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SierraScape February - March 2011
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LaBarque Creek Natural Area:
An Example of Missouri's Original Landscape

by Becky Denney
Conservation Committee Chair

Scenery at LaBarque Creek Natural Area It is truly remarkable that all 639 acres of LaBarque Creek Conservation Area were designated as a natural area by the MO Conservation Commission in December. Our Missouri Natural Areas System which began in 1977 is coordinated by an interagency called Missouri Natural Areas Committee (MONAC). Once an area is designated a Missouri Natural Area, it receives the highest natural resource protection afforded by the state. How could a conservation area within 30 minutes of St. Louis be so pristine that it would qualify for a Natural Area designation when the St. Louis region has so much sprawl?

Natural areas are chosen to represent and conserve biodiversity for the present and the future but the species and natural communities they represent were present historically throughout the state. They might have been familiar to the Osage Indians or the French when they first came to the Jefferson County area. Our natural areas are chosen and protected as a part of our natural heritage but they also are important for scientific purposes including genetic diversity and add immeasurably to our quality of life.

Many of the wildlife and plant communities of our state have changed in the last 200 years due to impacts from human actions such as agriculture, urban sprawl, highway construction, dams, stream channelization, overgrazing and poor logging practices. Even the landforms have been changed by invasive human impacts. Only about 1/3 of Missouri has the same land cover it had in early the early 1800s. 87% of our wetlands have been destroyed. Our natural areas "represent the highest and best use of public lands on which" they occur, but they are remnants of larger past ecosystems.

LaBarque Creek is an Ozark headwater stream with 8,365 acres in its watershed. 29% of the acreage it drains is in public ownership. It is located in northwest Jefferson County close to Highway 44. Since LaBarque Creek is only 6.4 miles long, the 1 mile stream frontage of our newly named natural area contains a significant amount of diverse riparian corridor and diverse in-stream communities which adds to the diversity of terrestrial communities in the natural area itself as well as contributing to downstream biological health of the creek. Even though much of the watershed is within an easy drive of St. Louis, the population is concentrated, so only 4% of the surface area is impervious. And, a whopping 86% is still in forest, with 2/3's of the land having a slope of 15% or more, so this is rugged country and hard to "settle."

The aquatic biodiversity and species richness of the creek is amazing. Mike Leahy, MDC Natural Areas Coordinator, writes:

"This area lies at the heart of the LaBarque Creek Conservation Opportunity Area. LaBarque Creek supports 36 native fish species (including five native darters) – the highest diversity of native fishes found in tributaries to the Meramec River in Jefferson and St. Louis counties. "

The predominance of Ozark species in the creek which require permanent streamflow and coarse gravel or rock bottoms coupled with such a rugged terrain also translates into a fragile ecosystem. Designating a large acreage of the LaBarque Creek watershed from a conservation area to a natural area can increase needed protection from future changes in land use or poor logging practices.

Most of the LaBarque Creek NA is forested but the natural communities "range from sandstone glades through dolomite woodlands to moist sandstone cliffs. Numerous scenic wet-weather waterfalls, box canyons and cliffs are carved in the area's sandstone bedrock."

The geology is fascinating—wild and steep yet so accessible to many of us. The terrestrial communities are also unique and diverse. Mike Leahy writes,

"The natural area also contains a mix of over a dozen terrestrial natural communities that collectively support 499 vascular plant species, 115 moss and liverwort species, and 49 breeding bird species."

Missouri's natural areas are often "actively managed" because historical natural disturbances such as fire, flooding, windstorms, natural predators and native grazers are no longer acting on an ecosystem basis due to the fragmented character of our protected lands. In addition, both exotic and native species can become invasive which is a challenge to maintaining biological diversity. Monitoring and often management is required for many Missouri Natural Areas.

There are 9 species of special concern that call the LaBarque Creek Natural Area home. The ringed and four-toed salamanders, both state listed amphibians of conservation concern, are found in large areas of the mesic limestone/dolomite and sandstone forests that are in much of the watershed. The four-toed salamander prefers undisturbed mosses along wooded, spring-fed creeks and under damp, rotten logs and rocks. It may grow as long as 4 inches.

LaBarque is also the home of the Gray Petaltail Dragonfly, Tachopteryx thoreyi, which is large for a dragonfly and lives in deciduous forest with permanent hillside seeps. The larvae of most dragonflies are found in aquatic environments but the Gray Petaltail larvae live in mucky groundwater seeps that may contain little standing water. The Petaltail breeds in all 4 of the fragile and rare wetland communities (59 acres total) called acid seeps and forested fens found along stream edges in the upper LaBarque Creek watershed.

Decreases in the seep habitat that is needed by this dragonfly could be caused by changes in groundwater movement, increasing sediments, pesticides or herbicides in the water. For instance, takeover of the seep areas by red cedars could destroy the seep habitats.

Part of the answer to my original question is that the terrain in LaBarque watershed is so steep that it was not easy to develop. Part of the answer is also that the area landowners, environmentalists and public land managers appreciated its beauty, saw great value there so worked to protect it and are still planning and working to protect the present ecosystem integrity.

You can join the work project going on this spring. The Lum Miller Hollow Project is a work project to get rid of invasive cedar trees on the Don Robinson land. The 843 acres of the future Don Robinson State Park is not part of the LaBarque Creek NA but it will become an important part of the LaBarque Creek Conservation Opportunity Area (COA). It is sponsored by the LaBarque Watershed Stream Team partnership with the Missouri Master Naturalist Confluence chapter.

Information about work dates for the Lum Miller Hollow Project is is below.

For specific descriptions and maps refer to the updated, user-friendly Missouri's Natural Areas website: mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/places-go/natural-areas


Eastern Red Cedar Project for LaBarque Creek Watershed

The following are volunteer work days for the Lum Miller Hollow Project, Don Robinson State Park, LaBarque Creek Conservation Opportunity Area. For details please refer to the Confluence Chapter Mo Master Naturalist web site under Activities.

Jan. 20, 22, 27; February 3, 5, 10, 17, 24, 26; March 3, 5, 10, 17, 24, 26, 31.

The near term project for the above dates is the removal, stacking and burning of downed Eastern Red Ceder material and planning of the next project a glade restoration. For details contact Bob Coffing at 314-488-4013.


LaBarque Creek Conservation Opportunity Area (COA): Conservation Opportunity Areas are high-priority landscapes that were identified during the development of Missouri's Comprehensive Wildlife Strategy*. These landscapes were identified by the Missouri Department of Conservation as well as many other conservation partners (such as The Nature Conservancy) as the best places to go to work to conserve all of Missouri's native species and their habitats. LaBarque Creek COA encompasses the LaBarque Creek watershed and was identified for its high-quality terrestrial natural communities (e.g., sandstone cliffs and glades) and the ecologically important LaBarque Creek itself (see mdc.mo.gov/sites/default/files/resources/2010/10/17990.pdf).

LaBarque Creek Watershed: A watershed is all the land area that drains to a common stream. In the case of LaBarque Creek, an area of 13 square miles comprises the LaBarque Creek watershed. A stream is a product of its watershed. To protect and conserve the ecological integrity of LaBarque Creek, efforts to conserve it must focus on the whole watershed.

LaBarque Creek Conservation Area: A conservation area is land owned or managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation to conserve the fish, forest and wildlife resources of the state for the citizens. LaBarque Creek is a 639 acre conservation area.

LaBarque Creek Natural Area: A Missouri Natural Area is designated by the directors of MDC and DNR as a site that preserves and is managed to perpetuate the natural character, diversity and ecological processes of Missouri's native landscapes. Designated natural areas are approved by an inter-agency Missouri Natural Areas Committee and submitted to the directors of DNR and MDC for approval. The MDC Conservation Commission approves to designate natural areas on lands owned or managed by the Conservation Department. LaBarque Creek Natural Area encompasses all of LaBarque Creek Conservation Area (639 acres). Note that typically a Missouri Natural Area is embedded within a MDC Conservation Area or State Park. Sometimes, as is the case with LaBarque Creek, the entire conservation area is a natural area.

Definitions provided by Mike Leahy, Natural Areas Coordinator, Missouri Department of Conservation