'm in this field, the more I realize it's all about relationships. So, some of the programs that we're, we're proud of and we think are a little bit innovative are I'm talking with you from the watershed center. This is a hundred-acre nature center type situation nestled on the edge of Springfield. And we've done field trips here for a long time, but on the education front, the, the real secret sauce has been working with the school district. Springfield's actually the largest school district in the state, and we've worked with their curriculum coordinators so that what we teach here about water and the environment is all connected and correlated within the curriculum of the schools. And so, they can come out and do hands-on environmental education, place-based experiential. And what we're teaching is what the teachers need us to teach. You know, we've, we've aligned that all up. And we, we operate the site sort of like our own little Sand County like Leopold, Sand County Almanac. We put a lot of love into this property and learning a ton of lessons along the way about habitat restoration. And I think we set out to teach about the site because of all the different karst water features, but as much as anything we've ended up learning from the site and applying that elsewhere. We can talk more about it later, but one of the things is sort of organically sprouted out of our need and desire to be stewards of this place was the formation of the Watershed Conservation Corps. For a long time, we were out in the, in the woods hacking at Bush honeysuckle with volunteers and making a little bit of progress, but we've, we've found a way to train young people with and employ them, pay them a decent wage to learn the skills of stewardship of habitat restoration and water quality improvement, and apply that to a bunch of different situations, whether it's green infrastructure in the city or doing riparian buffers out in the country. And you know, we have a fantastic team and that goes to our board and our staff, and then this wonderful community.
Adam McLane: No, it's not a result of your leadership. So, how did that come to be?
Mike Kromrey: (laughing) Yeah, we're, it's, it's really not. We're, we're standing on the shoulders of giants here. But here's one odd and special tradition we have that I credit for this tremendous and deep partnership ethic we have here. Once a month, we host a community meeting and talk about water. And for over 30 years, people have been getting together at 7:30 on Friday morning, the first Friday of the month. And learning about water, we always have a presenter. We have a chance for everybody in the room to share events or ideas, and then a chance after to chat, drink coffee, build those relationships. So truly, we have a foundational wealth of relationships and it's, it's kind of awesome when it's a water related challenge or a water related opportunity down here, it's just not hard to get people around the table focused on all the different aspects of a common goal. So, I'd have to say it's one of the most satisfying and heartening things to be a part of, it's a great community and good work to do, so.
Adam McLane: That's awesome. I love that tradition. And we do have this theme of relationships which is great. Now carry that into the question for you, Rachel, which is your, you also work with the University of Missouri extension as a community engagement specialist. I assume, you know, relationships are critically important there and it takes a while to build them. But I also like in addition to telling us a little bit more about that position and how, how to go about doing that, I'm intrigued to hear both of you talking so much about terrestrial stuff, you know. Rivers and streams, and that we're at, we're talking about stabilizing things. We're talking about cutting down bush, honeysuckle, stewarding the land. How are those two things linked up Rachel, and in your mind.
Rachel Hopkins: They really go hand in hand. I, you, you look at conservation along the rivers and promoting good habitat. It really goes hand in hand. To me, I think a driving force is looking back and seeing what we look, what the ground looked at, or look like essentially 150 to 200 years ago. And that's a huge misconception. I think that we have had is everyone thinks the Ozarks used to be this huge, vast forest. And in reality, there was a lot of upland savannah. There were the big trees, the big, big forest that areas that people expect today, they were isolated, or they were in the river bottoms. They weren't covering the hills. You had upland savannas; you had these huge grasslands that are not there anymore. So, I think taking that back and bringing that approach, trying to convert something or trying to make it look like what it did is incredibly important. Not only to water quality, because we look at the water degradation that we've had. It's due to a lot of different factors. So, combining the two, making the two go together, you got your warm season grasses, you've got your native grasses, you have good grazing management. That that's a lot of it, whenever it comes to livestock is decent grazing management. And having people realize that and realize how they can essentially benefit the environment because large herbivores, you don't have good land management - you've got to have that. So, it really all comes together. And if you can work towards better water, water quality from a livestock perspective, you have better animals. You have a better story to tell.
Adam McLane: So Mike, you talked a little bit about the Watershed Committee's Conservation Corps, but tell us a little bit more about that and how the size and scale of that right now.
Mike Kromrey: Sure. So, the Watershed Conservation Corps we started at about four years ago, we're in our fourth summer of operation and it all started with a small community conservation grant from the Conservation Department to work at Valley Watermill and improve our habitat. And we ended up hiring a person named Caleb Sanders who happened to be in town and had been working with conservation corps across the country. And as he was working for us, he identified that there was a major gap in the Midwest of conservation Corps to serve this area. We were in a donut in a, in a vacant the area that the closest ones were like Minnesota and Arizona that were doing work in this area. And a lot of our federal partners needed it says to conservation corps because it's easier for them to get work done through the conservation corps mechanisms. So, he saw the opening and I saw a need, which is we're applying green infrastructure more and more in our urban environment. We're having more and more interests, rurally in native plants and restoration. These things have to work. We've seen some green infrastructure projects fail. And usually it's, it's due to a lack of either skillful installation or skillful maintenance. And so, you know we're preaching all the time about how we need to have nature in our cities and use nature to clean our water. And, but we're, we're at this place where city crews don't really know how to take it care of it. So, we definitely saw the need and just sort of started by the seat of our pants. You know, we didn't have any big investment and fast forward now, four years, employing I think we'll be employing over 20 people this summer doing this conservation work. And the income from it is, is actually greater than all of our other or income sources for The Watershed Committee, now it's basically doubled in size sheer, and I think they're going to do four or $500,000 worth of business this year. And we've, we've established that the demand just is, is continuing to grow. And for us being a, basically a locally focused nonprofit, one of the big epiphany's this year was what we really need to do is double down and work more locally. So, we set ourselves a, basically a 200-mile radius from Springfield as our, as our project area. So, we are doing some work in Arkansas. We're doing work with private landowners, federal partners our city and our county and city utilities here in Springfield. And it's pretty exciting because what a great, you know, if you're in college and you're learning about all this stuff or maybe you're not in a natural resources field, but it's meaningful work. You get to learn, and you get to take care of a place. And we find that it's a really deep and rich experience for our corps members and our youth that we hire, and we're excited about it. Thanks for asking about it. It's, it's been a cool program and neat to watch it evolve so quickly.
Adam McLane: Yeah, I am really I'm really impressed by that growth and just hearing the, the demand that it can produce that much revenue. I mean, that's great. That's a business model working to move forward conservation, which is the epitome of people in nature, thriving together. You know, the stories that we try and come up with of examples where these things really work, and this is possible. That's a shining example of that working. So thanks for sharing it with us. What's in the green bag. I know, I know listeners can't see this picture, but if you can imagine Mike sitting in the chair in this office and there's kind of a kitchen over on the right, and then sitting behind him on this table as this like mysterious green gift bag. And I, I I'm distracted. I haven't even heard a word you've said through most of this podcast because I just want to know what's in the bag.
Mike Kromrey: Yeah. it's, it's fantastic stuff, Adam. We had a board meeting last night and these are the leftover gift bags. And what is in there is all the swag from our new Fellows Lake operation. So we have this really cool logo and there's a coffee cup in there and some stickers and a, you know, the little foam things. You put your boat keys on float. Yeah. Key float.
Adam McLane: Can you save me one of those bags?
Mike Kromrey: Yeah. I'll, I'll put your name on that one.
Adam McLane: Thank you. I put applied pressure on them on, and then it's recorded. So, this is great stuff. I was hoping it was something good in there and I could claim it. Rachel, you mentioned a project with Steve Herrington being the first one that where you worked with Steve and The Nature Conservancy introduced by Rob and all of that stuff. What was that project? Can you tell us a little bit about what that specific project was and how it worked?
Rachel Hopkins: Yeah, I'd love to. So that initial project covered close to between a quarter and a half mile of stream bank. If you could stand there imagining there was about an eight to 10-foot vertical bank from where the Creek was up to the top and it stretched along two different places. So, what they did is they came in after they got the permitting process and jump through hoops and we had to have an archeological dig done on it to make sure nothing was being disturbed. It took about a year and a half to get through all of those hoops. Finally got in there and what Steve and his team did. I believe it was water force or water resource solutions. They came in and they harvested trees off of our place. That was our contribution to it. They went in, they harvested trees, they took whole tree lengths, roots, tree, trunk. And in all they moved, I don't know how many hundreds and hundreds of trees from the hills down to the stream bank. They dug back the stream bank, and then they created essentially a wall with the root wads sticking upstream. And they buried these trees in the bank, 30 to 40 foot back and layered them in and sandwich them in and then put whims in there, and they created this huge mass. Once we saw what they were doing, we realized this is going to work. And on one site, so they're do to the permitting process they were able to get one site done. I believe in early spring, the other site, they had to stop due to bass spawning or something like that. For whatever reason they had to stop. They picked back up in the fall, the second site they did in the fall before we could get a lot of good vegetative growth on it, we had a pretty good flood hit. It did a little bit of damage, but they came back in and they rebuffered the area that was having issues. And it was where Rock Branch was dumping into the Huzzah. So, it was a tricky place anyway. And now I believe that at some point here, they're going to come back and do the place above Rock Branch, that compromised, that were blew out. So, it seems pretty simple. It's incredibly complex. And the way Steve described as he is such a good, he's so good at translating what, how this is going to work together into easy terms for people who don't have water engineering skills to understand, but it was an incredibly complex process. We actually gained about 30 foot of bank with them doing it with them beveling the edges and doing all the stuff that they did. It's an incredible project that we have shown off to a lot of people. We had people from the state come out, DNR and NRCS, I think maybe even the Corps came out. We've had a lot of different people come out and look at it. It's not necessarily a new practice, but it's new for that watershed. And new for the area. So it it's one of the few ways to stop erosion. As long as you start and end at solid points. It's really an incredible process. That is one of the few that can work.
Adam McLane: That is awesome. Thank you for walking us through that. And, and yes, Steve is really talented at, at describing things in a way that's understandable, probably because he has to talk to me a lot, Rachel. So, he has to like, he has to dumb down stuff a lot and he does good at it. Cause I just used in, in a, in a podcast previously recorded with the Army Corps of Engineers. We started talking to engineering and I basically just started describing sandcastle making. Cause that's the only thing that can make sense to me from engineer's standpoint. But when I think of stream bank stabilizations, I was like picturing like a you're just like building this giant sub sandwich, right? Where you put the, you gotta pull, pull this thing out and you gotta put down a good strong foundation. Then you start layering stuff in there and buttoning it all down. And in the case of stream bank stabilizations, then you're throwing some condiments on top or something and that's in the form of willow staking and all the other stuff, the mats that go there, but you're building this strong, layered thing, which represents what nature would have done. Right? I mean, it wouldn't have been a singular thing that the original, what nature had there was a lot of deep intertwined, root wads and other stuff that was holding it up. And I saw Mike's face since I had the luxury of looking at him on zoom. Light up when you talked about bass spawning. And so Mike, have you, have you floated the Huzzah before and, or gone down that for small mouth? I know you love to chase small mouth.
Mike Kromrey: Yeah, absolutely. And that I was going to ask Rachel about that. I grew up in Sullivan and Franklin County and the who's on the Coda-Way and the Meramec, those were floats streams that we frequented. So, Rachel, have you had any fishing reports, post your river work?
Rachel Hopkins: I know my husband who likes to fish. He walks around it and looks and fishing's his deal. It's not mine. I prefer the cattle, the fish are just, if it's not suckers, I don't care to eat it.
Mike Kromrey: Well, you have good taste as a, as a gigger on the Meramec. I can tell you there's nothing finer. So that's good.
Rachel Hopkins: No, but it seems like there's a lot of fish that liked to get up under the root wads. Now for fishing, it, I'm not sure how easy that is now because the lures, I think get hooked out a lot more stuff. But I, it looks like the fish enjoy it.
Adam McLane: I agree, I think they, they become little fish factories. Those, those bank re-stabilization like that, that have all that structure below the water are just dreams comes through for fish.
Rachel Hopkins: Yes. Yes.
Mike Kromrey: Well, if you ever need anybody to do any sampling of the section for small mouth bass, I'm sure you could talk Adam and I to come in and out.
Rachel Hopkins: Yeah. We'll just go, go to the Davisville portion and then work your way north.
Adam McLane: All right. That's awesome. So Rachel, did, I, I had some notes down here that said you won conservationist of the year award for Women in NRCS, and that was recognizing all the work that you've done on this land. Is that right?
Rachel Hopkins: Yes, that is correct. I guess it was back in 2019. It doesn't seem like two years ago, but I was nominated for that by Sandy. She works for NRCS and she nominated me. I didn't even know I was nominated. We were at a conference meeting up in Columbia and I knew she was going to be talking. And then she started talking about this award and all of a sudden, she started saying who the recipient was, didn't say out a name. And I'm like, oh my gosh, that's me. And I was blown away by it. Absolutely blown away.
Adam McLane: That's really great. Well, I know it's well-deserved and you've been a remarkable partner to us and many other people in your family have down there. So, thanks for all the work that you're doing. If you, you know, thinking of your initial description of little baby steps and not dying along the way, I, I can completely assume that it's overwhelming for people when they look for the look at even the suite of potential conservation practices that they could use on their land and think about trying to implement them. Would you give like any piece of advice to landowners who might want to try and implementing some of conservation practices.
Rachel Hopkins: Start very small. Start with easy things, start with things that, you know, you can digest. An easy one for people who want to start, for so for us a little bit of background, it's much easier for us to work with MDC programs because we've got that really good partnership with Rob Pulliam and Jeff Dierking. So, we work a lot with MDC programs, not discrediting Soil and Water or NRCS programs, but there's a lot more hoops with those. I like less hoops. If people are lucky enough to live in a priority geography area. And I believe there's 11, nine or 11 Missouri priority geography areas here in Missouri. They can do a lot with MDC - MDC's got a lot less paperwork. And once again, I'm not promoting MDC over any of the others, but if you're looking to start small and easy, a lot of times, those are less complicated. Woodland fencing, if you've got some bluff areas or areas that you know that can never be cleaned or are essentially not useful for anything, but your livestock get into them. And it's a pain to manage it when they do get in there. MDC's got a really good woodland fencing program, super easy to do. Fencing out ponds is another one. That's incredibly easy for folks to participate in. If they build a new pond for their livestock to water out of, and they put a watering system at the bottom of it and you in one of those priority geography areas, and I'm not sure about the other geography areas, I'm sure they can participate, but I don't know the specifics of if you don't live in a priority geography area. I mean, fence it out with, through MDC. You benefited yourself by helping to promote the stability of the pond cattle aren't getting in there, so they have better water quality. If you want to stock it with a few fish, you don't have to worry about the fish getting torn up or anything like that. Your pond's not going to get silted in as fast, due to livestock getting into it. I, it really, it's a benefit all around to do those small programs. Once you, once you start with those, start working your way up Soil and Water and NRCS, they've got great programs. If you want to go out and do a bunch of rotational grazing, but it takes time to get to that point. You just don't go out there and jump into it in a week. It takes time to build up and starting with baby steps, makes it much more palatable for people.
Adam McLane: Isn't that the story of life right there, baby steps start small, gain confidence, take a bite off a little bit more, have trust in the people that you're taking those steps with. Love it. Thank you so much for that, Rachel. Mike on the congratulations front I think, did I hear right that you got the you recently got a USDA regional conservation partnership program grant to help our waterways? Congrats my friend, tell us what that looks like for Green County and what plans are.
Mike Kromrey: Great. We were awarded $2.1 million. It's a one-to-one match. So, we're looking at a $4 million project, but let me, let me make a very complicated effort, as simple as I can. And it really is built on hundreds or thousands of small steps to this point. So, here in our community we have realized that our farmers and landowners, private landowners are not our biggest challenge to water quality. They're our biggest opportunity. People like Rachel and her family, that's our biggest opportunity. And what we've also realized through some pretty hefty modeling is that we, we run this model called the sustainable return on investment model. And this is looking at all the different ways. We can make our water cleaner. Our city utilities, they provide the drinking water and they are interested in water from a source water standpoint. And the dirtier water is the more expensive it is to treat and deliver. Our city and our county have federal requirements for the quality of water leaving our city. So, they're interested in nutrient removal and sediment removal. So how do you do that? You can build bigger treatment plants, you can implement street sweepers, you can do engineered solutions. So that's, they put all these different ideas of how to make water cleaner into this model. Here's what came out on top, $3 return on investment for every dollar spent on rotational grazing practices, riparian, buffers, even education outreach like we do at the Watershed Center was one of the highest return on investment scenarios.
Adam McLane: Did you just rig the survey to come out exactly how you, did you just rig the model to come out exactly on how you wanted it? Is that what happened?
Mike Kromrey: (laughs) Nope. I didn't feed the engineers any information. This is, but boy, was it a validating? It, you know, we, we operated on belief I think for a long time and it really was validated. And now we have money. We have dollar figures that we can put to this. And also, it makes sense too, because working upstream on the land, we're getting at the sources of the pollution issues rather than trying to treat the symptoms on the backend. And here's the best part. We can improve our local farming economy. We can make more resilient farms, farms that not only grow more and better cattle, but sequester carbon and increase soil health and make stream corridors that are not only stable, but more beautiful. And perhaps even have their own uses like a growing fruit and nut trees or, you know, permaculture situation. So you know, it's a big, complicated project, there are 10 partners. And as Rachel mentioned, the NRCS, isn't exactly the most user-friendly scenario for putting cost share dollars on the ground, but it's very good. And it's the only funding of this magnitude that we had available. And we actually think that we're gonna be able to do enough practices in a concerted enough effort in area that we will be able to see the water quality needle move. And our benchmark is where we suck it out of the James River into our drinking water supply. We have really excellent data for 30 years on that. So, we're going to be able to see how well we're doing. That's exciting. Yeah.
Adam McLane: That is exciting.
Rachel Hopkins: Mike, I think that what you said there is incredibly important for today's environment of an attack on agriculture and livestock agriculture that we are having. And that farms specifically livestock farms can be a benefit and can be part of the solution and working together with partners rather than a flat-out elimination of them. There is, there is so much pressure to reign in or to eliminate livestock. It depends on what you hear from what source, but even eliminate livestock. And with that, you remove a huge, you remove something that can contribute to this, to a solution dislike carbon sequestration. You have to have the herbivores out there for good sequestration. You look back at the grasslands of the west; they had the huge herbivores moving through. It can be done correctly, and it can be done very badly, but livestock can be a part of the solution as well, rather than just a flat-out abandonment of it. So, I think that's a very good story that you're telling there that it can be part of the solution.
Adam McLane: I agree. Thank you both for reinforcing that message. And that's exactly what I mean, everything can be even the best of things done can be done in an, in the wrong place or in the wrong way, or, I mean, renewable energy can be a great thing, or you can fragment a bunch of landscape because you put it in the wrong spots. And so, there's this, there's no silver bullet that, that fixes conservation by getting rid of this other thing. It's always this partnership of people in nature, finding ways to reinforce each other balance, each other, sustain each other and the needs of nature and of people. And I think you both just captured that really well. So I'm, before I wrap up, I am going to ask I I've just had this curiosity, Rachel, you've got a little one, I think, it's a girl, did I hear her in the background a little bit earlier?
Rachel Hopkins: Correct. I had to shut the door earlier because she was relaxing on the couch watching some cartoons there, but yeah, she is five getting ready to turn six.
Adam McLane: All right. So I have to know. Or do you have any hopes of her taking over as the next generation to steward the land that you're working on?
Rachel Hopkins: Of course. I mean, there's always that hope. I know I always had that want to. I remember from an early age that want to, I know my dad did not pressure me into it, and that's something I'm trying to not do with her. It's incredibly hard because I have a huge passion for it. But you always have hope. So, you never know what the future will hold, but if, without hope what future is there?
Adam McLane: Love it. Thank you. Well, in those, in with the words of wisdom like that I'm going to give you each a, an opportunity as we wrap up to, to say, just if there's one thing from your work in Missouri's river, that you'd like people to know, what would that be? It's if that's a, as generic in general, as a question is, as I possibly could throw your way, but it's because sometimes there's nuggets that you, that you want to share with people and this is a good format to do it. So, if there's one thing from your work that you want to share, what is it Mike,
Mike Kromrey: A hundred feet of trees. Let me, let me explain that a little bit more, but a hundred feet of trees. So, we visited the Stroud Water Resource Center in Pennsylvania a couple of years ago, and they've done most of the preeminent work on water, quality and rivers and Clean Water Act legislation and things about biodiversity and streams and dam impacts. And, you know, they they've really boiled that down to the best thing you can do for a river is a hundred feet of trees. That's about what it takes to get the full value of the stabilization of the soil, of the removal of nutrients and bacteria for many overland flow or sheet flow or surface flow coming into a river. And if I had a magic wand and could just make things appear, I would just protect a hundred feet of repairing area up and down every single foot of stream and river in Southwest Missouri, or how, you know, the world, whatever. But like especially in the Ozarks trees do so many good things for the river and it'll be fine until you start to eat into that riparian, that forested riparian area. And that's when the trouble occurs. So that's that.
Adam McLane: A hundred feet of trees. I like it. And do you want to, I know you have a son before he thinks that you cussed on a podcast. You want to spell dam impact?
Mike Kromrey: (laughs) D-A-M.
Adam McLane: Okay. Okay. Got it. Okay. Well done. Rachel, how about you? One last thing.
Rachel Hopkins: So, I think it takes a give and take on both the organization and landowner. I know that's what dad and I have encountered a lot is the organizations they want X, Y, and Z and X, Y, and Z does not always fit with the landowner or what the situation is. For us for example, is we have the way our ground lays, you can't always give that a hundred-foot buffer because you've got roads there. You've got other, you've got things there that cannot be moved without a whole lot of impact. And so that's what we have come back to time and time again, is there is no one size fits all is you have to have a give and a take from both the landowner and the organizations that you work with. That that's our biggest obstacle that we have faced is there is the hard, fast rules that organizations want that do not fit with the landowners. And that's the biggest reason why a lot of landowners don't want to work with organizations is because of the lack of flexibility. That you have got to have flexibility on both ends for the whole for the pie to be made. So that that's the biggest, that's my kind of closing. You have to have give and take on both ends, and it cannot be one way or the highway. You have to have flexibility and compromise and working with each other to see where the needs the wants and what can be done, where it lies. And with the understanding that creeks are moving a living organism, almost that move with the ebb and flow, and they may ebb one way and flow another and you for fencing for everything else, it cannot be set in stone. You have to have a give and a take. So that's kinda, my closing is, is a give and a take with both
Adam McLane: Love that and I'm sure I'm Mike would agree. I can look, see if I get the thumbs up from him. Yes, I get thumbs up. And think even things like the a hundred, a hundred feet of trees, I know the space that we all work in and that Mike works in and that, that involves flexibility and having desired outcomes that are shared is what makes the world go round. So, thank you to our guests for joining us today. It was awesome. Really appreciate your time here. And for all that you're doing to protect our water resources.
For more information about the stream bank project on Rachel's farm that we talked about, you can go to nature.org/HuzzahCreek. And for more information about The Nature Conservancy and what we do in general, visit nature.org/missouri. And then if you want to reach out to the Missouri Extension office, the best way to do that is through extension.missouri.edu. And if you need to make contact or learn more about The Watershed Committee of the Ozarks, their website is watershedcommittee.org. Thanks for listening and be sure to subscribe to our podcast so you can catch future episodes, take care.Collapse Transcript
Episode 4: Missouri has some of the most beautiful rivers, streams and creeks running throughout the state. In places like the Ozarks, those streams are home to species that exist nowhere else on earth. Protecting out water resources is critical for people and nature.
In this episode, you’ll hear from Mike Kromrey, the executive director for The Watershed Committee of the Ozarks, and Rachel Hopkins, a farmer and county engagement specialist in agriculture and environment for MU Extension.
We’ll discuss the projects, practices and people who are dedicated to improving our water resources through practices they are implementing on their own land and what they are doing to help others who want to sustain and improve our rivers and streams.
Moving a Levee on the Missouri River
Episode 3: A collaboration of partners who came together to move a levee on the Missouri River to benefit people and nature.
Opening: You're listening to It's in Our Nature, the podcast that celebrates the connections between people and nature. With host, Adam McLane, The Nature Conservancy's Missouri state director. For more information, visit nature.org/missouri.
Adam McLane: Hi everyone. I'm Adam McLane, Missouri state director for The Nature Conservancy. Thanks for joining us today. This is episode number three of our podcast, where our goal is to share stories that highlight the connection between people and nature...and the amazing things that can happen when we work together. And if there was ever a story to tell that falls into that category of amazing and people working with nature, instead of against it, this is it. We're excited to be a part of this project and excited to share it with you all today. But before we get started, one request, it's the request I always give in these podcasts. If you like it, please pass it along to somebody else. Joining me in the studio is Barbara Charry, who is our floodplain and nature-based solutions strategy manager in Missouri; and joining us via zoom - on the other side of the state is Corina Zhang, who's an engineer with the U.S. Army Corps Engineers - Omaha district; and Regan Griffin, who's a board member of the Atchison County Levee District. So today we're going to talk about how these people and a host of other partners and community members moved to levee. You heard that right...we moved to levee! So let's jump into it, Regan, well first thanks for joining. And second question-wise, just help us all understand Rock Port, where is this place? Just take us there. What's the community like. What makes it special?
Regan Griffin: Yeah. Yeah. So Rockport is in the very Northwest, well, actually first I want to say good morning. Thanks for, thanks for having me on, but yeah, Rock Port's in the very Northwest corner of the state of Missouri. It's funny actually, when you talk to some folks when you start talking about how far up it is, they think, well, wait, we're still in Missouri at that point...cause we're, we're our closest big city is actually Omaha, Nebraska. So
Adam McLane: That's right...you're almost near Canada, I think. Is that right?
Regan Griffin: Yeah, we can, you know, I can see it from my house. As someone once said. But yeah, you know, it's, I feel like it's one of those towns that's like all the country songs, which is why I think people in small towns like country songs, cause there's one traffic light you know, just everything revolves around the school or revolves around life, in the small town. You know, it's, I think the big thing that makes it special town is very bonded together. I know we've been kind of growing up here as a town where it felt like we supported the youth well, and we still do just a town that cares for looks after each other care for one another. Just love to love to be people who are good to one another. So I think that describes it well.
Adam McLane: That's awesome. Well, on the country theme, do you have a dog and a truck?
Regan Griffin: (Laughs) No, I have a truck I haven't got a dog yet, although my two daughters want us to get one soon, so I'm sure that'll happen
Adam McLane: (Laughs) Very good, thank you. And you, you help run your family farm there. Is that right?
Regan Griffin: Yeah. Yeah. I just came back in 2018 to take over Griffin Farms. So I've been doing it...my family has been in the farming business for about a hundred and well since 1860. So a fourth manager in that time. So it's been a long time.
Adam McLane: Wow. Okay. And then I'm also going to jump over here to Corina. So Corina welcome. Do you want to introduce yourself just a little bit and then I want to hear about how you were brought onto the project.
Corina Zhang: Yes, good morning. And thank you guys so much for the opportunity to come and chat with you guys. And it's like, I'm getting to hang out with all my good friends here. And yeah, great question of when we, when I was brought onto this project. So I was brought on you know, pretty early in the project. So I worked with the Corps and my role was one of the resident engineers. So I'm on the construction side of the Corps. And one of my earliest memories I remember was actually working with Regan and it was a bunch of us engineers and I think it was like the levee district. And this was after we had decided you know, realigning, the levee was a good idea or setting it back. And we were in like this little office and somebody like put a Sharpie in somebody's hand and said, okay, where would you draw it?
Corina Zhang: (laughs) And we were, we were looking and trying to draw out like, so what would, what makes sense? And you know, I remember talking about all of the real estate and all of the different landowners, you know, being part of the conversation. And I remember talking to to a few people and people's faces were like, oh, that's not gonna work about alignment's not gonna work. And and then when we finally landed on it, we started moving forward. But that was probably the earliest one we were just thinking about, would this even work? Is this gonna, this is gonna work.
Adam McLane: I'm mindful that I'm sitting here thinking like we've had this, we've talked to this language for two years on the project, a levee, a levee district, a levee board, a setback, a all of this stuff. And I'm mindful that a lot of the viewers or the lot of listeners probably have no idea what we're talking about. So let's do that together and then kind of deep dive into the project and the set. So maybe I'll go back to Regan. Regan, would you just tell us what a levee district is and how it comes into play within your community?
Regan Griffin: Yeah, yeah. So the Atchison county levee district are responsible for the 56, roughly miles of levee that sits along the Missouri river, which is all along the west side of our county. And so we were formed in the late 1940s, early 1950s as the federal levee program was getting started. And so originally the group was there to basically kind of work with local landowners to say, "Hey, where can we build this levee?" Kind of like Corina we're saying, get the Sharpie out, but back in the forties and fifties and say, where do we want this levee to set and work with local landowners to compensate them for that ground. And then since that time, it's the levee district or levee board's job to continue to do maintenance upkeep of the levees. And then a big piece is just the, the personal interactions and the connection of the Corps of Engineers who you know, basically is the, the arm of, you know, making the levee's work and, and continuing to make sure that they're all protected.
Adam McLane: Awesome, all right. And then before even getting into the project, you know, I kind of skipped us ahead. So I'm sorry about that Corina. I was like, "let's get into the details of the project", but why, why, why was the project even needed? Why did we have to draw things on a map and say, will this even work? Talk to us about the flood of in 2019 Regan or Corina.
Regan Griffin: Yeah, I mean, you know, the 2019 flood was, I mean, by far the worst flood we've experienced in Northwest Missouri. We had one in 2011. It was interesting, there was a meeting in November of 2018 where John Remus, who is chief of, I can't remember his title, I'm sure Corina can correct me, but he basically manages the river Missouri river for the Corps of Engineers. But he had a meeting in November of that year and a lot of local farmers and levee district people at the time got together. And I remember over and over people saying, this is like, it feels a lot like the fall of 2010, which 2011 was the last really bad flood we had. And so there's already some sense of, okay, 2019 could be a bad year. A lot of the soil was very saturated, had a lot of water on the levees the previous year.
Regan Griffin: And then that that winter through 2018 to 2019 had a lot of snowpack up north. And so there's some apprehension. And I mean, even the Corps was warning that this could be a really bad year. And then in March of that year is when the bomb cyclone hit, which just absolutely dumped a ton of rain on the area. Melted a lot of snow know that was already expected to hit, but then all of a sudden hit at one time. And it was just a kind of a perfect storm that, that really nailed us at that time.
Adam McLane: And what, how, what did, how long did it last that flooding, and what was the impact on the community?
Regan Griffin: Yeah, well, so I mean the original hit was in about March 15 when the waters first started over-topping to our levees and, you know, probably had our first breaches within about three or four days of that. And so that was March. I mean, we had floodwaters at least to October, November in certain areas. So it was it was the longest flood we've ever experienced. I mean, usually, you know, when you're talking to maybe a few weeks of that, but I think it was an all six plus months of water in some areas standing, which was just really, really devastating. I mean, we're an agricultural area. So, you know, a lot of the places that were hit were farming you know, for farm ground, but, you know, also just even we have a local elevator that was flooded and absolutely destroyed, and a lot of ways took a lot of money to build that back.
Regan Griffin: And then just other businesses the railroads, another thing BNSF has a railroad that runs right through the middle of our county. And that was shut down for a long time, which, I mean, the think you'd solve it, there's always BNSF guys out there trying to fix that. Cause I mean, that's kind of a main artery through the center of the country. Even shipping coal. I know there for awhile, I'd heard the stories. I'm not for sure if it's fully true, but they're responsible for bringing coal into certain cities for powering them. And I think there's a, there's talk for a while even the federal government having to basically kind of takeover to help with that. Cause they were worried that they could get to the places they need to. So just a lot of, a lot of stuff was, was on the ropes at that point.
Adam McLane: Wow. Barbara, I remember, I think you driving through that area, right. Weren’t you traveling at that time?
Barbara Charry: I was, I was coming down in May from a high school graduation visit and saw all the flooding and I'd heard about the flood in March and it was May, and it was like looking out at a lake and I said, this is supposed to be a river. I was blown away and I-29 was still close in some areas and we had a detour around yeah.
Adam McLane: And grain silos.
Barbara Charry: Yep, grain everywhere. It was, it was really devastating and, and really made a big impression on me. Yeah.
Adam McLane: Yeah, wow. Okay. Well, we get to get to the uplifting part of this whole thing. Cause I know that was tragic and had a tremendous impact on the community and Corina then gets to step in and say, okay, let's pull that Sharpie marker out. Let's start thinking about how to repair this right, Corina?
Corina Zhang: Yeah. And to help give folks an understanding of what drove, like why did it make sense to set the levee back? The Corps of Engineers the, the levee systems are driven by public law 8499, also known as PL-8499 and the damages really drive the technical solution that the Corps executes. And when we think through, as an engineer, you think through, you have a problem and then you have variables and constraints, and then you think of what are the solutions to that problem. And so when, when we were approached with this problem, the levee itself, the old levee was so damaged that when we considered well, what would be the least-cost and technically acceptable solution actually making a new levee started making sense. To give some context, the, the old levee on a levee system, L-536 that the Atchison county levee the overall damages for the existing levee was over 11 miles, if you included all the breaches and all of the damages to the old, the old levee system. So when we were thinking about it over 11 miles damage, and then you compare it to, well, what if we built a new levee and that's about the new alignment was four and a half new miles of levee. You start thinking that could cost that could cost less. And when we did the analysis, that's what ended up making sense. And so what was really risky though, was taking a strategic pause and saying, well, that means we're not going to close the breaches right away. The other levee systems, we started initially just closing breaches one after the other, but in order for this to stay the least cost, technically feasible solution, we, we took a year to develop the real estate of what that new alignment would look like. And so that took some time, but we all collectively agreed that even though that risk is worth this investment essentially. And so when, when everybody was on board with that, knowing the risks that, okay, we're not going to close the levee breaches, but we are going to make this new levee. And the levee sponsor was on board. You know, the community was on board. All of our local stakeholders are on board. So that's when a lot of momentum started happening. And and it was really cool to watch everybody like come together, but it just, we didn't skip a beat, even though there were a lot of challenges as I'm sure Regan and Barb could talk at length about.
Adam McLane: Well, and I just for cause I, it was, so I knew all about this project and I had seen aerial photography and images and all sorts of things, but until I actually got there to see the size and scope of this it is really, really something. And it's hard to capture in words, but in terms of a levee setback, trying to make that a familiar, or breeched even to a levee, familiar to the audience, I did a lot of sand castle building in my days by the ocean. And so you build this giant wall for your sand castle and you had your little front entrance and then the tide would start coming up a little bit and slowly but surely that just starts getting undermined. And then finally, boom, it blows out. So that's a lot of what would occur with a levee, right? And then, so we moved the sand castle back by 15 feet. So that, that tide wasn't going to get there or when it did, it was just going to barely be touching. And is that an accurate capture to the general public? Other than it not being an ocean and it's not sand...I get that.
Corina Zhang: I love that analogy. Yeah, I was actually talking to one of my colleagues, Lowell, Lowell Blankers, he's another engineer. And he said, you know, the, the simple engineering description is "you moved the levee." And so if you, yeah, like you're a little like the sand castle, you can, you know, almost you know, if you pinch your fingers together, when you look, you know, close to your eye and you, you, you pinch it and then you move, it that's really what happened to the levee. And it seems very simple, but when you start thinking about all of the different things that are involved in order to make that happen, you have to find a lot of, a lot of dirt, essentially, a lot of material that's clay, that's sand, that's top soil. There's a lot of real estate coordination. There's environmental compliance that needs to happen. There's contractual obstacles that happen, or just writing the contract in general. There's creating a new foundation that also has to happen for the new levee. So there's a lot of there's just a lot that goes in. It's not just a, you know, pitching it with your fingers and then moving it. There's a lot more that goes in. And for some context of the amount of material that was moved the, the new levee alignment took it - we've moved almost 2 million cubic yards of material. And just for some context that would almost fill the AT&T stadium where the Dallas Cowboys meet. So that's a, it's a lot of, a lot of dirt...a lot of dirt.
Adam McLane: Thank you for that description, Barbara, I'm going to pull you in here too. Cause I think, you know, as Corina described that moment in time where it started making sense that it was possible that a levee setback might be feasible and economically viable in this situation, that's kind of when the about at the time you got pulled in, does that sound right?
Barbara Charry: We were pulled in really pretty early on, I think it was June when we started the inquiries that, you know, one of the big issues for a levee setback is a need for real estate, you know, for the new footprint and then all the land that's going to be on the riverside of the new levee. And so that was a big consideration and, and a big problem to solve. So that was the initial reason we were pulled in. And it just seemed like such a compelling idea and such an incredible project that, back in August of 2019, I pulled together a whole bunch of partners to say, okay, this is an incredible idea and incredible opportunity. This is something that community really, really wants. How can we all come together and make it, make it work? So we had started having that discussion in August with that meeting in St. Joe. And then we continued to meet, and that was kind of The Nature Conservancy's role is, you know, trying to help figure out the real estate component and then bringing people together and convening meetings. And we just started meeting regularly in small groups and in large groups and encountering problems and, and challenges and figuring out ways to address them as we went on, you know, month by month through the process.
Adam McLane: That's awesome. So this is a huge project. Were there moments in time, you know, Corina spoke to some of the challenges in brief, but was there a moment in time that you were like, this can never happen...it's too big.
Barbara Charry: There were a lot of moments in time like that. It was a really big project. And honestly, in talking to lots of people there, you know, a lot of shaking heads of, yeah, this'll never happen. And so that was actually good going into this with eyes wide open saying, you know, this is really worth doing. It's worth learning about if we can make this happen, it will be such an incredible opportunity for the community. But we know it's a big challenge and it may not happen. And so that kept us going with realistic ideas and, and but, but we kept going and kept solving problems and every time we think, okay, we've got this figured out. And then there would be something else that we needed to address and learn, because it's really a learning experience for everybody involved. And we, and we kept solving problems and, and it's just incredibly excited to have a levee on the ground now protecting that community.
Adam McLane: Wow. Well, this is, I know having seen this project move forward, that there were a tremendous number of partners and what the win like this and success full completion. Do you want to name some of those partners?
Barbara Charry: I sure do. I mean, this is the ultimate partnership project. It was just an incredible effort. And each partner really had a really critical role and I really want to give a shout out to all of them. There was the Northwest Missouri Council of Governments, and they were really incredible on helping in the local level, helping with grant opportunities, environmental and economic assessments. And then there's the Missouri River Recovery Program. And they were instrumental in providing land and material for building that new levee. The Natural Resources Conservation Service was also critical. They were helping with enrolling landowners in conservation easements. And so this was a way to compensate the landowners for the now riverside land. They have a really important program called the Emergency Watershed Program - Floodplain Easement. And this is disaster funds that come after the 2019 fund that Congress appropriates them and makes them available through NRCS.
Barbara Charry: So that was a really important role. The Department of Natural Resources in Missouri, they were a real problem solver and they helped coordinate all the state agencies that were involved and worked with the Governor as well. And then the Missouri Department of Conservation provided funds for real estate, as well as the State Emergency Management Agency. Again, they were key for providing funding for real estate through appropriations by the legislature that they had made help levee boards and levee districts around the state recover from the 2019 flood. So it was, it was a great effort and each in each of those and all the staff for those different agencies really brought their "A" game. I mean, they were really tremendous problem solvers and team players.
Adam McLane: Wow, there's a quote, I don't know who said it, but I I, it always comes to mind in moments like that, which has many hands make light work. And it sounds like that was required for this levee district and I mean, for this levee itself. And then it also sounds like, I mean, there has to be a Venn diagram that had this project sitting right in the middle of that many different missions and future goals for the future. Is that rare, or do you think that that Venn diagram exists elsewhere too?
Barbara Charry: I think it exists elsewhere for sure. And I think, you know, the key role that The Nature Conservancy was able to play because as a nonprofit, we could bring all those different groups together and look at it holistically. You know, each of the agencies have these incredible missions and they provide different components. And, but bringing that Venn overlap part together was kind of our role. And I really do think it could be replicated elsewhere.
Adam McLane: Regan. So what was it like for I'm imagining this moment in time where the, the line gets drawn on a map and the engineering begins and it all makes sense and they start to do a cost analysis, but there's landowners involved and a community involved, in a new kind of project. What was that like when, when you went back to the community and the levee district started talking to the community and landowners around about this idea?
Regan Griffin: Yeah, I know I was, I was pretty apprehensive. I mean, we, you know, like I mentioned before 2011 had a flood in 93, I had a flood, we had high water events in between those years. And I would just say the general approach has been, always, don't give an inch, you know, kind of just put back in place. We gave you your, you know, we gave you the levee seventy years ago. You're good. And you know, I think in general, the thought was maybe if we start giving up, they're just going to basically want more ground or, you know, we're, we're, we're benefiting you know, nature groups with just giving up stuff, you know, kind of that sense of us versus them, unfortunately, mentality. But you know, really when we went to the landowners and it started talking to them one, I mean, you know, we looked at this just like Barbara saying, I mean, this was one of those opportunities that benefited, you know, groups that maybe wouldn't normally be on the same side together.
Regan Griffin: But then also, I mean, in looking at it, we, we kind of realized too, this is our best chance for helping some of our landowners in the way they'd been affected by the flood. I mean, they were there's some ground that was just absolutely devastated. And looking back, even at the 2011 flood, we had landowners, the same thing happened. And again, didn't try for a setback. I don't think it would have probably qualified then anyways, the way the, where, where it was broken at. But you know, there's landowners are still not able to use that ground. You know, it's still a pile of sand and a lot of places. And so our thought was we're helping our local landowners, the best we can, we're helping the, you know, by and large the community and the landowners in the area, because we're, we're hoping to give them better resiliency in a flood, hopefully in the future. And then all of the other partners who are coming together, everyone's kind of getting a part that they get to see something a key part of what they're trying to advance happen. And so we're kind of felt like this is, this is a perfect moment to do this.
Adam McLane: So Corina help us fast forward to today and where the project currently is. And, but I do, you do have to go backwards a little bit and talk about the dredging, the sand from the, from the river part of solving a challenge, because that's just too cool a story not to share. But then after you do that, take us to present day up there, what works still remains.
Corina Zhang: Yes. This project from a construction perspective was just so cool and innovative. I'm going to geek out a little bit here. But yes, but if you think about going back, how do you move 2 million cubic yards of material or approximately 2 million yards of material, you have to find that material from somewhere. And so that includes sand for your seepage berms, which is on the land side of, of the levee cross section. And we realized early on that we don't have enough sand actually to complete this. And so we were working with everybody. I remember we went into our meeting where there's like 20 different people. You know, that Barb is leading here and we were thinking, you know, we really need really need sand. And so it was actually one of one of our leads in the field, his name's TJ Davey. And he said, well, how about we dredge the you know, the sand seepage berms. We had already used this in a different form early on in our previous projects where we closed the breaches using dredging because it wasn't accessible via land. And so that was the best way to actually close the breaches quickly. And we thought, well, if we could close breaches, maybe we can dredge in place the sand seepage berms. And so that took a lot of coordination with ensuring that we are compliant with environmental regulations. I remember Dru Buntin from, from MDNR making a call to help us like expedite this permit that we needed. Otherwise, we were going to lose our window to dredge. Cause you only have a short window when you can do the, these sort of activities in order not to impact like the from an environmental perspective. And then also from like a transportation perspective, like there's freights that go up and down the river too. And we actually got it done, like we pulled it off and I remember that dread coming in and we figured out where it would be least impactful to get the sand material and we made so if you think about it, there's a slurry. So there's water and sand that is being dredged out and it's going through this giant kind of vacuum tube, so to speak. And, and then it goes in place where where we put it. And so in order to contain the water, we made these we called it containment berms on either side and made sure that the water went into these ditches that were already existing. And then they go out back into the river and when the water comes out and the sand settles you're left with fully compacted, sand seepage berms. And so they were, it was phenomenal. It was excellent material and it was so cool to see it happen. You saw my not miles, but a lot of pipelines from the river going into this levee and never been done before. And a lot of people were very skeptical. They thought is this, is this even possible? The entire group, whenever some sort of innovative idea happens. It's like, why not? Why not try? I love it.
Adam McLane: I was Corina. I, I could have told them it would work because I've dripped castles. Right. So I'm going back to my castle. That's my only engineering that I've ever done in my life, probably as clearly and obviously building sand castles by the ocean, but the slurry is really like a drip castle. Right? So you were just vacuuming drip castle material, spraying it on top.
Corina Zhang: That's it, that's it you know, some full concept there, kids do it all the time, right?
Adam McLane: Yes. It'll just be the explanation whenever, whenever you try and do innovative things in the future and you get pushback from other engineers, just turn it into a childhood story about sand castles or something and I'm sure they'll be like, oh, that makes sense.
Corina Zhang: Absolutely. I'm going to try to live my life as childlike as possible. But yeah, so to continue on with where we're, where we are. So we so we are pretty close to the end. We actually have, believe it or not, we have a levee in the new alignment. If you look on Google imagery, you'll see the old levee alignment, and now you see the levee alignment in place. It's, it's so cool. We are we're pretty close to the finish line. So in March was our big push to achieve a full height, levee you know, cross section and then get fully encapsulated by, by mid-March. And we were successful in that, and everybody had a part in it, every agency, everybody on the ground, a lot of the local landowners and the local farmers actually were the operators that help build this levee.
Corina Zhang: So that was huge. They were directly invested in making this happen and we yeah, we're pretty close. We're right now just finishing up the sand seepage, berms and placing topsoil, and then we're going to be seeding and just restoring the ground in between the old and the new levee. So it's a lot of restoration activities we're looking to be complete in the summertime this year, which is pretty incredible. If you think about when the flood happened back in 2019 in two years completing it, that's wild. That's wild.
Adam McLane: That is incredible. Thanks for sharing that story Corina and you know, I'm just trying to recap, and then maybe I'll hand it to you Barbara, to let us know the nature side of what the impact will be on the riverside and potentially for nutrients and that stuff. But in recapping, so we had 2019, you know, that, that two year window that you're talking about 2019, multiple breaches in this section, then deciding in partnership with the community and the levee district, that boy, this is really viable to do this setback, then full construction of that. And when you were talking about operators of the community, helping in these, I mean, that is heavy duty machinery from all around that's coming and moving dirt and moving dirt and moving dirt. And then now you're sitting in a spot where it's been realigned, it's back. It's complete on the one side and you're working on, you know, the other, the non-riverside, just wrapping that side up all within two years. Is that right?
Corina Zhang: That's a great summary. I also forgot this is a key detail, but I forgot to mention that in between that time, when we were moving dirt the, the Midwest got hit with a polar vortex. I believe most of you all experienced where it was like negative 20 for, for like several days. And then just freezing cold for gosh it was like weeks, I feel like. But I gotta hand it off to the team who continue to be innovative. And they came up with this idea to use these giant tents where you can put thousands of cubic yards - and we had eight tenths that were spread around the site and we pumped them full of heat with heaters. I remember it was, gosh, it was, you know, it was pretty cool, like, you know, in the single digits and you would go on one of these tents, and I remember reading the temperature was like close to 80 degrees in there. So that was the job that people wanted on, when that's happening, you know, help man the tents. But that really helped us to keep maintaining our momentum because once the cold let up, we were able to continue directly placing, otherwise if we wouldn't had those, we would have been solved for several weeks. No doubt. But, but yeah.
Adam McLane: Well, and I saw those tents on that visit. And so listeners, if you were to think about like your little gazebo tent that you use at sporting events or whatever, they'd have the little frame that goes up on the side, multiply that times like 3 million. And that's probably the size of it. It was like two football fields would fit inside. There was a football field. What was it, Corina? Was it a football field would fit inside each one of those tents? And you had like 10 of them.
Corina Zhang: I want to say it was, I can't remember the actual amount, but you can fit a giant excavator in there and dozers. And, and so you can think about moving that. I think it was approximately two or three football fields, something like that.
Adam McLane: Okay. Barbara we've talked infrastructure on the site and the design of the levee itself. But there, but we're also talking about digging soils out and replacing them and then having, what a thousand new acres inside that are now connected to the levee or connected to the river is that accurate?
Barbara Charry: That's right. That's right. So doing this levee setback, we're ending up reconnecting over a thousand acres of land that was landward of the old levee - it's now river word of the new levee and reconnected to the river. So this has incredible environmental benefits and it's been seen in other places where, where land's been reconnected to the rivers and restored just an incredible amount of habitat. I mean, floodplain habitat is incredibly rich. It is just high value for lots of animals. One of the things that happens is the fish species really do great in there. They spawn, its nurseries. And so that in turn provides a ton of food for birds and mammals. And so it's just an incredible place for, for nesting animals and feeding and migrating animals. And so this area is actually, it's actually where the Mississippi and the central flyway come together up on the Missouri river in that area. And so you've got a tremendous amount of waterfowl that are migrating through and they are hungry. They need, they need a lot of energy to make it up and down on their trips. So we've seen, you know, in these places that there's a lot of response and a lot of use, and when the levee's restored all that land and they're excavating and building, they're creating these small depressions that are mimicking and become wetlands, right. Where, where all that food and, and feeding can happen. So that's part of the construction process is recreating those wetlands and then allowing things to sort of naturally vegetate and restore that way. And we know on the Missouri River because it's levee there, there's not a lot of these floodplain pools. And so they're really important places for wildlife or migrating along the Missouri River. So this is really creating a lot more of that habitat. And then also water quality. That's another, you know, another really key benefit for nature and for people to actually. That story you're talking about the the seepage berms for the dredged material. You know, it's the same thing when, when the waters come into a floodplain, all the water slows down and all that sediment and material that's in the water settles out just as, as you use to create the new levee that's happening in the floodplain. And so those sediments, which are have a lot of nutrients in them, they settle out, out on floodplains and help clean the water. So it's, you know, contributing to a cleaner water, which is, which is another great benefit of this project.
Adam McLane: Wow. Regan, can you tell me your favorite place to eat breakfast in Rock Port without getting in trouble with other people that have breakfast places up there?
Regan Griffin: (laughs) Unfortunately, there's, there's a few places that opened it up. I haven't tried, there's a new place called the Bowling Alley, I need to try out. But unfortunately we had a lot of restaurants closed because of the flood at least kind of two. And so unfortunately it was one of them that I like, so I need to try out the Bowling Alley otherwise it's, McDonald's usually, which wouldn't really call a good breakfast place. I'm not going to call it that.
Adam McLane: Okay. Well you go to this breakfast place, whichever one, it happens to be whether it's McDonald's or the Bowling Alley is that you said I was gone. Yep. Okay. Okay. So you go sit at the Bowling Alley for breakfast and have a cup of coffee, and there's a lot of other people sitting around having a cup of coffee, and they're talking about this project and how it all happened and whether they feel good about it or whether there's still anxiety or what does that coffee talk sound like right now in a community the size of Rock Port?
Regan Griffin: I mean, I think the big thing is just the hope for, we're not going to be doing this again in five or 10 years. And I mean, you know, there's a lot of issues, climate change, whatever that might be causing this to happen more regularly. But our hope was in doing this project, that we were not going to be fighting the same fight over and over, which we've been fighting now for years. But that, you know, this section of levee, at least we're not going to have to say, okay we had another catastrophic fail there, the next flood. But, you know, potentially it moved back and we don't even have flooding there. Or if we do, you know, that this new levee, the design of it, the way it was built, that it's going to stand up. And so our hope is that the landowners down there feel, Hey, we're secure for, you know, these, these events stand for 67 years. We're, we're good for another 67 plus years you know, be protected.
Adam McLane: What would you tell other levee boards or communities that you know, look to this as a, hmm. Is this something that we should consider? What would you tell those groups or how to go about even starting thinking about a process like this?
Regan Griffin: I mean, you know, it's kinda like, I was just saying, I think the big thing was, we just, we said we've got to do different you know, we don't, and I'm sure a lot of communities feel like this who've experienced floods or flooding, you know, 2019, maybe 2011, maybe 93, similar rests or, or other kind of moments like that, that, you know, you can keep fighting that same area, keep, you know, hey, we're going to figure out how to put this right back together, where it is. And then, you know, the next flood potentially have to deal with that same spot. Or you can say, hey, let's use the opportunity to look at other options for solving this situation. And, and that's what we did thankfully we had you know, the rest of the board was on board for that. Thankfully the community members, the landowners specifically, but other folks that we were working with were behind it. And I mean, I'd say the biggest thing, you know, you asked Barb, you ask Corina, I mean, we, we, this would not have happened without the partners involved and we're so thankful for TNC and all the work that they did, the Corps as well, and worked with some great folks, Corina and others at the Corps. But yeah, I mean, even felt very supported and backed by our Governor, Governor Parson and Dru Buntin, the DNR, and so many different agencies saying, hey, we want to help make this happen because I mean, this is a lot of money, the real estate piece, and, you know, putting all together, it was, it was a lot of money that a levee district like ours just doesn't have the money to do that. But thankfully we had, you know, bigger groups and bigger agencies who were willing to say, hey, if you guys are actually willing to do this, we're willing to come alongside you. I mean, that's a big piece is just, you know, it's, it's not, it doesn't have to be owned by your local community. I think if you start reaching out, I think there's groups that will help make this happen. If you start asking the right people and getting there.
Adam McLane: I love it. And since Regan started talking about hopes for the project and for it lasting a long time and hopes within the community, I'll ask Corina and Barbara both about what are your hopes from this project? So Barbara, you want to go first and then I'll hand it over to Corina.
Barbara Charry: Sure. So, you know, I really, I really hope that this, this project inspires people to find solutions for their community that really improve their lives, improve habitat, benefit, nature and that they reach out to develop partnerships. And that when things are difficult, it doesn't mean they're impossible. There's always way to get things done. You know, just what Regan was saying, you know, with community leadership and reaching out you know, really that's, that's the most important ingredient is that community leadership,
Adam McLane: Great, Corina? What are you, what are your hopes for this project moving forward or what, what was learned from this project or what is learned from the project? Tell me about your hopes.
Corina Zhang: Man. Craig question. I really want to echo what Bard said. And my hope when people look at this project is they see it and say, we can overcome big obstacles to that. There's nothing too big that can't be overcome and, and, and to bring people with them like you really need, you need everybody, you can't, there was no way this project could have been done just with one entity. There's, there's no way and big problems that, that a lot of people face that a lot of different agencies will face you, you need everybody. And that you're on the same team that I, yeah, my hope is that when people look at this, they see that even though all of these different agencies had different priorities or different resources, we were all on the same team and that we all wanted each other to win just as much as we want to have our priority met too. But yeah, you, you need each other, we all need each other.
Adam McLane: Last words that anybody wants to share with, or talk to about the partnership or anything else about this project before we kind of wrap up this story.
Barbara Charry: You know, I just wanna, I just wanna thank everybody. You know, I want to thank everybody for coming together for the partners, for being honest and, and digging deep for solutions being willing to take chances and going above and beyond, you know, it was a big lift for everybody involved and I really want to thank them for seeing what was possible. And, and again, the success of the project was really due to each agency and each person and Corina and Regan and, you know, all, all the others. So thank you.
Regan Griffin: I would just say kind of, I mean, even Barbara was mentioning earlier about the hope piece. I know one of the things we were even helpful to help, you know, be a pilot program, I guess you would say again, helping communities realize you don't have to keep doing the same thing over and over there's opportunities to kind of change and help set yourself to be more resilient. And so that was even one of our things going into this is realizing, I mean, this, this doesn't happen normally. And there's a reason why all this, all the hoops you had to jump through you, it was pretty difficult. So hopefully the next time someone decides, hey, I'd like to maybe look at doing one of these, that the blueprints there, we know how to do it now. And you know, you know, you guys at TNC or other agencies can step in and say, hey, it's, it's not reinventing the wheel. We can do this.
Corina Zhang: oh man, they all, everything that you guys said. I also do just want to thank everybody who's listening right now, who took the time and wanted to listen. And then and the, the leadership of all of the different agencies, they helped support us whenever we would make decisions. You know, they, they really supported us and were behind us. And I think you know, good leadership, sometimes it's hard to come by. And the leadership of all of these different agencies were very instrumental. And so they all know who they are and we all appreciate them.
Adam McLane: Well, I am going to share something Corina with Corina and Barbara. That's kind of personal. I have an 11-year-old daughter named Morgan who loves to build stuff and is like, she's strong-willed. And so seeing you too, in your leadership positions within this project, just like rocking out a levee and figuring out new problems and how to move them forward is like an incredible role model, like to look up to. And, and cause she thinks about, you know, out in the world, what is it that I can, and can't do? What are my skillsets gonna allow me to do? And seeing people like you leading these kinds of projects is really, really cool. So thank you for that leadership and for rocking this kind of stuff out for future generations to look at and go, yeah, I can do that. I can build levees. Heck yeah.
Regan Griffin: I'd like to get some quality women working here.
Adam McLane: Agreed. Well, thank you all very, very much. I know zoom is difficult to do these things onto and so you taking the time to share this story, I think is really remarkable. I want to share all my gratitude for the partnership that created this project. And I share all of these hopes that you all share in particular that it works and it works for a long, long, long, long time. Because I think that's a pathway forward to seeing more and more of these happen in the right places throughout that system. And I want to thank everybody that listened today.
And if you have, if you have a desire to dig a little bit deeper into this project, pun not intended, but it's pretty good. One for more information on the project, go to nature.org/moriverlevee - that levee with two E's. And for more info about The Nature Conservancy and what we do, you can visit, visit nature.org/missouri. So thanks for listening and be sure to subscribe to our podcast so you can catch future episodes.Collapse Transcript
Episode 3: The flood of 2019 devastated many communities along the Missouri River, including the farming town of Rock Port, MO. The local levee district knew they had to do something different to stop the impacts of repetitive flooding and protect their community. The solution: setting back the levee to give the river more room.
In this episode, you’ll hear from Regan Griffin, a member of the Atchison County Levee District; Corina Zhang, an engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Omaha District; and Barbara Charry, TNC’s floodplains and nature-based solutions strategy manager.
Host and Missouri state director, Adam McLane walks us through the complex process of moving a levee and all the pieces and people who came together to make it a reality - and how the new levee is benefiting people and nature.
Fight for Survival: Missouri's Endangered Species
Opening: You're listening to It's in Our Nature, the podcast that celebrates the connections between people and nature with host, Adam McLane, The Nature Conservancy's Missouri state director. For more information, visit nature.org/missouri.
Adam McLane: I'm Adam McLane, the Missouri state director for The Nature Conservancy. Thanks for joining us today. This is episode number two of our new podcast. Where the goal of that podcast is to share stories that we just think really highlight the connection between people and nature, the amazing things that can happen when we work together. And fun episode today, I'm prepared for laughter. And because I'm spending time with someone who usually does that to me, we have a fun episode. It might get a little nerdy, just caution, but we have a guest that many of you know, and surely admire, but before we get started, my one request always in these podcasts, if you like it, please share it with others. So drum roll for our guests, Doug Ladd, the former director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy. How long Doug, how many years?
Doug Ladd: A little over 32, little over 32 years.
Adam McLane: And today the reason we brought Doug in today, we're talking endangered species. In 2019 TNC launched a partnership with the giant screen/IMAX film, which is called Back From the Brink. It tells the true story of three animals rescued from the brink of extinction California's Channel Island, Fox China's golden monkey and the migrating crabs of Christmas Island. And exciting for us...TNC is featured, with our colleagues in all of those places. And it's been playing in museums, science centers, and other cultural theaters, actually playing at our science center here in St. Louis now, depending on when you're catching this podcast. I'd encourage you to go to nature.org/backfromthebrink tocheck it out. And if you're an educator by chance, or if you're stuck at home with kids like I am and looking for something to listen to, you can also download a Back From the Brink activity guide for grades three through eight, from that site - nature.org/backfromthebrink So check it out.
Adam McLane: So as we started thinking about that engagement, with that, that film, it got us thinking about our role here as The Nature Conservancy in Missouri, when it comes to species protection, reintroduction, habitat restoration, all the things that go into saving these last remaining populations of endangered species in our state. And there's a big group of people that are working on that tirelessly day in and day out. And we just wanted to talk a little bit about that work and we will phone in a friend a little bit later and to talk about one of those from the Missouri Department of Conservation, but for now, we're going to get started with Doug Ladd. So, Doug, it is great to see you again. Good to see you actually in person too. It feels weird for both of us. We've already established that. We're so zoom-oriented right now to actually sit in front of someone six feet away and have a conversation with them is, uh, different and feels good, but it is, it is different, isn't it?
Doug Ladd: Yeah, sure is.
Adam McLane: Well, I wanted to cover three different ones with you, Doug. Prairie, chickens, Topeka shiners, and American burying beetles. And Doug, as soon as he said, so we're going to talk about, you brought a botanist in to talk about three different species of animals, but I think you can do it.
Doug Ladd: Yeah, I think that, I think the key to think about endangered species is it's often thought as a, as a legislative issue or a, a pivot issue for controversy, but really we should look at them as a way to reconnect us with the natural world in which we all depend. And so they're more an indicator than anything else. And that's why the Conservancy has been deeply involved in them as you know.
Adam McLane: Well, how did - stepping back even further than that - how did you get into conservation? What was your pathway?
Doug Ladd: Well, I guess I've been interested in nature from an early age. I started out as a biochemist in college and just didn't hit all the bells for me. So I wanted to be in the field. And, uh, early in my graduate career, I took a backpacking trip on the, into the Ozarks on a bet from someone. I'd been raised in Vermont and Illinois, and decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life, trying to figure out what made those amazing systems tick. I mean, we don't have golden monkeys and migrating crabs, but we have critters every bit as exciting unusual.
Adam McLane: Yeah. Wow. All right. What was the bet?
Doug Ladd: I was dissing Missouri with a colleague he bet me that if we went on a backpacking trip in December into the Ozarks, that I would change my mind and he was absolutely right.
Adam McLane: And how long did you, how long ago was that?
Doug Ladd: That was in 1976.
Adam McLane: And so you've lived here ever since. Okay. Wow.
Doug Ladd: Got out of grad school and actively sought a job in Missouri. I've been here since 1980.
Adam McLane: That's great. And you started with Bennett Springs. Is that right?
Doug Ladd: Working for the state park system was a biologist and naturalist at Bennett Springs state park. And then when the Conservancy opened its first staffed field office here, I got hired as the first science and landowner outreach person. Then I just never got good enough to get beyond that. So I stayed in Missouri for my whole career.
Adam McLane: Very good. Well, um, let's start with prairie chickens. It's a good time to be talking about prairie chickens right now. They're booming on the lek and we have a prairie cam and all sorts of stuff that people can see in this virtual world. But talk to me a little bit about prairie chickens or tell the audience a little bit about them, what they require, why they, why you think they're unique and special.
Doug Ladd: Yeah, I mean, it's an amazing facet of Missouri's heritage that we're on the very brink of losing and it's especially poignant to me because when I first started with the Conservancy, I was dealing with a lot of elderly farmers in the landscapes of northern and western, Missouri who had vivid tales remembered well when there were thousands of prairie chickens in their areas and eating prairie chickens regularly to the point of not liking them. And they're just being a food of last resort sometimes. Um, and now the fact that we're down to the last hundred or so in the state is, is sobering, but it's, it's a bird kind of like the size of a chicken up to about three pounds, I guess. But it's just, it's amazing in that it's totally tied to our grassland systems. So it's a piece of our grassland heritage. And as you, as you said this time of year, they get together on these ancestral breeding and courtship grounds called leks and the males it's, it's basically a big singles bar for birds and the males strut their stuff and they put little horn, light feather appendages up in their heads and they puff up these orange throat sacs and they raise their tail feathers and they stomp and they stride and they faint and do mock battles when they chose.
Adam McLane: And then they do something like that's pretty good. I've been working on it. They do a call [Adam imitates the call sound]
Doug Ladd: It's booming, which is, it's almost indescribable as a sound it's kind of a cross between a, cooing and a moaning, or maybe like it's been compared to wind blowing across a bottle in this weird haunting reverberation that travels great distances off across the landscape. o you can sometimes hear it for more than well over a mile away this low undulating reverberation that there's nothing else like it. And it's, as I say, it's almost indescribable, but every Missourian should have the opportunity to hear that because there's nothing like it in nature. And it's just, it's emblematic. It exemplifies the prairie landscape.
Adam McLane: Wow. All right. And so how you say, you know, they were by the thousands, um, everywhere you turned in that region and now there's a hundred. How, what, what is the threat that put them in that place or loss of habitat? What's the, what put them there?
Doug Ladd: Okay. Good question. Um, first of all, I think the most compelling fact is more than a Missouri, more than a third of Missouri was once tallgrass prairie, but with European settlement and all the things we did to the landscape, um, to build the vibrant society we have today, the, the prairie was the victim of our success basically, and far less than 1% of high quality, tallgrass prairie of the original high quality tallgrass prairie remains in Missouri. So habitat loss is a major problem. And then as the prairies have been converted or lost, oftentimes brushier woody environments have replaced them or else, um, intensive agricultural practices, both of which can cause major problems for prairie chickens. So habitat loss, fragmentation, adjacent land use probably an increase in predators like skunks and raccoons and things like that. Cats, feral cats in some cases. And then some things we're not as sure about, but know for instance that in some parts of their range, um, ring, neck pheasants, which have been introduced from the old world, can parasitize prairie chicken nests, and that kind of like cowbirds where they lay their eggs in the prairie chicken nest, their eggs hatch first, and as soon as interestingly for a prairie chicken, as soon as an egg hatches, the mother follows the nestling out of the nest. And so if the pheasants hatch earlier, the prairie chicken eggs are abandoned and that we don't know in Missouri, the extent of what's, that is a problem, but it has been recorded elsewhere.
Adam McLane: Hmm. Interesting. So, um, you know, we talked about the challenges and those still exist, but there's also some partnerships to highlight and some areas of potential success. At least in the short term, we need to think more sustainably long-term, but do you want to talk about any of those partnerships with Missouri Department of Conservation or elsewhere on prairie chickens?
Doug Ladd: Exactly. Um, there's a, there's been a pretty exciting initiative that started in, I think, 2014 where The Nature Conservancy, The Missouri Department of Conservation, um, Nebraska Game and Parks, um, the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa, and a bunch of other partners got together and live-trapped prey chickens in an area where they're still abundant in Nebraska, brought them over here to Northwestern, Missouri, where The Nature Conservancy, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and the Missouri Department of Conservation all have ongoing habitat management and prairie restoration projects that are run in a, in a big collaborative landscape. And they reintroduced the prairie chickens there and augmented that re-introduction over the next five years with annual reintroductions of prairie chickens. And it's, it's too early to tell if it's a success, but we're optimistic about trying to reverse the trend, at least in that little landscape and the concept being then, um, you're never going to be able to solve the prairie chicken problem on the, in the focal area of a few high-quality prairie restorations, such as the public agencies are doing, but that landscape is embedded in an agricultural landscape. Um, that's largely ranching. And many of those ranchers have long-standing multi-generational family ties to the landscape. And often they remember, or they remember their ancestors talking about prairie chickens in the landscape. So they're very interested in many cases in figuring out how they can configure their operations to maintain economically viable ranching operations, but also provide habitat for prairie chickens and other iconic wildlife. That's a part of our heritage.
Adam McLane: Yeah, that's awesome. Um, as you, you have the benefit of the rearview mirror a little bit on, um, having retired from The Nature Conservancy and looking back at Dunn Ranch, that area...what, um, what do you look back and say I'm, I feel most proud of related to that project?
Doug Ladd: Well I guess it's not what I feel most proud of. I guess I humbly feel that it was an honor to be a part of a project like that in a landscape where virtually all of the tallgrass prairie had been decimated and the Department of Cnservation, State of Iowa, The Nature Conservancy working in both Iowa and Missouri has really spearheaded this innovative, broad-scale collaborative landscape approach to restore these gems of remnant prairie that are left and seek to have them embedded in a landscape of appropriately managed, economically productive, private lands that also maintain water quality benefit. Wildlife provides all sorts of ancillary benefits that are a part of our natural heritage. So it's just been amazing to be a small part of that. And we've had a great team that was able to do it. Um, a lot of talented people across multiple disciplines and organizations that made it happen.
Adam McLane: That's cool. Well, we won't have to leave Dunn Ranch in order to talk about the, or the prairie landscapes to talk about the next, um, the next featured guests, Topeka shiners. So tell me about this minnow.
Doug Ladd: Well, yeah. Okay. So now we've moved to a little fish that looks like something you put on a pizza. It's fate, we should call it the prairie anchovy. It's a, it's a three inch long, two to three inch long fish at maturity, kind of a silvery minnow, um, with kind of a reddish orange coloration, particularly the males in the breeding season on their fins. It's frankly, it's not terribly stunning to see, but when you realize that this is the iconic fish of the prairie landscape, that's what really brings it home. And we, we tend to think of prairies as terrestrial landscapes, but like all systems, water, earth, vegetation, all combine uniquely at every spot on the earth surface to create the heritage that sustains human life and our quality of life. And these prairie headwater streams where these Topeka shiners live, have been damaged more than even the prairie itself, because they're the most vulnerable parts of the Prairie. They're subject to downstream degradation, which drains and erodes them. They're subject to land use conversion, they're subject to siltation and erosion. And when, when you get a lot of silt in our prairie headwater streams, and it destroys the nesting and, um, uh, habitats of the Topeka shiner. But you have this, this three inch long little fish that's emblematic of our prairie systems. It requires a pretty clear bottom streams, gravel or sand or small course rocks. And even in our dryer prairie streams and a healthy prairie, because the prairie is like a big sponge infiltrated store rainwater. Even if the streams appear dry, a healthy prairie stream is going to have pools every once in a while. And there's going to be subsurface flow through the stream bed. Even if it's not visible supplying water to the, recharging those pools. We've been able to work with our partners to restore the streams in the Dunn Ranch landscape, Little Creek, particularly to again, be suitable, to support, Topeka shiners, and then starting in, I think it was 2013, 2014 to stocking. We, we actually, we reintroduced them into a pond at the headwaters of the watershed, and then they have a, they have a source population that then washes out and stocks, the stream, and that so far census have shown it's been a pretty good success story. And again, it's, it's collaborative, it's the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It's the Missouri Department of Conservation, both of which raised Topeka shiners in their hatcheries, and, um, contributed a lot of their fisheries expertise combined with The Nature Conservancy's habitat management expertise to rebuild and re-install another part of our prairie heritage in the landscape.
Adam McLane: Yeah, Who, who came up with that idea of the pond overflow thing? I'm picturing like three of you sitting on a tailgate, looking out there going, Oh, I know what we should do. Let's fill up this pond with it and then it'll overflow it. Huh? That sounds pretty good. I think that might work.
Doug Ladd: I don't remember how it came about, but Jerry Wiechman, who's a fisheries biologist for the Department of Conservation was really the visionary who figured out what needed to be done to get to Topekia shiners there. I was the irritating thorn in the side of all the agencies saying, we want Topeka Shiners at DunnRanch. What are we going to do? What are we going to do? And they came up with a stream restoration plan. The Nature Conservancy was able to pull together some funding from federal and other sources to make it happen. We spent several years restoring Little Creek itself to have the right pool and, and ripple topography, or stream morphology to be able to support the fish. And then the fish got introduced, um, through, there's a big collaborative effort and they're reproducing and they're spreading downstream somewhat.
Adam McLane: Yeah. And we just, um, I can fill in a little bit here too. That, that partnership continues in the form of, um, Missouri Department of Conservation, Fish and Wildlife Service, uh, others working on fish passage through those culverts. So we have to, I think coming this fall, we're going to be doing, step up pools to get back up to those box culverts so that passage can actually happen more regularly there. Right now. There's about a six foot drop off on that perched culvert that I don't think any three inch minnows jumping its way back up where it needs to go or wants to go. So, um, it, it is exciting and, um, yeah, our best work takes place in partnerships. So thanks for all the ones that you've set up over time that continue to move forward and live on. Um, anything we, as you think about, um, listeners, either one, anything that they can do to help with either prairie chicken or Topeka shiners in their daily lives, or, um, if that's not the question that you feel like there's a lot to contribute towards you know, I always get the question or I hear the question, why do we need to save a little minnow? Why, you know, if these birds aren't evolving in a way that makes them survive longterm, then isn't that how evolution works. We should just let them go. What do you say, I mean,
Doug Ladd: Yeah, good question. It's true. That extinction is natural, but human activities in the last 150 years have ratcheted up the rate of extinction to be thousand or more times greater than the natural rate of extinction. So there's no way nature can adapt and evolve new species in that type of timeframe. So we're impoverishing the world on which we depend. So it's not so much that the Topeka Shiner itself is essential to human life. You, you, you wouldn't have, we wouldn't be able to make the case for that perhaps, but it's a part of a system that's essential for human life. And I think it, it provides a window into our natural world. And I think one of the things that Conservancy has excelled at is it's been able to be the bridge between the applied science and the reality of the everyday world, where we're, we're making the case, um, that we, as people on this planet have an obligation, I believe to pass on these amazing natural resources, these functional systems that sustain us and enrich us in many ways, um, to future generations. And I think it's both a privilege and I would say a sacred responsibility to humanity that we develop a culture of stewardship, so we interact and understand these natural resources. And so all of these endangered species are just windows into that system. If you have a healthy upland stream system supporting Topeka shiners, that's recharging the larger rivers downstream that support healthy bass and other recreational fishing opportunities, water quality for municipal and agricultural water supplies, so it's all tied together. And the Conservancy is, is doing the job of trying to make these bridges conceptually, but we have to be a lot better and get it out to a larger segment of society because every child growing up in Missouri should understand our prairie heritage and take pride in it.
Adam McLane: Yep, we should do a podcast or something. Try and reach other audiences.
Doug Ladd: That'd be interesting.
Adam McLane: Hmm.
Doug Ladd: Children's podcasts.
Adam McLane: I like it. Okay. Well, this is, this is fascinating and awesome. And I, the next one will, um, will not leave us, um, short on details and charismatic features as either a, the American burying beetle. Um, when you said Topeka shiners might not be all that catchy, um, or visually stunning to look at actually burying beetles are, but the word beatles does not instantly capture lots of attention, but tell us about the American burying beetle, Doug.
Doug Ladd: Well, you named it as the undertaker of the prairie, so you should get the credit for that. Um, it's an amazing insect because it, as you say, people to, um, dismiss insects, even though they're one of the most critical aspects of the animal world for shaping our life and our culture, um, as anyone who likes honey knows, we depend on insects for a lot of things, pollination, products, pest control, all kinds of things. But here's an insect, which A. it's pretty, it's a shiny black beetle about an inch and a half long, and it's got these bright orange spots and markings on it. So if you, if you can get over the initial aversion to insects, it's, it's a very attractive critter kind of Halloweeny looking. And, um, it's got these unusual habits that it basically, a male beetle is equipped to be a corpse detector. And from miles away, it can detect through sensitive chemical signals, um, a dead animal. And dead animals in a certain size range, kind of the, uh, maybe the prairie chicken range, um, chipmunk, small rodent range. If it finds a corpse of them, it, it, um, immediately lands and starts to bury the corpse by digging under it, excavating the ground and an amazing rapidity. And it attracts a female at the same time. And the two work cooperatively, bury the corpse - now we're going to get both dirty and a little bit icky - but, um, they then remove all the fur and/or feathers from the, the, uh, the carcass. And then they cover it with a secretions they manufacture. Um, and that just, it's a preservative that basically mummifying the corpse and prevents all the other things that want that high energy food source of the dead animal, other insects, bacteria, fungi, and so forth. It prevents them from getting it, then they lay eggs and settle nearby. But the amazing thing that we don't think of for insects, then the male and female and the mama and the papa care for their young, um, as they're growing up. So for the very short time that the eggs have hatched and they're feeding on the corpse, a week or so of the feeding on the carcass, um, the parents are defending them and providing parental care. And so it it's unusual that they have this, this history of caring for the young, um, they're almost gone. They were once in more than 35 states and some Canadian provinces as well. For reasons we don't fully understand there's very few natural populations left in just a handful of states.
Adam McLane: Um, were they always in prairies?
Doug Ladd: Well, they appear to be habitat generalists, not too finicky about that, but, and again, the historical data that are often hard to tease out, but from what we can figure out, they seem to have a predilection, or they tend to favor grasslands or very open grassy woodlands that appears to be their preferred habitat.
Adam McLane: Hmm.
Doug Ladd: So again, in a, in a collaborative partnership, um, with the St. Louis Zoo who really perfected and built on some work that others had done and how to raise American burying beetles in captivity, um, Bob Merz and his team at the St. Louis Zoo were able to develop an American burying beetle factory, which produced large numbers of beetles, which we then worked with the Department of Conservation, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and The Nature Conservancy collaborated at a large prairie landscape in Southwest, Missouri. Um, mostly on The Nature Conservancy's Wah'kon-Tah Prairie preserve, where we actually, um, provided the corpse and provided the beatles and semi-buried the corpse to start and get them started. And we now have documented reproductions. So the jury is still out, whether we're going to be able to sustain and, and rebuild an American burying beetle population in Missouri, because we don't know a lot about, um, how much food is available and how much increased competition there is for those dead animals. Some people have speculated that passenger pigeons, which were once abundant, but now extinct were a major food source for them. So there are a lot of unknowns, but the initial data from the early reintroduction and recovery process has been very positive.
Adam McLane: Hmm, very neat. Well, should we phone a friend?
Doug Ladd: Yeah.
Adam McLane: To talk about hellbenders.
Doug Ladd: Let's talk about the neatest animal of all today.
Adam McLane: Okay. We are going to, um, we're going to patch in a guest and I'll let Doug introduce him.
Doug Ladd: I'd like to introduce, um, from the Missouri Department of Conservation, Dr. Jeff Briggler, who's a world hellbender authority and anything to do with hellbenders in North America,Jeff's been leading the charge in terms of research applied conservation restoration efforts. I would also add that, uh, I have Jeff come and speak to my class at, uh, Washington University every year and he's the hit of the, the class session, because these are just amazing animals. Um, and he'll even tell you about his hellbender scars, if you're nice to him. So I'll introduce it and turn it over to Jeff and Adam.
Adam McLane: Yeah. Well welcome, Jeff, thanks for joining via zoom. Um, we really appreciate it and your, your insight is going to be helpful. So tell us about, tell us what a hellbender is.
Jeff Briggler: Well, that is probably the number one question. I get a lot. What, what is a hellbender? And most people really don't know what this animal is, and it, it is actually a large aquatic salamander. I mean, meaning large. It can get up to like a foot and a half, almost two foot in size. They live in our spring-fed rivers and streams throughout the Missouri Ozarks. And they're, they're very interesting in a way, cause they're, they're streamlined bodies allow them to walk on the bottom. They have a very flat head, tiny eyes, so they can just, as you're thinking about a river bottom with large rocks spread out, this animal was walking behind these rocks, trying to poke that flat head underneath the rock for where it can go and hide from predators and even looking for other animals. And then more intriguing something else about this animal that, uh, when you see them for the first time, as you'll see, they have all these wrinkly skin up and down the sides of their bodies. And that's actually how they breathe under the water. They do have lungs like we do, they can surface and gulp air, but they don't have to because they're in this very cold water in the Ozarks. So that water exchange running across that folds of skin line with blood vessels, they can absorb all the oxygen they need just through that skin alone.
Adam McLane: Wow. And I heard, to paint the full picture here to people that are listening, um, and not able to see a picture in front of them. Um, Snot Otter is a, uh, as a nickname. And then I heard it once described as hellbenders look like mud come to life. Does that sound about right?
Jeff Briggler: Now, those are other nicknames. Some of the other ones are Allegheny alligators because they were first described in Allegheny rivers in the Northeast, uh, definitely snot otter's an other common name. If you ever capture one and touch it, I mean, they're very slimy. And when you touch them, uh, hellbenders, we believe originated from the Appalachians when they first saw them. And they looked at this animal and the first thought is, man, this animal is extremely ugly and it belongs in the internal regions of hell - Is what people are stuck for. Hellbender
Adam McLane: That's terrific. Well, what's the, um, how's the population doing? Is it threatened? Obviously it is. What, what are the threats to it and where, how has it gained that status as a result?
Jeff Briggler: Well, hellbenders have been studied for many generations in our, in our state of Missouri. Uh, people started researching them in late sixties, early seventies. It continues today. And what we saw in the early, late 1990s, early 2000s is we're seeing a dramatic decline in these animals in our state. Historically we estimated there were probably 27,000 hellbenders in our state, and now we estimate their fear than 2,000 left in our state. So when we start doing all this research with all the historical data, we just see such a dramatic decline in the animal, which is scary alone. But more importantly, what we saw in our capture data is you rarely catch little hellbenders anymore. So the other size classes, once these older ones die off, we don't have any animals to replace them. So with our partners, uh, state and federal agencies and researchers, we, we actually did population modeling at the populations. And it didn't matter what type of model we ran. This animal, every model showed there's a 96% plus chance of extinction for this animal. If we didn't do something about it. And back in the mid two thousands, we made a conscious decision to start attempting to breed this animal, collect eggs from the wild. So we have a big breeding facility at the St. Louis Zoo, uh, typically to buy us time to help figure out why this animal is declining.
Adam McLane: Wow. Um, and am I right? There's two different species and are they both listed?
Jeff Briggler: Well, currently the genetic show, they're actually two different subspecies. The Ozark hellbender, which occurs in Missouri and Arkansas, and then the Eastern hellbender, which occurs in Missouri and 14 other states throughout the Ohio basin, Tennessee basin up through the Appalachians. Uh, now future genetics is going to show more divisions within that, but Missouri currently only has the two subspecies, the Eastern hellbender and the Ozark hellbender. The Ozark hellbender was federally listed in 2011 for Missouri and Arkansas. And then more recently, the Eastern hellbender population segment only in Missouri has been listed, uh, federally endangered.
Adam McLane: Is there anything our listeners could do, um, to help help Hellbenders if they're, if they're captivated by this, if they jump on and they learn more information, what would you encourage them to do either at an individual level or in terms of engagement going forward?
Jeff Briggler: Well, we, because this animal has, has declined significantly in our state and, and most of it has to do with habitat destruction, degrading of the habitat, uh, our beautiful, pristine rivers and what we see more and more as the forest being cleared down and more sediments and fines come into the rivers. And as those sediments and fines come in, they actually change the structure of the river. They suffocate the hellbender habitat for the large rocks. They fill in the gravel space where all the baby hellbenders live, the food base lives. And over time, you're just basically choking off the resources for this animal. So some of the most important things you can do is really try to protect that riparrian zone of these rivers. Uh, the trees are nature's filters, uh, when it's raining real hard and we get to those trees, slow down the floods, they filter it. So the river doesn't take so much damage, but as they're removed, the floods will cause even more harm and faster water going down. And it can cause even more significant problems for this animal over time. So think about those things when you're thinking about what you can do, uh, planting trees along the river, retaining the trees along the rivers. Uh, other things on hellbenders is historically a lot of fishermen have caught hellbenders. They were afraid of them. They didn't know what they were, and in most cases they killed them. So we strongly encourage people if you catch them on a trotline our fishing line to remove the hook, if you can, if you can't cut the line and let it go, eventually that hook will rot out. Uh, if you have a chance, maybe join a local stream team to clean up trash along the river. Uh, and I know people have desires to see this animal, but I'll also say going out, looking for it and disturbing it is just as harmful to it. So sometimes we all want to help even more, but sometimes the help is please leave the animal alone because we don't want to do too much harm and tell you the truth, you can also donate. The St. Louis Zoo has ways that you can donate funds to help hellbenders. I'll say at the St. Louis zoo, hellbenders are one of the largest fundraisers for the zoo. A lot of Missouri citizens do donate for hellbenders, and it is greatly appreciated to help recover this animal.
Adam McLane: That's terrific. Thank you very much for that. And who would have thought of all animals at the zoo? It'll be the hellbender that is a, is a big fundraiser, uh, which is terrific. And, uh, I think, uh, hopefully an indication of the appreciation that Missourians have for, for natural places in their backyard and trying to protect it. Okay. Doug referenced hellbender scars. Can you give me one story, um, Jeff of one of those scars or a funny moment that's happened in the stream?
Jeff Briggler: Well, I'll go back to 2010 on us trying to locate hellbender eggs in the wild. And it's, it's been very difficult to find eggs in the wild and fertilized eggs for most people, and we're getting better at it. But back in the late oh, around 2009 to 2010, we started building artificial nest boxes. They're basically concrete containers that we're trying to get female hellbenders to go in and lay their eggs. They have a lid and we want to collect those eggs out of there and take them to the St. Louis Zoo to raise. And I'll never forget our first batch that we put in on the Eleven Point river in June of 2010, we put seven of these boxes out, not knowing if they're going to be successful or not. We tried to design based on our best knowledge. And when we went back the first week in November and should art be laid, we opened up that lid and when the sunlight came through, you could see all the little baby hellbenders inside their eggs. And we termed them our golden nuggets because they would, they have these large yellow yolk sacks, and they would turn and turn their bodies in that sunlight. And it just looked like reflections of gold coming off of you. So we had success right off and I'll have to say right then we needed to remove the eggs. Here's a male, which is intriguing. They guard the eggs and the babies for several months, which is interesting for this type of animal. And so this male is sitting in there. I'm trying to remove these animals. And I will say he grabbed a hold of my finger, pretty good. And he did not like that. It was difficult to get him off my finger. I'll say I bled quite, uh, quite a lot, but it was definitely worth it in order to get these eggs.
Adam McLane: That started at all.
Jeff Briggler: And that, and that male has actually produced other nests too, even though we removed all his babies, uh, he still does reproduce, but, but I'll never forget this because another fisheies biologist was with me. We're jet boating back to the, to the boat after we removed these eggs, get back. And we both look at each other and we say, we're going to have to look in that bucket again to make sure those eggs are in there because where we dreaming or not, this was a big deal, a very big deal. And I'll never forget on my way to the St. Louis Zoo. I stopped twice and pulled over to make sure I still wasn't dreaming. And, uh, because at this time we were not able to find very many eggs. So, so this was really a big start for our captive propagation efforts, uh, led into more breeding at the St. Louis zoo and, and to date, we've released over 9,000 hellbenders back into the wild in Missouri.
Adam McLane: It was quite a success story. Well, all of these animals are, um, and creatures are just intriguing to think about. And I think sometimes, uh, we don't think about them very much unless we're right in the space of working on them day in, day out and caring for them. Um, but our listeners now get a little chance to learn some more nuggets and hopefully they get their own golden nuggets, Jeff. Um, and it, it starts its own, um, spread throughout our population of awareness of these and how they can help. But I'll let you both, as we kind of come to wrap up, you know, the overall big question or topic that we've had is, is about, um, caring for animals that there aren't many have left. Um, the habitat that's required for them, whole variety of things, but I'll let you both just final thoughts, words, advice, uh, pleadings to the audience, um, for how they can participate in, in protecting these places and creatures going forward.
Doug Ladd: Well, I would say, just recognize building on what Jeff was talking about. And I was talking about earlier that we are a part of this incredibly amazing natural world. And as we move forward, the more we understand it and the more we appreciate it, the better it will be for people in nature.
Adam McLane: Thank you. Jeff?
Jeff Briggler: And, and I would say as the state herpetologist, the same thing, I mean, we have 43 species of amphibians in this state when I took my job 20 years ago. And after you, it that all 43 should still be here when I retire and hellbenders and it's any animals, they're all interesting. They all have something unique about them. And for like hellbenders, it's a unique and interesting salamander. It's been in our Ozarks for over 161 million years. And I'd like for this animal to still be there, I know other people do too. We want to see it in our Missouri Ozarks. We want our future generations to be able to see it and learn about it and be inspired by this amazing animal.
Adam McLane: Thank you, Jeff. Thank you, Doug. Thank you both for coming and sharing all this, um, incredible stories and a lot of great information for us to follow up on. Um, thank you also to listeners for tuning in for more information about The Nature Conservancy and what we do visit nature.org/missouri, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast, so you can catch future episodes. I'll also say, um, we listed a lot of partners today, um, and you, you had good encouragement to reach out to stream teams and the whole suite of things. So please do so. The Nature Conservancy brings forward this kind of information, trying to showcase the big broad efforts. Um, and so please reach out to those partners as well and support them in the future. Thanks. See you next time.Collapse Transcript
Episode 2: The hellbender, American burying beetle, greater prairie-chicken and Topeka shiner—these species are on the brink of extinction in Missouri. But, what's being done to save them?
In this episode, you'll hear from Doug Ladd, The Nature Conservancy's former director of conservation in Missouri who provides insight on these species, how they got where they are, and the collaborations from dedicated partners who are working to restore their populations. We also phone a friend—Jeff Briggler with the Missouri Department of Conservation who provides his insight and expertise on the hellbender.
Growing an Oasis in North St. Louis
Opening: You're listening to It's in Our Nature, the podcast that celebrates the connections between people and nature with hosts, Adam McLane, The Nature Conservancy's Missouri state director for more information, visit nature.org/missouri
Adam McLane: Hello everyone. I'm Adam McLane, Missouri state director for The Nature Conservancy. We're excited to have you listening today. This is our first ever podcast episode, and I would say you are in luck because we have a great show planned and really our goal with this podcast and the future ones is going to be sharing amazingly inspiring stories of what can happen when people in nature work together. Because that's our vision at The Nature Conservancy, which is a world where people in nature thrive together and it can and does happen before we get started. I have one request. That is, if you like this podcast, even just a little bit, please share it with others. We hope the stories we share inspire a deeper connection with the nature around you. So let's get into it. Today we're talking with some incredible people about an incredible Oasis in North St. Louis and I'm joined by the people that made it happen. Rebecca Weaver is our city's program manager. Donna Washington is the urban farm manager at project Oasis and Pastor Andy Krumsieg, did I get it?
Adam McLane: You got that.
Adam McLane: We've in practice beforehand. My goodness, Krumsieg. Right. Okay. Well, um, thank you both so much for, for joining, or all three of you. Um, and I say it's hard in my mind to think about how to paint the picture of this place over the airwaves like this when we don't have videos, but could you to try to do that for me, just take me to Project Oasis and what it looks like and what it feels like.
Pastor Andy: Wow, that's pretty cool. Um, Project Oasis, Donna's been a few years in development, isn't it?
Donna Washington: Yes it has.
Pastor Andy: And we have, um, started with a vacant lot. It's an acre and a half vacant lot, uh, used to have a warehouse on it years ago, and then it was just kind of no man's land. And then Jubilee Community Church, we got it from the city and then we just kind of cut the weeds. And then we did a project with, uh, MSD Project Clear, and we were able to dig a hole, 10 foot deep and a hundred foot square and put a water retention system in the ground. And it was a big project. We learned a lot of lessons on that. And, uh, so we we've been, we started working on this several years ago and then, uh, we were able to, uh, Dr. Moore who's our senior pastor, he was the one along with me and several others that were able to do this project. And then we, the purpose was to create it so that we could irrigate this acre and a half of property. And, um, we didn't know how we were going to get all this done, but we knew were supposed to move, move forward and doing it. And, uh, we had had a very small, um, plot of, you know, six, what did we have done with about six beds before that? Do you remember?
Donna Washington: Um, I wasn't a part of the church then, but I heard that, you know, people inside the church came out and they had sweet potatoes and cabbage and, you know, mostly the vegetables that are easily to grow in those areas. Yeah.
Pastor Andy: And we had Carol Campbell and Carol Aucamp and several other volunteers, Joanne, and uh, some other guys as well. And we did these little plots and then we thought about doing something bigger and it just became something that we thought, yes, we should do this. And we did. Um, and it's amazing how the resources have come together over the past few years. And Nature Conservancy was a big part of that in, after we were getting going, then you guys heard about it. Somebody introduced us and it was just a wonderful partnership that began to happen. And, and you guys have been so gracious to us as we're in our learning curve. And, uh, I don't know, we've learned a lot of good things...
Donna Washington: And some bad things, too.
Adam McLane: Okay. I want to hear the bad things, Donna. Spill it.
Donna Washington: Well about it. What about a year ago? We, we use black tarp over the wintertime. You know, the black plastic where we were told that we, you know, we should use clear. Well, we found out this year, that that's not a good idea. That's more for keeping the plant warm and nice and toasty in the wintertime. So we had part of our garden was covered in black and the other part was covered in clear, well, the black is nice and dark and beautiful and ready for planting the clear...weeds, all vegetables and everything. So that was a good lesson to learn.
Adam McLane: Yes, we can all take that lesson and I'm calling you next time I need to tarp something just to make sure I get it right. Well, Donna, I'm really interested in how you said you weren't there at the beginning of the project, how you became involved in the project and, um, what that looks like.
Donna Washington: Well, in the beginning I went, I left the church that I was at because it just stopped happening and I was looking for a church. So I saw Jubilee, it wasn't too far from where I lived and I went in. And then that's when I met Andy and I met Dr. Moore. They were in the garden, it wasn't a garden at the time. And they were always digging. They were always muddy. They were all, you know, and then I heard about the stories that were happening back there. How, uh, Dr. Moore would call Andy and Andy didn't hear him or vice versa because of the noise from the machines. And then we asked the congregation, you know, would they like to come in and help? And so when they asked that I wanted to help, I just wanted to get in there and help. Cause I like working outside versus inside. And in that process, more people started coming and more people started coming. So then we got people and then Mission St. Louis brought volunteers. And then Andy was told about other volunteers from out of the state. And then they were coming in helping us dig and make the berms and cover it and bring in chip wood chips. And it just took off. And we grew plants that we didn't know how it was gonna, you know, happen or what it was going to do, but it flourished. We would go out there and we would be pulling weeds. And then me, myself, I would pick up, wipe it off, pop it in my mouth. And it was the most, ahh words, I can't even say the words. It was different than the stuff that we bought in the grocery store. It was more tastier. It was more fruitier. So from there, the people that came to help us, they were always coming from all over and then the COVID happened. And then that kind of put a stunt on us. We still grew, but we didn't have as many people as we had before pulling the weeds. So the weeds were trying to overtake the plants. Yes.
Adam McLane: Wow. You took me there. I was tasting cherry tomatoes. They're still warm right off the line as I was popping into my mouth. So thank you very much for that. Um, Becca, I'm going to invite you to chime in too, about from The Nature Conservancy side, um, what this partnership has looked or felt like for you.
Rebecca Weaver: Um, yeah. Thanks for the opportunity, to join y'all this morning, um, to be a part of this project has been a dream come true for me. I think what, from my perspective,, the best part of this project are the strength of the relationships that we have with each other. And so it's been an honor to be in relationship with Pastor Andy and Pastor Gill and Dr. Moore now and Donna and Carol. And so from my background, you know, in community-based conservation work, these are the dream projects that we get to be a part of and collaborate alongside. And what's happened at Jubilee Community Church really speaks to the leadership, um, in a vision that lies within that neighborhood and within that church. And so to be a supporting partner in this effort has really been such an incredible opportunity for a demonstration of what happens when we collaborate across different sectors, across different areas of expertise. We all have something that we bring to the table, and it's been such a wonderful opportunity to see kind of how all the different pieces have been able to weave together in a way that is supportive of, you know, overall the vision that's kind of emerging through everybody participating in this project. Um, and I feel like it really is representative of what happens when we're not going to prescribe, you know, should go in what area or, you know, even from a nature perspective, it's like, yes, we know that tree canopy is beneficial. We know that it's important to have equitable access to healthy green spaces, but really what's most important, especially in a place like St. Louis is having the opportunity to support people in their own visions for what sustainable redevelopment looks like in St. Louis. And I feel like we've been able to be a part of something like that with Jubilee. Um, and it's been such a, an opportunity to, to work in this way. And I think it's important for TNC, um, to be in supportive projects like this, where we don't know necessarily what the outcomes are going to be. However, we know it's important to really listen and support community vision.
Adam McLane: Thank you, Becca. Okay. Pastor Andy. I'm going to go back to something that you said that you said, um, during the process you had done a little bit, and then you said you knew we were called to do more. I don't know that you use that word, but that's the sense that I got. Can you tell me a little bit about what that was or what that feels like? What, what was that thing that had had it become very clear that this vision needs to take place and we're going to start.
Pastor Andy: That's a good question, Adam. And I think what I've seen over the years, I'm starting to get to be an older man. I got a grey beard and, uh, life moves on. And I think we need to, when, when we look at things in life, I think we need to kind of understand the times. Whether it's on a bigger picture or certainly on a smaller picture in our own little worlds. And there had been ideas that came our way from other people prior to when we did this, that just, they were great ideas, but it just wasn't the right time. And then, uh, one of the guys that helped introduce us to this in the very beginning was a guy named Jim Holtzman. Jim's become a very good friend and he did a great job of vision casting and all that. But at the beginning, when I first met him, it just didn't seem like it was time. And later on, we got reconnected that, uh, so that he could come and get the ideas back together and it fit. And then Jim actually connected, I think, to N nature Conservancy. And it just, things started to line up in the right way. And we were able to do the, um, MSD Project Clear project. And then we created, we we've named this Jubilee Oasis Farm, right? So we're in the middle of North St. Louis in the heart of North St. Louis. And we have a challenging community and as a challenging history for a long, long time. And there are so many good things in North St. Louis, but we don't hear about the good thing. And so that's part of who we are at Jubilee. Jubilee means a new beginning. It means a new start, a fresh start. It means leaving the past behind, learning from the past, but not getting stuck in the past.
Donna Washington: Right.
Pastor Andy: And then Oasis is the concept of, ahh...something refreshing for a change, those kinds of things. Oh, I was waiting for this.
Donna Washington: New birth.
Pastor Andy: New birth, that's right. And so that's what Jubilee Oasis Farm is. And so, you know, the blackberries and the bush cherries and the tree cherries and the pawpaws and the jujubes in our little orchard space and the serviceberries and the figs, and then in the garden, we can grow anything we want every year, you know, and the partnerships, sometimes they're repeating partnerships. And sometimes there are new partnerships that develop. So you have to remain fluid, but you keep going through with a, with a persevering spirit that doesn't give up and looks for hope all the time.
Adam McLane: Wow. Thank you, Donna. Do you think you're growing more than vegetables in this project?
Donna Washington: I think I am. Uh, when we started, you know, I knew very little about nothing, you know, uh, growing up my mom and Mr. Eddie, that was my mother's friend. They always had a garden on the side of the house. So I knew about it, but I never really worked in it. I never really tilled it. I never really harvested. Only thing I did was eat it. And it was good. But working in the garden at the church, we had lots of people that came out to help us. And one of them was Matt. Matt came and helped us with the orchard part of the garden, the fig trees and the, and I've never eaten a raw fig before. And when he told us to pick it and eat it, I looked at it. I said, I don't know if I want to eat this. But when I ate it, Oh my mouth was like, wow, what was that? I want more. So you learn a lot of things. Cause I never knew that's what a fig looked like, because I've always had the fig newtons.
Adam McLane: Right.
Donna Washington: You know, the stuff in the middle. But if I had a choice between the fig newton and the raw fig, I'd take the raw.
Adam McLane: That's saying something fig newtons are pretty darn good. Huh?
Donna Washington: You wait till you taste it.
Adam McLane: Okay. So I, um, you know, I can picture, and I know about the project obviously. So you have all this water, that's not going into the combined sewer overflow system because it's going in from your roof right into this giant cistern and that you can use for irrigation and watering. Um, you've done a lot of the work up top already of getting things installed. That'll be ongoing, working with community with volunteers and I'll, I'll make sure that I, well, let's just do that now. How would people come to connect with you if they want to come out and help? And will you give them a fig Donna? If they come out and help?
Donna Washington: Yes. Yes. If there's any left.
Pastor Andy: Contact us. Uh, my email address is S T L Andy. So stlandy at, would you believe it, aol.com.
Adam McLane: Wow.
Pastor Andy: And, uh, then my phone number is 314-518-0419, 518-0419 with that 314 area code. And Donna, what's your number?
Donna Washington: Okay. My, um, email is Donna57washington@yahoo.com. And my phone number is (314) 652-7116. And if not there, you can always leave a message.
Adam McLane: So what what's next for, ah what do you see coming this year, next year? Where do you hope this grows? Um, what's that vision look like?
Donna Washington: Well, we hope that because we didn't get enough volunteers last year, we did get volunteers, but not like we did the year before, but we're hoping that more will come out. And we did have our first group of volunteers that came out this past Saturday and it was nice cause we were able to do what about six berms or more? And um, they look good. I wish we had, it took some pictures to show you, but they look good. We have not started planning. Hopefully this Saturday on the 27th, we may be able to plant. Depending on the weather. Yeah. Yeah.
Pastor Andy: Well, we had an, uh, uh, was it last fall? We had a group from Spire that came out. That was really neat. And I had, uh, a great workday over there and Nature Conservancy has come. We've had other groups that come, so we welcome any groups to come. There's plenty of things to do, pulling weeds, spreading wood chips, and organizing things. And then there's other projects that we need to do. We want to develop the composting area and some of the other kinds of things and the more volunteers, the merrier and we can organize people, can't we Donna?
Donna Washington: Yes we can.
Pastor Andy: I call her Sarge. She's good.
Donna Washington: Twenty-six years military.
Adam McLane: I shoveled some mulch right next to Sarge and so I remember her glancing over every once in a while to make sure I was still not just like leaning on the rake or the shovel. So I can attest to that.
Pastor Andy: We have, um, uh, this year we're going to, this will be the first time that we've done a hundred percent of the garden. And, uh, we have some partnerships with a couple of restaurants that have, are, we may be gonna to use some of our things. And then what is the, uh, local, local, uh, Local Harvest? Is that the one on the south side? Yes. Forgive me for forgetting the name right off hand, but there's a nice little grocery store on Morganford. Right? And they, they liked to buy our things and we're getting, we just did a little bit with them last year. This year, we're going to be doing a lot more, uh, the Food Hub, uh, right over on Sarah is going to, they they've showed, they asked us what to, uh, or we asked them, what can we grow for you that you would want to buy from us? And they said, the gives a whole list of peppers and all kinds of other herbs and other things. And then they buy, they've got some funding that they're working with. And then they prepare meals. And we actually pick up meals from them to distribute in St. Louis, we feed over 300 people a week, uh, through this whole COVID situation. So lots of cool things happen. And then the orchard is getting more mature. And we probably won't see any pawpaws for another year or two, but I can't wait until we get those. And then, uh, the next things again, this is one of those things where we know we're going to get there, but the time's not right yet, yet...is honey. We're going to eventually do honey, but we've got to develop the berms a little bit more surrounding the property. And the native flowers have been, uh, the native plants have been planted by seeds this spring. Tell them about the, uh, little, uh, thing we did last year, the demonstration.
Donna Washington: Okay. We have, um, we have a tool shed and we have, uh, two little small plots of lands. And we use that for our demonstration garden. That's where the plants that are native to Missouri. And, um, we planted them in and we didn't think they were going to flourish, but we were surprised. They came out and they were beautiful. We're going to have to show you those pictures too. But, uh, but now we have the berm that's on the Obear, that's up near the orchard and it's bare right now. And, um, me and a couple of, and Carol and a couple of other volunteers came and we planted with seeds, not with plants this time. So we're hoping that some of that, uh, starts sprouting up soon.
Pastor Andy: So what's the picture of this around is if you can picture an acre and a half piece of land and surrounding the land is a berm. That's about 18 inches tall, and it's about 20 feet from one side of the berm to the other side of the berm. And that is so it's 18 inches. And we didn't want to put a fence around this property. We didn't want to say, we don't want you here. We want it to say, let's create boundaries. Okay. Boundaries are good. And an 18 inch boundaries, not enough to keep anybody out and neither as a fence, anybody anyways. So let's create an inviting place that says, come in here. And so we planted these plants will be somewhere between 18 inches and three feet high. So we will have a natural fence of, um, about five feet tall. That will be beautiful. The bees will like it. The birds will like it, the butterfly, but yeah, it's just going to be beautiful. So it's going to take a few years to get there, but we are so much looking forward to it.
Adam McLane: Wow. That sounds amazing. And I can picture it. Um, you know, in the work that we, we do with native plants, I, you took me to a prairie, um, and I can picture what a period looks like. And, um, and I love them dearly. So I'm, I'm, I'm excited to see that get incorporated in and the bees and the whole system. Um, it sounding like each year, it grows on itself and, uh, in a way that is sustainable and thoughtful and, um, serving the community and really neat ways. So.
Pastor Andy: You know, Adam, the other part of this, the bigger picture of this, okay, this is Jubilee Oasis Farm. We have a partnership with The Nature Conservancy and volunteers, and it's all really good, but it's part of a bigger picture because our neighborhood has been so challenged over there. There's been 70 years of disinvestment in North St. Louis. And there's been all kinds of systemic things in individual things. You just name it, all. It's all happened in our neighborhood. And as North St. Louis is poised to rebirth, the geospatial agency is happening. Herbert Hoover Boy and Girls Club is doing something with the PGA and Urban Klife. There's a lot of things that are happening. We have to make sure that the people in our community can stay in our community and that they have ownership and Jubilee Oasis Farm's, right there on Obear and Carter and Penrose and Grand Avenue. Right across the street are some abandoned buildings. We're going to rehab those abandoned buildings. There's some abandoned lots. We're going to put new construction on these things and make things viable for our neighbors. So that there's health and beauty and refreshment and renewal that happens in our community and the, the garden, Jubilee Oasis Farm is the seed part of that that will grow to flourishing as time takes its course. And we do the things that we're supposed to do in the now to plant seeds for the future.
Adam McLane: Hmmm, very neat. Becca, anything you'd like to join, you've been instrumental in, um, from The Nature Conservancy side of, of, um, working in this space. Is there anything else that you would like to add about the project or the discussion today?
Rebecca Weaver: Just an immense amount of gratitude, um, to everyone involved in the project. Um, it's been, um, a few years now since I've had the privilege of knowing Andy and Donna. Um, and I think from the TNC point of things with our focus on supporting community-driven green infrastructure work, I mean, what an example to come out of the gate with, um, and, and being able to support what's happening at Jubilee Community Church. So a lot of appreciation for everyone that's helped to make this happen. And, uh, we're honored to be a part of this.
Adam McLane: I agree. I feel that gratitude as well. Well, Donna, I'm going to ask you to, to bring us home here a little bit. So, um, this podcast is about stories of people in nature, thriving together, trying to come up with solutions and projects where people can thrive and they can be taken care of their needs are met, but nature is not, is also thriving, alongside and supporting. Does that feel like what this project is in your mind and what any advice to anybody else thinking about similar projects out there?
Donna Washington: Yes. Um, very much so. Um, I've been in North St. Louis all my life. I'm 63 years old. I did come and go being in the military, but, uh, came back and I came back on the north side cause I could have went anywhere. I wanted to go once upon a time on North City, used to thrive with everything from grocery stores to laundry mats, to, um, what, anything that you can basically think of furniture, stores, uh, they had gardens and everything. And then, you know, as I grew up and got older, everything started moving out and when things started moving out, crime started coming in. So I feel that if we put this garden there and that garden is to help the community because we are in a desert, vegetable desert. And if people are able to get decent vegetables, decent food, that would help them on that end. And then from there, we can give them jobs, where they can make money, where they can take care of their families. Um, I feel that because we've been disenfranchised, if you will, that a lot of the stuff that's happening there is the reason behind that, all of that. So I know that it's not going to help a hundred percent of everybody, but if you could just help one, that one can help another and then that can help another. And then as far as the volunteer side, you might hear some real negative stuff about the north side, but if you just come in and you just meet us and you just work alongside of us and you just be with us, you know, you will see a difference. We're not asking you to live here, we're just asking you to come be a part, and then as you go away, spread it to someone else. So others can come.
Adam McLane: Thank you so much. And I, um, I echo that encouragement for anyone that's listening to this podcast. Um, I think that was a great call to action for you to reach out and just go see and volunteer and participate in this incredible project. It's inspiring and, um, nothing beats a good day at work, getting in the mud a little bit and pulling out some weeds and plants and moving some things around. So thank you for that offer. And I just want to say, thank you so much from The Nature Conservancy to both of you and to everybody that's been involved in this project. And I know that as a large, large group of people and we're inspired by it, um, to Becca's point it has, um, been a great starting place for us to start working in, in the city, um, in ways that we never had in the past. And I think you all have, have done an incredible job of teaching us how to do that equitably and the right ways and how to be supportive. So thank you deepest gratitude from The Nature Conservancy to both of you. So in closing, thank you to our guests for sharing the story with us, and thank you for tuning in for more information about the nature Conservancy and what we do visit nature.org/missouri, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast so you can catch future episodes.Collapse Transcript
Episode 1: What was once a vacant lot in the heart of North St. Louis is now a flourishing urban farm, providing so much more than just fresh produce to the community.
In this episode, you'll hear from Pastor Andy Krumsieg and Donna Washington from Jubilee Community Church, and Rebecca Weaver, TNC Missouri's cities program manager. They will talk about how Project Oasis Farm came to life and how they turned the church's vision into a space that's providing solutions for nature and people.
Since 1956, we have worked to conserve the lands and waters that make Missouri unique and beautiful. Your support has helped us protect over 150,000 acres and we’ve still got a lot of work to do. Your donation will make a difference. We can't save nature without you.