When speaking to other lovers of the outdoors I feel that I’m preaching to the choir. These folks are already excited about being active, and their curiosity has led them to become extremely knowledgeable about the world. What can I offer them? Today’s post is not a travel advertisement for a distant wilderness trip or peak bagging route. It’s about where we get our start. A place that we all have. Our home base.
My home base is Rock Bridge Memorial State Park located a few minutes outside of Columbia, Missouri. My earliest memories of the park are hazy, but include the taste of peanut butter sandwiches and an adult announcing a buddy-check — ensuring that another four year old hadn’t wandered off. As I grew older it became a refuge of sorts for me, as well as a classroom. I’ve spent more time in this park than all of my visits to other natural areas combined. Sometimes I come alone, sometimes with a group. In 8th grade science we traversed all over the area as we fumbled over how to use a map and compass. Ranger-led caving trips showed me first hand the ecological diversity of Devil’s Ice Box Cave as we canoed, climbed, and crawled our way through the twisting passages. Reading a list of endangered bat species is one thing, seeing their seven foot pile of guano is another. One evening I learned the value of the bicycle helmet when I split mine against an oak tree, acorns sprinkling down in the aftermath.
Outdoor recreation and education has not always been the focus of the area, but became it through the efforts of a local professor Lew Stoerker. In 1961 his nine-year old daughter Carol was struck and killed by a passing car prompting his campaign for a place for kids to safely play. After six years of advocacy the park opened for its first visitors. The signs of 19th century homesteads and businesses can still be seen, but are hidden in the restored hardwood forests and prairies. The initially modestly sized park has grown in the past decades enabling the success of the often conflicting goals of recreation and conservation. The park staff has balanced the fostering native ecosystems, protecting soil and water quality, and providing recreational opportunities. Keep in mind that they achieve these tasks both above and below ground, something that is becoming harder every year.
Since its opening Rock Bridge has continued to grow and evolve under state management. With grants from the Land & Water Conservation Fund totaling over $547,000 the park has expanded several times to its current size of 2,272 acres. Grants such as this helped the park years before Missouri approved additional taxes to support the state park system in 1984. Even with the tax, Missouri State Parks are often underfunded, understaffed, and overused.
The city of Columbia is beginning to envelop the park as development encroaches ever closer to its boundaries. Urban development is sure to have effects on the area’s karst hydrology and may show effects on the Devil’s Ice Box Cave system, the second most diverse in the state. The rising city population has direct effects on the park as well through increased visitation. Small trails are quickly turned into highways side by side hikers, bypasses are created from the puddle weary, new social trails are blazed to save precious seconds back to the car—let alone the wayward granola bar wrappers snagged in the branches along the way. Yes, it is the proverbial case of being loved to death.
As state and grant funding is becoming harder to come by and the local population growth is not expected to slow down anytime soon, we must find other ways to preserve parks such as this. Don’t look too far, as the solution is you. We can’t rely on others to preserve the places that we have grown to love; we must take these tasks upon ourselves. This includes simple things like following Leave No Trace practices such as staying on the trail and picking up trash that you may see. It could also mean giving your local park staff a call to chat for a few minutes. Ask them the issues they face on a daily basis and you may be surprised. See how you, as a park user, can help out and I assure you they’ll be delighted you called. Without community support our local natural areas will disappear if not in name, in character. Consider giving back a little this spring to your own home base, so that it may be there for the years to come.