Missourians are fortunate to have the Ozarks in our backyard. This unique and ancient landscape provides spectacular scenery, productive forests, abundant wildlife, and free-flowing rivers that sustain local economies, including a vibrant tourism industry that attracts visitors from around the world. The Ozarks also have an amazing diversity of habitats, plants, and animals, including more than 200 species found nowhere else on earth and some of the nation’s largest and cleanest permanent freshwater springs.
The crown jewel of the Ozarks is the Current River in southeastern Missouri. A nationally recognized sport fishing and canoeing destination, the Current River system supports 35 aquatic species of global conservation concern; an astounding 25 of these have their only or best populations on earth in these waters.
Every Missourian can be awed watching the 300 million gallons of crystal clear water that gushes daily from Big Spring, or floating the clear waters of the river, entranced by the spectacular scenery and abundance of colorful fish and other aquatic life, or gazing into the endless azure depths of Blue Spring. All of us can explore a healthy Ozark woodland, enchanted by the box turtles, birds, butterflies and wildflowers that abound in these habitats
These opportunities are available to all of us because of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding last year. Established as the nation’s first National Park to protect a river system, the Riverways protects 134 miles of the Current and Jacks Fork rivers, including more than 350 springs and 330 caves. The Riverways also showcases the region’s rich history, and visitors can tour Alley Mill or wander the eerie ruins of the old Welch Hospital above beautiful Welch Spring.
The Current River system is the crown jewel of more than a dozen unique and globally significant rivers in the Ozarks, including the Meramec River here in the St. Louis area. Each sustains natural resources that provide people with ongoing multiple benefits at many levels. The health of these rivers is the direct result of decades of efforts by concerned citizens, organizations, and public agencies.
Our Ozark rivers face many threats today, including erosion, watershed degradation, unplanned development and pollution. To conserve these resources and the myriad benefits they have provided since the first humans entered the Ozarks, the decisions we make as a society must recognize the critical importance of these systems to both human well-being and our natural heritage. Our actions must sustain the long-term ecological health of these rivers and their watersheds.
We all depend on healthy ecosystems to sustain our quality of life. These systems provide clean waters, recharge groundwater resources, reduce flood impacts, sustain the healthy pollinators on which many of our crops depend, maintain healthy soils and prevent erosion, and a host of other factors both pragmatic and aesthetic. The very foundations of our history, infrastructure and cultural identity are linked to the unique natural systems that shape our social and economic fabric.
Future generations will judge us by the degree to which we confer a legacy of healthy, functional, landscapes and watersheds to sustain their quality of life and inspire the same wonder and awe as we have had the opportunity to experience. Conservation is not merely an option for those interested, it is an essential responsibility and privileged obligation for every citizen ― one that that can deeply enrich each of us.
Doug Ladd is Missouri director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy.