Author Archives: zacharydmatson

Sex on the river

Zachary Matson

The Jack’s Fork River meanders slowly through a landscape of rolling Ozark Mountains — weathered to their core by hundreds of thousands of years of natural elements. Tall limestone bluffs, stained with dark lichens, tower over the river like the granite pillars of a national monument.

Narrow short-leaf pines and thick, sturdy oaks stand tall in thin soil and a rocky foundation. On the riverbanks, dull bushy sycamores envelope green willows, and a Small Copper butterfly’s orange wings shimmer in the midday sun as it flutters across the river, hunting for insects and mates.

Large schools of minnows gather around large, mossy rocks in the clear water while large trout circle like sharks.

King Fishers, swallows and a Green Heron beat their wings as they glide gracefully and methodically up and down the river corridor, inches above the slow moving current. Two or three Turkey Vultures dry their wide wings in a tall, dead tree, while another group picks at a carcass on the gravel bank below.

Water strider bugs hover over the water as swarms of mayflies celebrate their brief orgies in the great evolutionary struggle.

“These bugs are very happy today. It’s their one day when they can fly around and have sex,” said retired entomologist Dennis Kopp as he pointed to a swarm of mayflies, which hatch from their larval stages and breed for about 24 hours.

“It’s a sign of river health; it’s a sign of minimal river disturbance,” he said.

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Interview the forest

Interview the forest. Interview the trees and the rocks and the dirt. Listen carefully to the birds and the frogs and the crickets. Watch the clouds and the hills that unfold into the distant horizon, spotting the smattering of trees that are leading the charge to fall coats of orange and auburn.

These are the gritty details that make good stories, and you can only get them by being there. That is the essential lesson and genius of field reporting. And it’s what makes being a journalist so damn fun.

The key to reporting complicated stories is going to where the action is happening, whether that is at a research plot in the ancient Ozark Mountains, the Keys in Florida or a lab at a major university.

Interviews with nature can take a bit of hiking and might leave you sweaty and muddy and exhausted, but they are the key to good stories and the job of the reporter. Every moment of this trip reiterates these essential truths and force me to think about how I can be better at everything I do on the job.

A long weekend of reporting in the field makes going back to Jefferson City a bit challenging. But there are plenty of interesting creatures there as well.

Edited by Andrew Brown

Local groups fill gaps

EMINENCE, Mo. — The Ozark National Scenic Riverways closed campgrounds, suspended tours and let the grass at a popular site go without mowing because of sequestration funding cuts, but locals have volunteered time and resources to reopen two campgrounds and organize an annual event once run by the National Park Service.

In March, a three percent across-the-board funding cut slashed the park’s $6 million budget, forcing staff and service reductions. Three popular campsites were closed, a visitor center was shuttered and the Haunting in the Hills, an annual showcase of traditional Ozark culture in its thirteenth year, was cancelled.

But faster than Congress can pass a budget, two local groups filled the void and signed a volunteer agreement with the park to run the Rymers and Gooseneck campgrounds, which are especially popular during the fall hunting season.

“As soon as gates were closed and padlocked, that’s when we heard from the groups,” said Faye Walmsley, an interpretive specialist with the park.  

Volunteers are nothing new to the park service, but with shrinking budgets and increased demands, Walmsley hopes that she can expand the use of volunteers and students at the scenic riverways.

Walmsley said she has been working with the Recreation Department at Missouri State to establish a river patrol program that would use students to communicate with visitors and document violations on the river. She said the goal is to “get people to be the eyes and ears of the park.”

Besides the campground management, the Ozark Heritage Project, a local nonprofit, volunteered to coordinate Haunting in the Hills. The event will be held Oct. 12-13 at Alley Spring and feature local musicians, dancers, artists and food vendors, highlighting traditional Ozark culture.

“That sense of ownership is very important,” Walmsley said.

Edited by Chris Long.

Growing meadows for hungry elk

EMINENCE, Mo. — A large bull elk stood stolid on a gravel road as a cow and its calf grazed in a nearby field. The setting sun cast a blaze of reds and oranges softened by dark clouds and slowly gave way to night.

This postcard scene didn’t come from Colorado or Wyoming, but from Missouri, once fully depleted of the tall and majestic creatures, now home to a burgeoning population of reintroduced elk.

Peck Ranch, a Missouri Department of Conservation site in the Ozark Mountains and the reintroduction site, is more than 23,000 acres of oak-pine forests, rocky glades and narrow ridges that reach past 1,000 feet high.

“You have to want to come to Peck Ranch,” said Rochelle Renken, Resource Science Field Chief at the Missouri Department of Conservation. “Its not on the way to anything.”

In 2011, as dozens of elk were gathered in Kentucky and prepared for release at the Peck Ranch site, conservation department employees had already begun clearing out a small portion of trees at the site and began expanding large flat areas.

The tree removal was part of an effort to expand the open meadows, which the elk use for slow, methodical grazing. Barb Keller, a researcher who works for the project, said the elk populations are growing at 10 to 20 percent. As the populations grow, the elk will expand their ranges and demand more grazing territory. The researchers are planting orchard grass, a favorite of the elk, in the meadows.

The conservation department is continuing to expand the Peck Ranch meadows and are preparing for more elk and more sightseeing visitors, who Renken expects will be flocking to Peck Ranch once word spreads of the elk herds. Once the populations surpass 250, the department will begin planning for an elk hunting season, which would likely start with just a small handful of permits.

Supervising editor is Alicia Stice.