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Audubon Center
Made in the Glades
A patch of small, rocky outcrops in Missouri’s Ozarks is home to one of the nation’s rarest natural communities, including cacti and lizards usually found in deserts. After decades of neglect, a band of locals rallied together to transform a dumping ground into a destination.

 

The word “glades” takes on many meanings. it sometimes refers to marshy areas, as Florida’s Everglades. Or it may define a grassy opening in a grove of old hardwoods. But in Missouri it describes a place where the underlying rock cuts through thin soils to form a distinctive ecosystem and gives the habitat a name: limestone glades, dolomite glades, or, rarest of all, chert glades. A very hard sedimentary rock, chert is akin to flint. Like flint, it breaks sharply, and archaeologists have uncovered evidence that in the distant past native people came to this area in what is now southwestern Missouri near the city of Joplin to collect the rock and work it into sharp points for arrows and spears. The rock’s hardness also determines the nature of its surroundings. As erosion alters the land, chert comes to the surface and breaks down slowly into thin, dry soil—so dry that plants adapted to arid regions can live there. (Missourians like to call these places their “deserts.”) Trees such as post oaks, a few of them more than 150 years old, grow from roots deep in the bedrock but are stunted by the harsh conditions and remain only 15 to 20 feet tall.

“Southwest Missouri is the only place in the world where chert bedrock, 40 feet deep, forms these glades,” says Tony Robyn, executive director of Audubon Missouri. “They’ve produced an unusual mix of plants. Some grow only in winter and spring, when water is plentiful. Others have long taproots to reach water through the rocks. There’s cactus here, and 60 species of lichens. In 2002 specialists at the New York Botanical Garden identified one lichen from here as a new species.”

Though the statistics are impressive, they are overshadowed by the glory of the glades in bloom. On my visit there on a spring day I found a mass of color erupting from the rocks and shallow soils. Large, golden blossoms of coreopsis tickseed mingled with the lighter-yellow flowers of Nuttall’s sedum. Rich blue of spiderwort contrasted with the grainy whites of Barbara’s buttons. I had hoped to see a rare collared lizard among the rocks, but though I missed it, the sparrowlike trill of a Bewick’s wren was ample compensation. Spring flooding from nearby Shoal Creek had reached the glades’ edges, and with it came the jumbled songs of the 20 or so species of migrant warblers swarming through the riparian forest.

The chert glades, found primarily in and around Joplin, kept a low profile until recent years. A few biologists and rabid conservationists knew of their existence and ecological significance. Joplin’s Wildcat Park holds 27 of the world’s 60 surviving high-quality acres of these glades, the rest being scattered about Missouri in small plots, mostly on private land. Yet while the glades are nominally protected in the park, they remained at risk. Because of their deceptively barren aspect, area residents seemed to recognize them only when they were looking for a good place to build a park road, mark out a baseball diamond, or even dump an old refrigerator.

“I biked to the park regularly when I was a boy in the years after World War II,” recalls Charles Burwick, now on Audubon Missouri’s board of trustees. “It was a different time. If people saw a hawk or a snake, they killed it. My friends and I loved the park, where we could fish or run along the creek without adult supervision. We had fun, got poison ivy, and tried not to drown. But nobody told us about the chert glades.”

Then, 25 or 30 years ago, a few influential local people began to think this natural area was worth saving. Joplin was in the economic doldrums at the time, and neither money nor expertise to put together a viable restoration campaign was anywhere in sight. But against all odds, a community vision became reality. A series of extraordinary opportunities, both social and political, arose. As a consequence, a group of impassioned citizens came together to raise $6.2 million and build (with the chert glades as a centerpiece) the imaginatively designed and environmentally innovative Wildcat Glades Conservation and Audubon Center. The center (which now leases 65 of Wildcat Park’s 170 acres from the city) opened in Joplin in the fall of 2007, and in 2009 the U.S. Green Building Council awarded the building a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, Silver certification.

 

But the survival of those treasures was for a time in doubt. Once the center of a flourishing lead and zinc mining industry, Joplin withered with the demise of the mines after World War II. (It could later boast a measure of immortality during that period, when Mickey Mantle played for the Joplin Miners minor league team in 1950, shortly before moving onto a bigger stage with the New York Yankees.) The city has recovered in recent decades, aided by its pivotal position as a hub of the four-state region (Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas) and the development of a highway system that links Joplin and its 47,000-plus residents to major Midwestern cities. Trucking has replaced mining here as big business.

Wildcat Park nearly became a casualty of Joplin’s troubles. There was little money for upkeep, and only alert action by local conservationists kept the city from building an armory on the chert glades and using a nearby pond as a wastewater receptacle. The Ozark Gateway Audubon Society, active in Joplin since the early 1980s, helped make locals aware of the glades’ significance, and in 1994 its members persuaded the state’s Department of Conservation to designate 13 acres as a Missouri Natural Area. Janet Garvin, the retired owner of a small area restaurant chain, became an Audubon activist who felt a special affection for Wildcat Park.

“When I was a little girl my parents took me to the park,” she says. “We would walk along Shoal Creek there and go fishing, then have a fish fry. I joined Ozark Gateway Audubon back in the ’80s and always hoped to preserve the things I loved in the park. When I had children of my own, I used to bring them here on Saturdays, and we would pick up trash and take it away in little bags.”

In the summer of 1998 Garvin made her first attempt at permanent protection. She attended a workshop at a National Audubon convention on “How to Start a Nature Center.” “But I was overwhelmed when I learned of all of the steps and costs involved,” she admits. “We didn’t have the expertise or the money. I didn’t see any way we could do it in Joplin.”

Meanwhile, in 1999, National Audubon had established a state office in Missouri; one of its goals was building a nature center in the southwestern region. A longtime Ozark Gateway Audubon chapter member, Georgianna DeShazer, owned 40 wooded acres along Highway 71 southeast of Joplin. In her will she specified that the property, then valued at about $1.4 million, be sold to help fund a wildlife sanctuary. From that point, the story took on the overtones of a 1930s feel-good movie.

A spate of highway building took place in southern Missouri in the late 1990s. The storied Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles became I-44; Highway 71 expanded from two to four lanes; and the two roadways, with the required connecting roads and bypasses, now intersected at the DeShazer property. All in all, a developer’s dream. “Mrs. DeShazer died in 1998,” says Ken Webb, the trust officer who handled her estate. “Now the estate was worth millions. We were in a position to sell her land to a developer and greatly expand on her wish to create a wildlife sanctuary.”

Enter, in 1999, Gary Burton, a former state representative in Joplin who had the political know-how to get the right people involved. Burton saw a chance to create a community asset, so he arranged a meeting with Department of Conservation officials to propose a nature center for his area. The reply: “You need to show community support for such a project.” Contacting friends on the Joplin City Council, he received genuine encouragement. The business community, including the Joplin Chamber of Commerce and half a dozen or so banks, also saw the proposed nature center as a boost to the city’s prestige.

And then Burton experienced a “Eureka!” moment. He learned from local Audubon members about the DeShazer trust, and soon nature center proponents met with trust officer Woods. The trust agreed to put up $1 million over 15 years to jump-start the project. A partnership was formed between the City of Joplin, the Missouri Department of Conservation, and Audubon Missouri. Tony Robyn (pronounced row-bine), who had been environmental education director for the City of Kansas City, arrived in Joplin in 2001 to lead the six-year campaign.

The nature center committee settled on a $6.5 million capital campaign, which tapped federal, state, city, and private sources. In 2002 a Kansas City architectural firm came to design the center. Robyn and other Audubon leaders were adamant that they didn’t want a “cookie-cutter building.” The key word in its construction was to be “green.” Matt Gearheart, one of the architects, walked the site in August 2004 to get some ideas. Picking up a chert fragment, he suddenly knew he had found his inspiration. “It wasn’t a literal transformation from the rock to the building,” Gearheart explains, “but the basis of one of the design motifs. We wanted the building to be a part of the site, almost an extension of the glade.”

 

Thus the building, jagged in outline as it stands today, is an abstract rendering, a symbol, of that rocky shard. Its thick outside walls are coated with shotcrete, a kind of heavy-duty stucco, and scarred by cracks randomly carved through it by a local craftsman, who even cast into it molds of fossils of Missouri’s extinct marine animals (including crinoids and gastropods resembling those found in the chert itself). A skylight runs through the middle of the building, mimicking crystal clefts in the chert’s surface and adding natural light to the interior.

A large window cut into the rough walls looks onto the glades, emphasizing the relationship between the building and its surroundings. On the roof is a kind of thermal blanket—a garden of native plants, including cactus, sedum, Indian paintbrush, and grasses (short varieties that won’t droop over the roof’s corners), grown in six inches of enriched soil. “The roof garden insulates the building against extreme heat and cold,” Robyn says. “And its benefits don’t stop there. It absorbs a million gallons of water a year, which runs off slowly into a bioretention area in front of the building and is filtered into the surrounding plantings. A thousand-gallon cistern also helps collect water and diverts it to our gardens and landscaping.”

Robyn says the roof garden is a key to the center’s plan to contain runoff that would otherwise carry a load of impurities into nearby Shoal Creek. (“The creek supplies 90 percent of Joplin’s water needs,” he says.) Armored, as it were, with the roof garden and thick walls insulated with shredded cardboard, the building maintains a constant temperature by a geothermal heating and cooling system. (Ground temperatures below the frost line are a constant 58 degrees year round, thus regulating air temperatures inside the building and cutting energy costs by as much as 40 percent.) Outside, many of the trails are surfaced with reused asphalt reclaimed by the city during road repair.

“We planned all this as a model for the community—both homeowners and contractors,” Robyn says. “At first some were concerned about going green because of the higher initial costs. Now there’s a lot of interest because of benefits to the local environment as well as energy savings later on. We’re saving $3,000 to $6,000 a year on operational costs.”

Soon after the center opened, Robyn became executive director of Audubon Missouri and moved the state office to Wildcat Park. His successor, Robin McAlester, obtained a $300,000 construction grant from the Kresge Foundation, with half of the funding depending on the building’s green features. Robyn and McAlester are pleased with their partners, the City of Joplin and the Missouri Department of Conservation. The city has linked its biking and hiking paths to Audubon’s trails, which wind like vibrant nerves in and around the glades. The Department of Conservation maintains offices in the building, providing educational outreach to complement the programs that helped bring 64,000 people to the center in its first year. The facility’s name—Wildcat Glades Conservation and Audubon Center—sounds unwieldy, but it is meant to emphasize the contributions each partner has made to this amazing new natural complex. “We didn’t know we couldn’t do it,” Robyn says in retrospect. “But everybody pulled together.”

Now, on any given weekday, buses shuttle in and out of the parking lot, carrying children (often for their first close look at the natural world) from schools in Joplin and surrounding areas. The main building, with its exhibits and scores of helpful adult volunteers (who provide 500 hours of assistance to the staff each month), stands as much more than simply an entryway to the glades. Perhaps the most popular indoor feature is the big glassed-in aquarium, divided into three local habitats, each stocked with live native animals. Young naturalists jostle for views of a wetland, with its mudpuppies, crawdads, and softshell turtles. A look into the facsimile creek reveals a community of orange-throated darters, black-striped topminnows, and other small fishes, while the pond waters yield catfish, largemouth bass, and smallmouth bass. Pre-schoolers make their own birds out of egg cartons, patiently gluing on the feathers. Later, naturalists lead the school groups along a rough trail to see what’s moving about or blooming that day in the chert glades. Other groups explore a nearby cave or run their small nets through Shoal Creek, looking for invertebrates.

Here is much the same wild landscape that lured the young Charles Burwick and Janet Garvin decades ago, still renewing itself each spring and kindling the imagination of young and old. What has changed for the better are attitudes and knowledge, as well as permanent protection for the chert glades, one of the nation’s rarest natural communities. 

For more information on Wildcat Glades, click here.

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