COLUMBIA — A wooden footbridge straddles the Boone and Callaway county line and the shallow, rushing waters of Cedar Creek. The sandy banks of the creek are marked with the tracks of deer and river otter and flanked by dense trees. At one end, there is a road leading to privately owned farms; at the other there is a wide hiking trail leading into the 2,195 acre Smith Creek forest. Smith Creek is a part of the publicly owned Mark Twain National Forest, and named for the small tributary of Cedar Creek that runs through it, but is famous for much more.
The Smith Creek area is about 20 miles by road southeast of Columbia, and to the members of the Missouri Wilderness Coalition and conservationists across the state, it is an area that must be better protected.
SMITH CREEKWhat is being proposed? To designate Smith Creek and six other areas as National Wilderness Areas, protected by the National Wilderness Act of 1964. What is it now? Most of the area, which is part of the Cedar Creek Ranger District situated roughly between Columbia, Jefferson City and Fulton, has special protection from the U.S. Forest Service. Its designation as “semi-primitive non-motorized” means no roads and no motorized recreation vehicles are allowed, but pedal biking, horseback riding, hunting, fishing, camping and driving official Forest Service motorized vehicles are all permitted. What would change? Wilderness designation would eliminate all use of wheeled and motorized vehicles and all active land management, meaning there would be no construction and no trees cut. What’s at issue? There is contention between the Forest Service and the Missouri Wilderness Coalition about the boundaries of the Smith Creek area and how one particular piece of land — the Epple tract— should be managed. The Epple tract does not have the semi-primitive protection of the rest of Smith Creek, and will have roads re-constructed and parking lots built in it if the Forest Service’s Southwest Project is approved. What’s required for wilderness status? For National Wilderness designation, a bill needs to be passed through U.S. Congress. For the Epple tract to receive the “semi-primitive” protection of the rest of Smith Creek, the status must be changed during the Forest Service’s next environmental analysis, or an official proposal must be made for any status to be changed during the 10 to 15 year analysis periods. The last analysis was in 2005. What do U.S. congressional representatives say? Ninth District Congressman Kenny Hulshof said on Tuesday that he proposed a meeting between members of the Forest Service and the Missouri Wilderness Coalition as soon as possible to work out a compromise that would protect the wilderness areas and meet current wilderness standards. “We’ve all got the same goal in mind, it’s just a question of how to get from A to B.” Sen. Kit Bond said many local citizens have expressed concern about the impact of the plan on good forestry management, and he will consider the views of all the stakeholders before supporting any wilderness proposals. Sen. Claire McCaskill said the Wilderness Coalition has contacted her, and she is interested in the proposal but waiting for more information. rmation.
The group’s members are working to designate Smith Creek, and six other areas in Missouri, as federally protected wilderness lands under the National Wilderness Act of 1964.
Smith Creek is managed by the U.S. Forest Service under as a semi-primitive, roadless area, meaning there can be no motorized recreation vehicles. Pedal bikes, horses, hunting, fishing, camping and official Forest Service motorized vehicles are all permitted. More active land use — including cutting timber, road construction and, in some cases, livestock grazing — is allowed in much of the Mark Twain National Forest.
The wilderness coalition wants all of the semi-primitive Smith Creek area — plus the neighboring Epple tract — to gain national wilderness status, a designation that would prevent all timber cutting and construction. The Epple tract, which was sold to the Forest Service about five years ago, borders Smith Creek and the two areas are separated by a small, old road and a trail head marker.
Smith Creek is small compared to most other national wilderness areas — only 2,195 total acres — but what it lacks in size it makes up for in charm.
“Smith Creek has tributary streams, waterfalls, Burlington limestone, pinnacles, bluffs, caves, overhangs. It’s a very beautiful area,” said Missouri resident John Karel, who co-founded the wilderness coalition in the mid-1970s. “You can hike, bird-watch, hunt, fish, canoe if the water’s high enough. I’ve personally done all those things and so have thousands of others.”
The wilderness coalition’s goal to federally protect these areas is supported by more than 20 sponsors, including the Missouri Audubon Society and the Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club.
However, Smith Creek’s current managers, the U.S. Forest Service, has published plans that would disqualify the Epple tract from wilderness designation. The so-called Southwest Project was published on Mark Twain National Forest’s Web site on April 15 and would allow some livestock grazing and tree cutting, and the construction of additional trail entrance points, roads and parking lots in the Epple tract. No roads now exist on the tract.
“I’m not adverse to hiking trails. It’s the road part of the proposal that has me perplexed,” said Bill Shansey, who has lived near Smith Creek since 1990. Shansey said the Wilderness Coalition would have a hard time getting any sort of national wilderness designations in the area if there is new road construction. “We are just asking for plans to be put off to see if the entire area — the Epple tract and Smith Creek — can get a declared wilderness designation,” Shansey said.
The Epple tract’s current management as a general forest area has caused an uproar from some members of the Wilderness Coalition. The group sent an e-mail to all Smith Creek supporters opposing the Southwest Project because they see it as a threat to the area they want designated as wilderness.
While there is no cutting proposed in the Smith Creek area, the Southwest Project proposes commerical cutting of approximately 200 acres of the Epple tract. In what is called a “shelterwood harvest,” crews would take out groups of trees to open up the understory of an area, which allows for regenertion of seedlings. The other form of cutting proposed is called “uneven-aged harvest” where single trees are selected to be taken out to open up a smaller area.
“The Epple tract is a roadless area directly adjacent to the protected roadless area of Smith Creek,” Karel said. “We think the Forest Service has broken federal regulations in their failure to acknowledge the Epple tract as a qualified, protected area. Their claim that it does not qualify as a roadless wilderness area is absurd.”
Mark Hamel, National Environmental Policy Act Coordinator for Mark Twain National Forest, said there is a county road between the two areas that would have to be closed for the same designation as Smith Creek.
“I’m not going to say that it can’t get that designation, but it wouldn’t happen for another 10 years or so,” Hamel said.
The Forest Service does an environmental analysis to re-evaluate the forest plan every 10 to 15 years, and the last analysis was in 2005. Hamel said changes can be made in the time between each analysis, but since the last evaluation was so recent, the Forest Service hesitates to re-do the designations so quickly.
After May 16, Hamel said, the Forest Service plans to make alterations to the Southwest Project based on the comments received. The project will then be re-released some time over the summer for another 30-day public comment period before the Forest Service will take any further action. The Forest Service said it is trying to address the needs of the general population.
“There are factions that want to keep it a certain way or pristine, and some factions that want it more managed,” Forest Service Ranger Elrand Denson said. The Forest Service would not release the names of people who have commented in favor of more active land management.
Denson said the Forest Service plans to keep managing the Smith Creek area as is with no plans of stripping it of its existing protection. If the area got the national wilderness designation, however, it would drastically change the way it is managed, Denson said.
“Basically, in a National Wilderness there are certain things you can and can’t do,” Denson said. “No wheeled vehicles, no bikes. So, for example, if we wanted to do some trail maintenance and clear some brush, we would have to go through the area by horse or hike and use a cross-cut saw. You can’t have anything motorized or mechanized.”
In the Smith Creek wilderness one sunny afternoon, the only other person Shansey found was a solitary man hunting for morel mushrooms. The hiking trails are easy to follow, evidenced by the deep hoof prints left by horse traffic this spring.
Shansey pointed out trees that had been cut and pushed over the edge of a bluff “within the last year or so.” He doesn’t see why that kind of management is necessary along the limestone bluffs of Smith Creek.
“I don’t know whether the Forest Service cut these trees or not. They are cut all the way on the edge of the bluff, not the trail. What are they doing? Trying to improve the view?” Shansey said peering over the edge of the rocky, almost sheer cliff, as a turkey vulture soared overhead. “The view is beautiful enough on its own.”
Shansey continued to point out some gnarled cedar trees that he said were likely some of the oldest in the area.
“I remember hiking here one time and there was a blanket and a cooler with a bottle of wine and some cheese and crackers,” Shansey said, laughing, while gesturing to the peak of one of the area’s many limestone pinnacle formations. “I bet someone got proposed to up here that night. I was kind and didn’t eat the cheese or drink the wine.”
Shansey said there seems to be something in the area for every type of outdoors enthusiast. “I sometimes run into university students down here climbing the bluffs and rappelling,” Shansey said. “This area is very popular for backpackers, too.”
Shansey said he understands what the Forest Service is trying to do with the Southwest Project but wants them to hold off on the Epple tract so Smith Creek supporters can pursue a National Wilderness area designation.
Karel said, as of now, the Wilderness Coalition’s biggest challenge is increasing awareness of what it sees as a threat to a precious resource.
“It’s an exquisite piece of topography that gets wilder and better all the time. The Forest Service should recognize that and do all they can to enhance and protect something that is so valuable to the people and to the conversation-minded community of Missouri,” Karel said. “It’s what Little Dixie looked like before there was even the phrase ‘Little Dixie.’ We have to leave it that way for future generations to enjoy.”