An important place for me to visit
One of my goals is to visit Big Oak Tree State Park, in extreme southeastern Missouri. I've crossed the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers at Cairo, Illinois, dozens of times. However, I've never taken the time to turn off the main road and drive 25 miles south to the park. I'm always in a hurry, on a trip to visit my family.
The park has a very interesting history. This area, already a flood-plains forest, sank up to 50 feet in some places during the great New Madrid Earthquake of 1811. Swamps became swampier. As settlers populated the area, they recognized the agricultural potential of the rich, alleuvial soil, and a century of reclamation began, with the goal of creating as much farmland as possible.
By the 1930s, nearly all of the swamps had been drained and nearly all of the forest had been cleared. One tract in Mississippi County, soon to be logged, contained the largest bur oak tree that has ever been known. Public sentiment was aroused, and a statewide effort began to save the big bur oak and to preserve a remnant of Missouri's great forest of the Mississippi floodplain.
Because of the Great Depression, the state of Missouri did not have enough funds to purchase the acreage where the tree grew. With a combination of state funds, private donations, and the generosity of concerned citizens who gave what they could, enough money was raised to buy 1007 acres of virgin hardwood forest in Mississippi County. This purchase included the tract of land with the giant bur oak tree. In 1938, the Big Oak Tree Park was dedicated.
The bur oak fell in the 1950s. Its death at the advanced age of 396 was attributed to lightning strikes and rot. The tract of land where it grew is now a National Natural Landmark. The National Park Service describes the area as "the only sizable tract of essentially virgin wet-mesic bottomland habitat."
In addition to the champion bur oak, the park has been a home to other state and national champion trees as well. Missouri State Parks information says that "...trees in the park are unsurpassed in the state for their size, with a canopy averaging 120 feet and with several trees more than 130 feet tall. Five trees qualify as state champions in their species; two others rank as national champions."
The park is attractive to bird-watchers as well as tree-lovers. Around 150 species of birds have been observed there, including some very rare species that have not recently been seen -- and that brings me to a sad ending for this story.
It seems that the park's forest is not in good health. According to an article in American Forests, the old trees are dying and seedlings are not growing. The cane brake is also dying.
Part of the problem is a lake that was built in the park in 1959, destroying the natural swamp that had been there. Drainage systems within the park, designed to prevent flooding of nearby farmland in wet weather, have deprived the ecosystem of the water it needs to sustain itself. Beaver dams were dynamited, also increasing the drainage. Foresters are trying to correct these mistakes now, but it may be too late for the forest to recover.
So I must visit Big Oak Tree State Park sometime soon -- as soon as possible.
Images in this post are from Wikipedia. The map is from the article "Big Oak Tree State Park" and the photo is from an upload page titled "Big Oak Tree State Park Boardwalk". I highly recommend viewing the full-resolution version (3.96 MB ) of the photo above. Thank you to Knowledgeum, the photographer.