A ghost roams Ozark rivers.

Sometimes at night, with nothing but a dying gravel bar campfire to push back against the dark, it breaches that barrier between its realm and ours. Neither malevolent nor threatening, yet every encounter is unsettling.

This is no ordinary spirit, either, but one as uncommon as our wild rivers themselves.

It is the shade of Aldo Leopold — called the 20th century’s "leading voice" and "ranking authority" on saving wildlife, wild places and by doing so saving something of the wild in ourselves. Leopold knew Ozark rivers well. The Current was a favorite. He fished it, canoed it, hunted quail along its banks. He even owned a hunting cabin on the lower river for a while.

He knew Missourians well, too. Born in the 19th century, he grew up hearing stories of the state's bounty, according to his biographer, and his experiences in the state and his contacts with its residents — personal and professional — gave him reason to be optimistic.

“If conservation can become a living reality anywhere, it can do so in Missouri. This is because Missourians are not yet completely industrialized in mind and spirit, and I hope never will be."

That was Leopold in 1947, during his last visit to the state, only months before his death, challenging us to reorient ourselves toward a broader definition of conservation.

"Conservation," Leopold wrote, "is a state of harmony between men and land."

That so many Missourians rallied to protect some of the best Ozark rivers, that they became some of the first rivers in the nation to be preserved, goes some way, I’d like to think, toward validating his faith in Missourians.

But to canoe these rivers today is to witness firsthand the gulf between his "hope" and our "reality" — his realm and ours — and to be haunted by a question: Would Leopold see in us the same mind and spirit he saw in our ancestors more than 70 years ago?

Saving wildlife

With so much of what we take for granted in conservation today — wilderness preservation, wild rivers, game and nongame protection — Leopold got there first. His biographer, Curt Meine, wrote that Leopold "not only had his irons in a remarkable number of conservation fires, but was generally in on the original stoking process.”

This is Leopold circa 1915 — early in his own evolution as a conservationist — but still a half century before the country attempted its first endangered species protection: “North America, in its natural state, possessed the richest fauna in the world. It’s stock of game has been reduced 98 percent. Eleven species have already been exterminated and 25 more are now candidates for oblivion. Nature was a million years or more in developing a species. ... Man, with all his wisdom, has not evolved so much as a ground squirrel, a sparrow or a clam.”

A more precise estimate, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is that 500 species, subspecies or varieties of plants and animals in the United States have become extinct since the Pilgrims arrived.

Part of Leopold's persuasive power came from his ability to turn traditional thinking on its head. Progress, for example, wasn't an enemy of conservation, but its ally.

"Progress is no longer an excuse for the destruction of our native mammals and birds, but on the contrary not only implies an obligation but an opportunity for their preservation," he wrote.

That was his hope; there have been victories.

Hunting a draw along the Current River during a 10-day float trip in 1926, Leopold noted an absence of turkeys, despite habitat that he said "looked good enough to make a turkey's mouth water."

He would surely be pleased to learn that Missouri's turkey population — down to a few hundred in the Ozarks during his lifetime — is today estimated at several hundred thousand, and is perhaps comparable to what existed in pre-settlement times. A similar resurrection — perhaps too much of a success — unfolded for Ozarks' whitetail.

Yet, reality is equally unsettling.

The eastern elk that once roamed the Ozarks is one of those 500 extinct species. The red wolf, which still howled in the Ozarks when Leopold canoed the Current, is on the verge of becoming number 501. As for those claims that Leopold wrote about in 1915 — well, among that rich fauna, North America in general, and the Midwest in particular, was once home to the world's greatest diversity of freshwater mussels.

Yet today, in the Midwest, more than half of the 78 known mussel species are classified as federally endangered, threatened or species of concern. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports, "No other group of animals in the Midwest is so gravely imperiled." The Nature Conservancy reports that about 70 percent of mussels in North America are extinct or endangered.

A few years back, a county official in the Ozarks, frustrated by the delay and added expense of protecting freshwater mussels as they were building a bridge across a river, said to me: “My question always has been with this, what is the purpose of the mussels?”

This is Leopold, 80 years earlier, anticipating the question, and providing the answer: “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: 'What good is it?' If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Saving wild places

Leopold also upended the thinking about wild places, and the thinking in his day was the doctrine of "highest use." According to Meine, "highest use" was interpreted to mean the greatest good for the greatest number, and it was used to justify roads, cottages and other development that opened and then strangled surviving wild places.

Leopold questioned "whether the principle of highest use does not demand that representative portions of some forests be preserved as wilderness."

He championed the protection of wilderness more than 40 years before the Wilderness Act of 1964; created the nation’s first wilderness area in 1924, the Gila, in New Mexico; and was one of the founders of the Wilderness Society a decade later.

Leopold also championed river protection at a time when dams were the rage — decades before the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act passed in 1968.

“ … a wild river is worth keeping wild …” Leopold argued in one of his essays.

At least, that was the hope; once again, there have been victories.

He would surely be pleased to learn the Current became the nation's first federally protected river corridor and a prototype for river protection efforts elsewhere in the country, and that the nearby Eleven Point was one of the first Wild and Scenic Rivers.

But reality, here too, is unsettling.

What was saved has too often been turned into a playground rather than handed down as a wild river, and in too many ways our rivers are only a pale reflection of everything Ozark rivers can and should be.

During that 10-day canoe trip on the Current Leopold reported that they had no trouble catching what he called “hideous waterdogs,” more commonly called Ozark hellbenders.

What would he make of the fact that the population of Ozark hellbenders declined by 75 percent since the 1980s, and that only a few hundred survived in the wild?

In 2011, the Ozark hellbender was declared an endangered species and given a 20-year prognosis until it, too, joined the list of extinct species — becoming number 502. Captive breeding and restocking efforts have bought it time, but we still have not figured out how to live with it, or it with us, to find that harmony. Leopold was critical of stocking programs — at least with waterfowl — and thought them the lesser of those ways to preserve at-risk wildlife. He believed nature could do the better job and advocated restoring habitat and the conditions necessary to allow nature to maintain healthy populations of wildlife.

His land ethic recognized that everything is part of a community, and "entitled to continuance."

Saving our wilder selves

Leopold also argued decades ago that saving wildlife and wild places preserved something wild in us.

“Many of the attributes most distinctive of America and Americans are the impress of the wilderness and the life that accompanied it,” he wrote.

“… Shall we now exterminate this thing that made us Americans?” he asked in that same essay.

Sixty years before the phrase "nature deficit," was coined, Leopold wrote of the importance of living an outdoor life after meeting two young canoeists on a Wisconsin river who were not bound by watches, clocks or work whistles, nor hidden behind what he called the "thousand buffers" of civilization, but living by "sun-time" and accepting the risks of that outdoor life.

He hoped experience with wilderness and its risks would remain a way of life.

"Perhaps every youth needs an occasional wilderness trip, in order to learn the meaning of this particular freedom.”

Here again, reality is unsettling.

A recent study found the typical American spends 93 percent of their time either indoors or in cars, leaving barely enough time to see the sun, let alone for "sun-time." More famously, one study found that prisoners who spend an hour in the "yard" get more time outdoors than most children today.

Eighty years ago, Leopold wrote, "The real threat to the future of 'outdoor America' lies not in the agencies which destroy it, but in the multiplication of people who think they can live without it."

Missourians today

To canoe Ozark rivers today is to wonder if we have become what Leopold feared — "industrialized in mind and spirit," so shielded by those "thousand buffers" that we don't see the wild slipping from both the Ozarks, and us.

And that is what makes a 21st century encounter with Leopold so unsettling.

"Conservation, at bottom, rests on the conviction that there are things in this world more important than dollar signs ...." Leopold said in that speech in 1947. "Many of these other things attach to the land, and to the life that is on it and in it."

He also said that he feared the number of people who believed that were "growing scarcer, but less so in Missouri than elsewhere. That is why conservation is possible here."

His hope was that Missourians would lead with the land ethic that he was refining at the end of his life.

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Nearly a century after Leopold paddled Ozark rivers, his spirit still roams these banks and haunts these waters, stirring up deep in the night the faintest breath of a breeze that rekindles a fire that has languished and been allowed to become low.

After 35 years of exploring and canoeing Ozark rivers, I now see how much further I have yet to go.

Andy Ostmeyer is the metro editor for The Joplin Globe. Contact him at aostmeyer@joplinglobe.com.

Andy Ostmeyer is the metro editor at the Globe. His email address is aostmeyer@joplinglobe.com.

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