Yet after the sighs of relief passed, after the land had recovered sufficiently to regrow pine, oak, and a Midwestern scrub, another, if predictable, fire problem emerged. There was not enough fire to make the landscape habitable according to the definitions of the society that was reclaiming the Ozarks. Left to themselves the Ozarks would ecologically morph into something people couldn’t use and didn’t like. The region had been settled on a roughly Midlands border pattern, though a footloose piedmont and mountaineer model replicated neither New England village nor coastal-plains slavocracy. The imprint of those origins endured, as did many progeny of the pioneering generation and a peculiar political culture.
The rebuilt Ozarks would remain a working landscape, not a wild landscape. But “working” acquired a new definition. It meant recreational, not subsistence, hunting; biodiverse habitats, not open-woods pastures and gardens; sustainable logging, not landclearing; exurban visitors, not backwoods pioneers. It meant fire practices suitable to such ambitions - not a restored flaming front, rolling over the hills in a wave of settlement, but a patchy rehabilitation in which varied fires catalyzed divers habitats. It meant a hard slog of fire reintroduction, feeling what flame might do in the new order. As everywhere, foresters resisted, still locked in ancient blood-feuds with open-range graziers, land-scalping loggers, and fire-promiscuous ruralites. But over the past 20 years they, too, have converted or retired from the scene.
The emerging Missouri consensus features a mixed economy of land ownership and purposes and a fire regime for the working landscapes of a service economy. These are not the practices of the Wild; nor does that vast corpus of fire science devoted to free-burning flame in the Wild hold much pertinence. These are landscapes with people at their core: people set fires, people determine how fire behaves, people decide what species fire will promote or contain, people carry fire across the political roughness of land ownership and the historical roughness of a new era. A new generation wants fall colors from hickory, sycamore, maple, and the 22 species of oak in the state. They want turkey, and otter, and bear. They want prairie patches high with native grasses and thick with forbs. They want glades not overwhelmed by brush and cedar. They want clean streams for floating – the Ozarks National Scenic Riverways was the country’s first such protected complex. They want habitat for the endangered Bachman’s sparrow, and as a grail quest, enough restored shortleaf pine to reinstate the red-cockaded woodpecker. There are pressures for wilderness, too, but they are tiny tiles (23,000 acres) in a vaster mosaic.
To those who consider expansive wilderness as the paragon of nature protection, the Missouri model will seem slow, flawed, and exhausting. They will want immense public estates, and will long for administration by agency fiat, presidential proclamation, and court rulings. Conservation in Missouri has proceeded differently, never moving much beyond a close-argued public opinion, which has required that advocates convince the body politic, not a court or an agency chief. This means a more tedious pace, often lagging national headlines, but a more thorough political legitimacy. Elsewhere, what one administration can declare a roadless area, another can delist. But in Missouri, public opinion, not simply an appointed official, has approved the measures, and what the public has granted after long deliberation it is not likely to cede casually. Conservation in Missouri must work through multiple owners, varied ambitions, and a deeply plowed field of politics. But when it comes, as it has, it speaks with democratic authority as tenacious as matted oak roots.
The wilderness ideal conveys a purity not only of nature but of politics. It works best on empty public lands. It seeks to deal only with the administering agency, not with the whole messy muddle of civil-society politics, which may not be trusted in the end to make the right choice. And it demands a science as seemingly pristine as the nature it aspires to, one stripped of human agency. That type of politics won’t work in Missouri, nor will its science. Both must begin with the anthropogenic landscape, subsequently modified to suit local tastes, not with eco-utopian visions in which humans have vanished and the torch left with the last of the Oneotas.
Across most of America our fire policies, and environmental controversies generally, continue to polarize between the wild and the working. Abolitionists remain intent on banning people from preserves, while traditionalists are keen to defend a way of life whose time has passed and that seems ethically repugnant to much of the national citizenry. As the founding conflict spreads into new landscapes, the prospects ripen for a low-grade civil war, as each side pulls the middle ground apart, forcing it to choose one polarity or the other, all of one or all of its rival. This time, the contested frontier lies not to the west but between the two fires of either coast. In the 19th century that relentless expansion wedged a social fissure into a political chasm. In the 20th the growth of environmentalist agendas amid a rapidly unsettled landscape can threaten to do the same.
But the Ozarks suggest an alternative. This time Missouri is not a centrifugal frontier but a centripetal middle. Its experience suggests that consensus is possible, that fire might be reintroduced through human artifice and understood within the context of anthropogenic landscapes, that people can enhance as well as degrade. This time Missouri may compel a compromise that lets the center hold.
Acknowledgements. This essay is a species of interpretive journalism that resulted from a two-day field trip to the Missouri Ozarks organized by Rich Guyette, Dan Dey, and Mike Stambaugh, as a prelude for a day-long workshop on human fire history at UM-Columbia. For some years I have followed the fascinating fire-history articles the UM Tree-Ring Lab group had published and leaped at the chance to see them and their sites in person. Others joined in: Tim Nigh, Susan Flader, Dan Drees, and Rose-Marie Muzika. To their research I have tried to provide a larger historic and philosophical context. The data is theirs. The refractive prism is mine. I also thank Mike Dubrasich for a gentle editing of a rough-pixelated manuscript.