“A time to be born, and a time to die, a time for everything under heaven.” – Ecclesiastes
The death of Leo Drey — St. Louis conservationist who put his money where his mouth was to preserve natural Missouri, who, with a spare staff, invented a new way of forestry which simultaneously improved cast off Ozark acreage, and made a profit from sustainably raised lumber — was not an entire surprise. Mr. Drey was 98, a long life well-lived, including personally seeing to the preservation of a half-dozen state parks, Greer Spring, 150,000 acres (more or less) of remote, steep, hardscrabble woodlands, and finally, giving over those lands and their profits to support conservation projects the old fashioned way.
Leo loved the rivers, and was deeply involved in their conservation, from being a constructive critic of the Ozark National Scenic Rivers to an ardent backer of the Wild and Scenic Rivers system — in Missouri, management by the U.S. Forest Service, with a focus on more natural recreation with only minimal development for creature comforts. He fought for the Meramec River against its damming, and later the Natural Streams Act — an idea before its time, where rivers were to be managed as ecosystems, not separate parcels.
This anecdote might illuminate something about Mr. Drey. Back in the late 80s, before L-A-D was working closely with St. Louis cavers, a group of perhaps rather naive young people decided they wanted to go caving in the area around Cookstove Cave the next weekend. We were sitting around on a Saturday, and someone said, “Well, shouldn’t we get permission from the landowner? How do we do that?” My husband said, “well, you could call their office on Monday or someone could call Mr. Drey right now.” Eyes widened. “You’ve got his phone number?” “No, but look him up in the phone book.” Someone did, the call was placed and in a 3 minute phone call Leo granted permission and told us that we were welcome as long as we didn’t leave a mess behind, and that he would be interested in hearing back (at the office) with a short written report of how we found the area. The fellow who called was just stunned. “Leo Drey answered his own phone. He actually answered his own phone.” Ok, that might be a corny story. But it’s the truth, and it made a big impression on impressionable young people with an intense interest in conservation.
Part of my Tufa Creek undergrad geochemistry thesis was accomplished on Pioneer Forest land. I’m personally indebted to Drey’s vision to help sharpen my own.
Filling Leo’s boots exactly will never be done, but those of us following in his footsteps now understand the enormity of the task before us.