The Hidden World of Private-Land Stewardship: A Conversation with Dr. Bob Elworth

For the majority of our restoration projects, invasive species management is a top priority. After all, our natural communities are constantly pressured by invasives, such as bush honeysuckle, wintercreeper, and crown vetch. These invasives must be properly controlled for our natural communities to thrive and for wildlife, birds, and pollinators, and of course us to use. However, ecological restoration is not a “one-time” treatment that restores native habitat, it is a process of steady work, proper management, and most of all… patience.

Time is the most important aspect of restoration because it is a tool of measurement. For most restoration projects, measuring time in days, weeks, or even years is usually too small of unit. Proper restoration projects will take decades to achieve, due to the slow transition occurring across the landscape from non-native to native species.

It is this humble, long-lasting, and slow work that has been the land stewardship approach for Greene County’s Dr. Robert Elworth. For over thirty years Dr. Elworth has been transforming his 80-acre property from its former state as an idle fescue field into what is now, one of the most ecologically rich, and diverse pieces of land in our area. Not only is his property a haven for wildlife, pollinators, and birds, but it is also performative, ecologically, for people as well. His wide forested buffer along the little sac river is one of the best examples of a privately owned riparian zone—one which prevents erosion, run-off and downstream contamination.

We’ve had the pleasure to do conservation work for Dr. Elworth for a year now—and it has been some of the most enjoyable and rewarding work we’ve done. We’re not battling decades of misuse and abuse there, we’re not out using vast amounts of herbicide—we’re doing, slow, delicate, and sensible work on already fully-functioning natural communities.  It’s work that serves to encourage all of us at WCO that, with time and commitment, it is possible to steward a piece of land back to its ecological potential. We hope you’ll join with us this earth day and take the commitment Dr. Elworth did over 30 years ago, and make the land, and piece of this world, better than you found it.

Caleb Sanders and Adam Barton—Watershed Conservation Corps

Interview with Dr. Elworth

Why manage your property as you do? Why prairie?

You know what, this project started to take shape when I was around 6 years old.  I had a friend down the street, with whom I used to wonder the neighborhood and nearby creek, searching and learning about wildlife.  I remember clearly discussing with him how we would own property which would be managed as wildlife preserves.  That was put on hold until I started college and went back into Ecology as a major, with 2 years of Grad school in the same.

So, what made you decide to enact your childhood dream here in the Ozarks?

I knew I would head towards the Ozark’s after finishing my medical training and purchase a piece of property to be restored/reconstructed.  A patient of mine, who was a local real estate agent here in Willard walked in the office one day and said “you gotta’ see this piece of property.”  We left the office right then, and by the time I was halfway up this dead-end road, I was sold on it.  After walking it briefly, it was a sure deal.  It was perfect.  Good location, isolated, no development to be seen…… along with the River, nice woodlands, and fields to be converted.   This property had been brought on the courtroom steps for back-taxes, and the house was rented.  I ended up inheriting their dog when they moved out. I purchased the property, 80 acres, in May of 1986, 34 years ago.

I had studied prairie ecology at the University of Nebraska and was aware that this area was ecologically extremely interesting.  It was the intersection of the Tall Grass Prairie with the Eastern Woodlands, with Karst topography in limestone (inhibiting plowing), lots of beautiful freshwater streams, caves etc.  I was mostly drawn to it because it still had intact natural systems, unlike Eastern Nebraska, which had none, after agriculture was established.

What was your plan when you purchased the property?

I got started quickly, spraying and burning the fescue fields.  I researched where to get native seed, and learned about Merv Wallace of Missouri Wildflower Nursery, and Sharp Bros. seed company.  MDC assisted with the establishment of warm season grasses.  I did my first planting in 1988-89’.  My next project was converting the woodlands into native “Open Woodlands” and “Savanna.” MDC again offered some cost share here.

What does the ongoing management of your property look like?

I have been burning every two to three years for over 30 years now. I have added local seed to some of the fields now on a regular basis. Of course, YOU, are well aware of the other ongoing work with this restoration project: Dealing with invasive exotics like crown vetch, Johnson grass, Sericea lespedeza, and winter creeper, which is our main focus at this point.

What mistakes have you made and learned from—something to pass on to others interested in making a similar investment to their property?

First BIG MISTAKE:  Using a no-till-drill improperly, burying the form seed way to deep.

Caleb Sanders, Watershed Conservation Corps Director, Adam Barton, Watershed Conservation Corps Restoration Specialist & Dr. Bob Elworth