Great little piece on NPR’s All Things Considered today about Leo Drey and his vast tract of forest in the Ozarks. Drey started buying land in the Ozarks in 1951, and is the largest private landowner in the state. That first purchase was for 3,000 acres of land, priced at $4 an acre. “I didn’t see how you could go wrong when you could buy land for $4 an acre,” he said. He acquired the bulk of his land in 1954, when he purchased 90,000 acres of forest from National Distillery. His Pioneer Forest is the largest private tract of land in the state of Missouri, and home to a sustainable forestry program. He continued the distilleries practice of selective cutting, dividing the land into 1/5 acre plots monitored every 5 years for health, size, growth and quality of trees. Only select trees are culled from the plots every 20 years, making the forest a model of sustainability.
His love of the forest was set as a young man, floating on canoes along many of the Ozarks rivers. Drey was active in creating the Wild & Scenic Riverways on the Current and Jack’s Fork Rivers during the 1960’s, and worked hard for St. Louis County to establish parks and recreation areas.
Not everyone appreciated his conservation efforts though.
He met and married her rather late in life for those times. His mother had worried that Leo’s early preoccupation with buying forest land might never lead him to marriage.
When he first took his mother to the Ozarks to view his property, Drey proudly showed off his land and forests. At one point, he embraced a tree to show her its girth. She responded, “That’s about the saddest sight I’ve ever seen.”
Kay, his eventual wife, needed to prove her worth as a canoe paddler before he married her, and the family spent many a night camped on a gravel bar under the stars.
The radio piece focused on Drey’s donation of Pioneer Forest, all 146,000 acres of land, to a private foundation that will carry on his vision of sustainable forestry after his passing. In addition to the forest, the LAD Foundation will also carry on the Continuous Forest Inventory, an impressive dataset on those 1/5 acre plots that is an invaluable research tool for conservation officials and universities.
Pioneer Forest is open to the public for day hikes and longer backpacking routes. 13 miles of the Ozark Trail pass through Pioneer Forest, linking the Mark Twain National Forest to the north with the Ozark National Scenic Riverways to the south.