State considers land deal in Three Creeks

Friday, January 22, 2010 | 9:05 p.m. CST; updated 8:31 p.m. CST, Saturday, January 23, 2010


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When John John (real name) was a boy, he began exploring the caves on and around his family farm south of Columbia. During one excursion into Tomlin Cave, John had an unlikely encounter with one of its inhabitants.

John and his friends repeatedly heard a bat screeching at close range but couldn't find it. When they turned around to leave, John found himself in front of the group with the other boys' flashlights on his back.

The bat had attached itself to the hood of John's sweatshirt and followed the boys for half an hour. They swatted it away and ran.

"We were afraid it was going to call its friends and get us," John said.

These days, John and his sister own the family farm adjacent to Three Creeks Conservation Area, and they're offering the state some of the land — along with public access to Tomlin Cave.

Under the proposal, John would sell 66 acres of land adjacent to Three Creeks and buy 18 acres of the public area from the Missouri Department of Conservation. The proposal also includes an easement on Tomlin Cave, which grants the use and maintenance of the cave to the Department of Conservation.

His offer puts a $5,000-per-acre value on all of the land in question along with an easement to the cave for $25,000.

The proposal would alter the southwestern border of Three Creeks Conservation Area to follow natural boundaries and grant the Department of Conservation control of Tomlin Cave and greater control over the streams.

Kirsten Alvey of Chouteau Grotto, a local spelunkers group, said the cave has "a beautiful, picturesque entrance." There are two large rooms at the entrance separated by a low spot, she said. Cavers proceeding past the first two rooms of the cave must crawl through a small, wet tunnel for more than 50 feet. At the end of the tunnel is the cave's largest room, housing columns and curtain formations.

The cave also provides habitat for several species of bats, Alvey said, including Little Browns, Big Browns and Eastern Pipistrelles.

Jim Low, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said the agency's governing board, the Conservation Commission, has directed staff to look into John's proposal.  It will likely take six months for the staff to issue its report, Low said, adding that the proposal sounded "pretty advantageous."

John, a former Columbia councilman for the Fifth Ward, said he's noticed hikers and horse riders coming from the Three Creeks Area, trespassing as much as a mile onto his property. His proposal would redraw the property line along the bluffs of Bonne Femme and Turkey Creeks, making the boundaries between public and private land more apparent.

John believes fewer visitors to Three Creeks would stray onto his property if the land deal were approved. Three Creeks needs "to have a border that makes sense to their users," he said. Similarly, John is concerned about safety and liability for anyone going into the cave from Three Creeks.

Skip Walther, a Columbia lawyer representing John, said "the bulk of the trespassing" is going on at the cave.

Walther also said that granting the Department of Conservation an easement "would clear the issue up" by making public safety and protection of the cave responsibilities of the Department of Conservation.

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