Cane along the Current

Sunday, March 11, 2007
Kevin and Carla Hogan trimmed cane stalks before transplanting individual stalks from the canebrake to open areas of the Big Tree Campground along the Current River near Van Buren, Mo. The tall stalks must be trimmed because winds hurt the transplanted canes once they are in open areas. (Kit Doyle)

VAN BUREN, Mo. -- Near the Big Tree Campground along the Current River, a small project to restore a once-abundant plant could pay big dividends for wildlife.

The Nature Conservancy, in partnership with the National Park Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation is using volunteers to fill in a 6.5-acre field with giant cane, the only native bamboo that once stood in dense stands in the riverbottoms of southern Missouri.

Near the campground about nine miles south of Big Spring on the Current River, a group of 16 volunteers and Nature Conservancy staff members worked through the day Friday on a demonstration project to show what restoring giant cane can achieve for conservation.

The work is part of a larger Current River project designed to bring new conservation measures to 100,000 acres in the Current River watershed, said Kurt Homeyer, the Nature Conservancy project manager. "The national park only protects a small portion" along the river, Homeyer said. "The watershed extends for miles out from the center of the river."

Giant cane provides shelter for small mammals and songbirds, such as the rare Swainson's warbler, and excellent food for larger herbivores. Only about 2 percent of the millions of acres once covered by the densely packed plant, which can grow up to 30 feet tall in rich soil, remains in cane.

Aaron Heckelman, left, and Paul Sandhu came to Van Buren, Mo., with other members of the AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team to volunteer with the The Nature Conservancy's Big Tree Canebrake restoration project Friday. (Kit Doyle)

The restoration project aims to convert a field that was once mowed regularly for hay production into a canebrake similar to what stood in open areas before European settlement.

"The toughest part is getting it re-established after transplanting," Homeyer said. "This area was once open range for livestock. It is a competition thing, and fescue grasses outcompete it."

Among the volunteers on hand Friday were five members of the AmeriCorps emergency response team from St. Louis and four employees of Sequoia Sciences, a company that researches plants for compounds useful in new pharmaceuticals. The restoration project is entering its third year, Homeyer said, and for the past two years it has relied on volunteers. The first year it used contractors, but "volunteers have done 10 times what the contractors accomplished," he said.

As they worked through the day, the volunteers shared stories about themselves and explained why they would spend a day digging holes in an isolated field.

For Matt Crafton, a junior at Van Buren High School, the lure was not only a day off from school but an educational experience. He's hoping to go into forestry. "I talked my principal into letting me out because this would be educational," he said.

Stephanie Rice held several cane stalks as Matt Goering filled in dirt around the transplanted cane at the Big Tree Campground near Van Buren, Mo. The two came from St. Louis to help with the restoration of giant cane.

Kevin and Carla Hogan are part of a stream team on the Jack's Fork, another branch of the scenic riverways. They came, they said, to learn techniques that can be used for bank stabilization. "We just moved to the area," Kevin Hogan said. "We're lucky we have time to do stuff like this."

The AmeriCorps volunteers come from all over the United States, spending a year with the federal program that helps repay student loans or provide money to continue their education.

Rachel Hutchinson holds a bachelor's degree in geology and environmental science. The group was in southwest Missouri after ice storms earlier this year, and when not helping with emergencies the group spends its time on conservation work, she said.

The efforts in the Current River watershed aim to purchase 100,000 acres, improve conservation practices on the land and then resell it, with restrictions on use, to private owners. Those restrictions would include guidelines for timber harvesting or livestock grazing by the new owners.

The project is one of numerous efforts in Missouri, some of which cross state lines, to restore or protect important ecosystems, said Gwen Shirkey, director of philanthropy at the conservancy's St. Louis office. Those projects include restorations of tall grass prairies in northwest Missouri, projects to increase fish and wildlife abundance along the Upper Mississippi River as well as the Current River project. The conservancy was recently the recipient of a $2 million challenge from a private donor, so it is in the midst of a fund-raising effort to match the money, she said.

"We have to raise $2 million by December 2008," she said. "It is a big goal for us."

The conservancy prides itself on working with conservation agencies, landowners and local governments to achieve results. Homeyer, a former real estate broker, grew up in Dent County and now lives in Reynolds County. Working out of the conservancy's four-person office in Van Buren, he feels he understands the residents of the region and their suspicion of environmental groups restricting how they use the land.

That's why the conservancy purchases land only from willing sellers and only imposes restrictions after it owns the property, he said.

"We use a nonconfrontational approach with landowners and agencies to achieve lasting results," he said.

335-6611, extension 126

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