Finding Refuge

Floods destroy crops and homes,
but they can also restore wildlife
Monday, August 4, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:46 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

After the flood of 1993, John Sam Williamson’s 1,100 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat were under nine feet of water or covered by three feet of sand.

Williamson, whose family has farmed the McBaine land for six generations, lost all of his crops that year.

“We’ve had our farm flooded five times; after other floods, we were able to plant or harvest,” he said. “In 1993, we lost our entire crop.”

Besides being covered with sand and water, Williamson’s land housed sporadic scours, or “blew holes,” created by fast-moving flood water. One of the water-filled holes measured 75 feet deep.

Farmers along the Missouri River saw similar damage to their land, but government and conservation officials saw past the damage and realized they had an opportunity to rejuvenate habitats that once thrived along the river.

Mike Schroer, wildlife regional supervisor for the Missouri Conservation Department’s central region, said that while the opportunity to create habitats always exists, the flood of 1993 persuaded a lot of people to sell their land for conservation purposes.

“People along the river had been flooded several times, but this was the worst one and they more or less gave up on it,” he said.

Williamson was not one of those people.

“If the land is ruined and cannot be put into production, I wouldn’t criticize a farmer for selling his land,” he said. “It’s a landowner’s right, although a lot of this business of restoring land to its ‘natural state’ is a bunch of b.s.”

Williamson spent large amounts of money and energy clearing his land.

“We tried to move some of the sand with scrapers, and it was a monumental task,” he said. “We also deep-plowed six feet deep — the plow was pulled with four bulldozers.”

Although some farmers disagree with using farmland as wildlife habitats, Tom Bell, refuge manager for the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, said the flood of 1993 produced land that was usable for wildlife habitats, but not suitable for farming.

“The flood jump-started our efforts — a really big push to acquire land and create wildlife refuges came after 1993, because land restoration is so expensive and some people didn’t want to farm anymore.”

Habitats along the Missouri River are owned and operated by several agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Schroer said the goal for these agencies is mainly restoring floodplains and creating wildlife habitats.

Agencies acquire land for the refuges often because sellers approach them, Bell said. After they receive information about a tract, the land is evaluated for its potential to maintain a wildlife habitat.

Williamson said he was never directly approached about selling his land, but “several groups told me if I wanted to sell, here are some people you can call.”

One of the obstacles in creating refuges, Schroer said, is the misconception some landowners have about the process.

“It’s very opportunistic — we wait for potential sellers to come to us,” he said. “There might be an isolated tract that we’re interested in, and we’ll approach the landowner and see if they’re willing to sell.”

The habitats are maintained in a variety of conditions, such as marshes and wetlands. The large sand deposits left after the flood have also proven to be valuable environments, Schroer said.

“Some of the big sand piles have established some neat river communities as far as plant diversity,” he said.

Maureen Gallagher, wildlife biologist for the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, agreed that the habitats house a diversity of species, including some, like the pallid sturgeon, that appear on the endangered species list.

Big Muddy owns refuge tracts in eight counties, encompassing 8,654 acres. J.C. Bryant, Big Muddy’s first manager, said the change in the habitats since the project’s beginning in 1994 is remarkable.

“I think it’s amazing. When I looked at the land in 1994, it was a devastated environment, and the sociology was devastating — people were hurting,” he said. “After various agencies bought some land and took it out of farming, I’ve seen it come back.”

Williamson, however, thinks agricultural markets have been hurt by taking land out of production.

“I was taught that the job of the American farmer is to feed the world, and 70 percent of people in the world are hungry,” he said. “We’re losing our markets to other countries — South America now produces more soybeans than we do.”

Schroer said that while the habitats do take some land out of production, the new growth helps farmers.

“A lot of our lands are reforested, which helps slow down the waters and can help protect crops,” he said. “Some don’t have the understanding that the more we’re able to do, it helps them. We’re not going to go in and try to take over anything.”

Williamson said he has many friends who have sold their land to conservation agencies for various reasons, and he doesn’t begrudge them.

“I realize restoring my land was a considerable expense, and an economist would have said it wasn’t worth it,” he said. “But farmers are stubborn, and we don’t like to change our ways. We spend money on our land to grow crops because that’s what we do.”

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