So what exactly does the four-man crew at the Missouri Department of Conservation office in Houston do?
“We do it all,” resource forester Travis Mills said. “Of course, we work for the forestry division, so our primary focus is managing forest, but we do a lot of diverse things for a lot of people. We get calls ranging from, ‘What’s wrong with my tree?’ to, ‘Can you give me suggestions on how to better manage my property?’ to, ‘A bear just broke into my shed and ate all my dog food.’
Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, the MDC administers hundreds of parcels of land in all counties in the state, and is divided into eight administrative regions (Texas County lies in the 12-county Ozark Region). Funded in part through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and in part by an 1/8-of-a-cent sales tax approved by voters in 1978, the department owns most of its land parcels, but some are leased, and some of those are then leased to other entities for management. The MDC acquires land only from willing sellers, and compensates local taxing authorities for the loss of property taxes.
Mills’ crew in Houston includes two long-time MDC workers (24-year veteran Bryant Chilton of Licking, and 22-year veteran James Harlan of Houston), and one newer addition (Lynn Shepherd of Licking, with about two years experience). The four oversee the management of about 13,000 acres of land in Texas County, more than 11,000 of which comprises the Gist Ranch Conservation area between Houston and Summersville.
In years past, the main function of MDC workers was fighting wildfires.
“It used to be you were fighting fire or getting ready to fight fire,” Harlan said.
But the MDC now has programs to help rural fire departments be properly equipped and prepared, which has in turn lessened its own focus on firefighting. One of those programs involves administering a federal excess property program that helps small fire departments afford the acquisition of necessary trucks and gear.
“Most fire departments would not be able to have the vehicles and equipment they need without going this route,” Harlan said. “They can’t just purchase 5,000 gallon tankers and things like that.”
“We’re more or less back up for the fire departments now,” Mills said. “But when we show up, it’s kind of like a joint command situation.”
Nonetheless, Mills and company still tend to many fire-related duties, like manning Texas County’s three watch towers (especially during high-risk periods like this past summer), offering bulldozing services to county fire departments, and even chipping in manpower when needed.
Over the years, fire has also become recognized as a tool as well as a potential enemy.
“When the department started in 1937, the main goal was to put out every fire,” Mills said. “Fire was bad – we never started fires. But about 25 years ago, we started implementing fire on the ground to manage certain ecosystems or natural communities. Over time we’ve learned that some natural communities actually require that fire.
“There’s been an evolution from one extreme to realizing fire is not all bad.”
Managing forestlands often requires removal of trees, and the MDC sometimes sells timber to various buyers. But Mills said the perception that the department fells trees for profit or personal agendas is inaccurate.
“It’s kind of like tending a garden, or a farm crop,” he said. “We’re not cutting trees just to make money, we’re cutting trees to improve what’s there and what will be there in the future. I think that’s a common misconception in the public.
“The other extreme is hands-off and not doing anything, like some federal agencies. Not to say that we don’t have sensitive areas we want to preserve and leave untouched, but we’re not here so much for preservation as we are for conservation, and that means wise use of natural resources.”
MDC workers also visit schools to educate children about forestry and conservation issues, and the department publishes the Missouri Conservationist, a monthly magazine available free to all state residents.
Mills and his crew tend to numerous water resources in Texas County, maintaining Austin Lake, near Mountain Grove, and seven river accesses – six on the Big Piney and one on the Jacks Fork. They also plant many food plots designed to attract game for hunters.
“So much or our job has to do with recreation,” Harlan said. “That’s one of our main focuses.”
Mills said most of the work he and his men do is on public land, but they also at times work with private landowners.
“They need to meet pretty strict criteria for us to get involved,” Mills said. “If they’re going to sell their land and just want advice or price estimates, we don’t provide those services. But if they’re committed to long-term management, we’re all over it and we’re going to help them.
“We do a lot of on-site visits talking to land owners, giving them suggestions on how to better manage their property for trees or wildlife. And really, if you’re managing forest, you’re managing wildlife. The two go hand in hand.”
The MDC operates its only tree growing facility in Texas County, the George O. White Nursery near Licking. The operation offers about 70 species for sale to the public at low prices, most of which are native to the Show-Me State (with the exception of a handful of evergreen species).
As large as it is, the Gist Ranch CA represents a big chunk of Mills and his crew’s workload. Several acres of forest in the area are managed for improved tree growth and wildlife habitat, and Mills has been working for a few years on creating woodland savannah areas where some trees have been removed to allow sunlight to reach the ground, and controlled burns have been employed to burn off the “leaf litter” covering the ground.
“That allows for a lot of greenery on the forest floor that creates wonderful nesting and brooding habitat for all kinds of wildlife,” Mills said. “You don’t see that in a ‘closed canopy’ forest. In that type of environment, the ground would be mostly a carpet of leaves and you don’t even really have any tree regeneration to speak of.”
Once the leafy carpet has been eliminated and sunshine can reach the exposed, mineral-rich soil, seeds of native plants that have been dormant for decades suddenly come to life.
“We had a botanist here recently and she was impressed by the variety we already had in here,” Mills said.
The Gist Ranch also features an unmanned bench rest shooting range that Mills calls one of the best in the MDC system. There is no charge to use the facility, which includes 25, 50, 100, and 300-yard ranges separated by earth berms for safety. The 300-yard range is one of only a few operated by the MDC.
“You can be shooting on the 100-yard range and not have to worry about someone shooting on the 50-yard range,” Mills said. “You can walk out to your target and feel safe because of the way the complex is designed. We have people come from long distances to use this facility.”
While the bench rests are now exposed to the sun and rain, Mills has already obtained the materials to outfit them with awnings. Another project nearing completion at Gist Ranch is finishing the third of three handicapped-accessible hunting blinds.
“They’ll all be ready by gun season,” Mills said.
Mills said a 15-year-plan will soon be drawn up regarding the future of the Gist Ranch CA, and that possible improvements on the tract include an archery range, roadway upgrades and a bigger lake.
“We don’t have a lot of flat water here,” Mills said, “and if we can provide more, it will certainly be utilized. The Gist Ranch is unique, as far as forest management. When we bought it in 1997, it was pretty well abused, so we’re having to help it along to heal from all the timber cutting.
“But all of it hinges on budgetary constraints, priority rankings and that kind of thing. We have a lot of ideas, though.”
Being in public service and working for a government agency, MDC workers hear their share of negative reaction to what they do. At times, maybe more than their share.
“When you affect as many people as we do, with the wide variety of things we do, some people aren’t going to be happy,” Harlan said. “Some of it is simply a lack of education – not understanding what we do and why we do it. But we’re not doing this like it’s brand new to us. There has been knowledge gained over the past 75 years to give us reason to do what we do.”
“I think it sometimes boils down to we’re easy to pick on,” Mills said. “Does the department always make correct decisions? No –– nobody does. But we have some of the most highly trained and best biologists and foresters in the country, so it’s not from a lack of knowledge or skills.
“I think some people just have a personal vendetta as well. I can’t explain that, but I handle it by coming to work and doing the best job I possibly can, and that satisfies me. That’s all I can do.”
Mills said he is always available to the public.
“Anyone who has a question about a timber sale or some kind of land management practice, please call or stop in and we’ll explain why we’re doing what we’re doing,” he said. “We don’t know everything, but we learn from both our mistakes and successes and we get better every year. That’s what we strive for.”
Located on the west side U.S. Highway 63 just south of the fairgrounds, the phone number at the MDC’s Houston office is 417-967-3385. Mills’ email address is email@example.com.
“We take for granted what we have and what’s around us,” Mills said, “but we’re fortunate enough to live in rural America, and forest service land and conservation land – it’s all right here at our back door. We just have to use it and enjoy it.”