Forest Niche Statement

Niche Statement

Missouri’s only national forest, the Mark Twain, encompasses roughly 1.5 million acres, mostly within the Ozark Highlands. Located across southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, the Ozark Highlands are an ancient landscape characterized by large permanent springs, over 5,000 caves, rocky barren glades, old volcanic mountains and nationally recognized streams. Portions of the Ozarks were never under oceans, nor were the areas glaciated.

A trademark of the Mark Twain is plant and animal diversity. The area is described by The Nature Conservancy as a “biologically rich ecological resource.” The eastern upland oak hardwood and southern pine forests converge here with the drier western bluestem prairie of the Great Plains, creating a distinctive array of open grassy woodlands and savannas. This rich mixture of unique, diverse and ecologically complex natural communities (some 65 in all) provides a home for nearly 750 species of native vertebrate animals and over 2,000 plant species. The number of species that are endemic or restricted solely to the Ozarks eco-region (almost 200 species) rivals those found in the tropics or glacial eco-regions.

Geologic features associated with the karst terrain and igneous outcroppings of the Ozarks provide a wide variety of interest to the landscape. There are sheer rock faces, underground caverns, natural bridges, sinkholes, knobs and caves throughout the Forest. Caves provide habitat for unique animals like cave salamanders and southern cave fish. Shut-in creeks, whose enormous rock boulders restrict flow, create nationally renowned white water kayaking and canoeing opportunities.

Due to the karst topography, there is an abundance of natural springs found in the area. The Ozarks are home to the world’s largest collection of “first magnitude” springs (those with over 65 million gallons of water daily flow). Almost 3,000 springs feed rivers and streams that flow year round. Many of these streams are so clear that ten feet of depth appears to be only one foot deep.

Greer Spring, the second largest in Missouri, is considered to be the most pristine and scenic in the state. Discharging an average of 222 million gallons of water per day, Greer Spring more than doubles the flow of the Eleven Point River. The importance of the water resource of the Mark Twain is exemplified by the designation of the Eleven Point Scenic River, one of the first Wild and Scenic Rivers in the nation. These natural features are a destination for many visitors to Missouri.

Underneath the land surface lays one of the largest lead ore deposits in the world, the Viburnum Trend. Since mining began, more than 250 million tons of economically valuable ore have been recovered, including lead, zinc, and copper. During the last five years the significant economic benefits of the mining industry has been reduced by this market-driven industry.

Today the Forest’s large land base is many things to many people, containing some of Missouri’s most beautiful and desirable landscapes and providing natural settings critical for the tourism industry. The diverse Ozark topography is the keystone of many recreational opportunities.  The Forest provides hiking, hunting, mountain biking, horseback and OHV riding areas that complement other agencies. Over 45 million people are within a day's drive of its unique features and recreation opportunities.

The Threats

The biological systems of the Ozarks are human-influenced, fire-mediated systems. As far back as 14,000 years ago, Native Americans were manipulating Missouri’s landscape, primarily with fire, for food, shelter and other products. The woodlands were kept open through the use of frequent, low-intensity fires, and perhaps by elk and bison. The only heavily forested areas would have been found along major rivers and other areas that were not affected by the fire regime.

Beginning in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, this rich ecosystem and the processes that maintained it were severely disrupted. The oak and pine forests that covered the Ozarks for unbroken miles were harvested in support of mining and westward expansion. Fortunes boomed with early lead and silver mining. With the forests gone, settlers attempted to farm the thin Ozark soils, and livestock were allowed to wander the open range. The clearing, farming and grazing caused soil erosion that clogged streams with silt and gravel.

As a result of these impacts, short-lived scarlet and black oaks now dominate where once longer-lived pine, white and post oaks were found. What was once savanna or open woodlands are now thick with undesirable brush and small diameter trees. These changes, along with the suppression of fire, have resulted in lower species diversity.

The Challenge

In the early 1930’s the State of Missouri asked the Forest Service to establish national forests in Missouri, to help reestablish forest and protect the watersheds. Eroded areas were planted to stop soil erosion, wildlife preserves were built and wildlife such as deer and turkey were imported from other states. Over the years the forest began to recover.

Although significantly impacted by the modern society and being a home to over three million people, large areas of the Ozarks remain in native restorable vegetation cover. Timber, tourism, mining and agriculture are major economic factors, along with an influx of retirees in recent years. The Mark Twain National Forest is uniquely positioned with its large land base to conserve the ecology and culture of the Missouri Ozarks.

We know that the forest will never be like it was, but we can plan for what it will be like in the future. Providing ecological sustainability requires an integrated management approach that considers natural processes such as fire, insect and disease outbreaks, and catastrophic wind events, along with forest management activities that mimic those natural disturbance events.

The lands found within the Forest contain a variety of plant communities that blend into an impressive tapestry of vegetation, forming the foundation to restore natural communities in Missouri. Part of our unique niche includes the opportunity and capability to restore and maintain hundreds of thousands of natural communities critical to maintain Missouri’s biodiversity. We are accountable to society to ensure the long-term sustainability of these globally distinct biological areas. This will involve ongoing on-the-ground management activities. By managing for ecological sustainability, forest ecosystems will be healthy, resilient and sustainable in the long term, and will also provide a sustainable flow of goods and services that contribute to the economy and local communities.