Alford Forest: New Lease on Life

How to escape a pandemic, urban stress or summer’s heat? A river offers a safe, forever cool retreat.

Ozark streams present recreation constantly renewed by huge springs, some of the largest in the world. Spring water keeps everyone healthy. A big part of this endless cascade depends on surrounding forests.

A friend living deep in the woods has transformed himself into a sentinel to protect this lifecycle. David Haenke made me a believer. He even got me on his board briefly, for the non-profit Alford Forest Inc.

David finds every excuse he can to be out in the woods. He’s no hermit, loves to travel when he can and debate world politics. As a man of ideas and a renowned Ozark back-to-the-lander, from the ‘70s onwards Haenke has crafted a unique career. He manages the 3,200-acre Alford Forest.

These timberlands in Ozark County on the Arkansas border protect the region’s springs and streams by helping filter groundwater, which eventually rises to the surface for all to enjoy.

Not many self-taught foresters have pulled off a gig like this. Part of David’s secret is his gift for friendship and learning, especially from the late Clint Trammel, who for years managed the 153,000-acre Pioneer Forest over east near Current River. David also increased his knowledge of tree quality and market value by running AFI’s sawmill and learning how to grade lumber. An art, business and science, knowing the value of wood products is key to successful forest management.

David developed his forestry chops through personal perseverance, living out in the jillikins of Ozark County and meeting a remarkable woman, Ella Alford.

Ella’s father had purchased Alford forest in the mid-1940s as a retreat for his growing family. Young Ella fell in love with these hills and hollows. Eventually she was able to acquire her siblings’ shares. Gradually Ella developed a way to preserve what she treasured in this land.

Her insight involved donating most of the forest to the non-profit Ozark Land Trust, now based out of Columbia, for enduring oversight, management and protection.

“We had the benefit of oral and written history on the days of the Big Mill from Noble Barker, Sr., whose ancestors came into this area in 1830,” Haenke wrote about how the forest management plan developed. I also interviewed Mr. Barker and walked along Bryant Creek near the site of the Big Mill.

Located in what’s now Alford Forest, the mill ran from 1919 to ’29 logging the virgin pine of the area.
A few foundations remain in the valley where scores of people lived in cabins near the old mill. It’s gone and all grown up in timber. Mr. Barker who grew up nearby, remembered it all vividly.

To me, it looked like scrubby woods. To Mr. Barker however, he still remembered who lived where and their stories. It was still the village and the Big Mill. Listening to such oral history should inspire future forestry

Fortunately, AFI and the Ozark Land Trust have worked out a management plan to protect the forest, springs, streams and nearby Bryant Creek. You can read about it on their website. Ecological land management is clearly spelled out.

Further protection became possible in January 2020 when a project David has been working on for a decade finally came through. The California Air Resources Board Cap and Trade Program has bought what’s known as the carbon credits resulting from ecological management of Alford Forest. The credits result from the high amount of carbon sequestration associated with ecological management of Alford Forest.

“It’s a big deal because we hope these funds will provide a steady flow of income to assure the forest is protected for the next 125 years,” David explained. “The details of carbon credits are complex. Some people don’t trust them. I think it’s worth trying.”

An even larger tract over east on Current River, the 4,000-acre forest at Shannondale, an historic mission project of the United Church of Christ, became the first carbon credit project in Missouri. Finalized in 2015, it’s also the first carbon credits anywhere gained by church.

Such experimental projects attract unique people. I know Haenke well enough to state this effort has required all his reservoirs of patience, passion and acumen. Maybe he’s a modern-day Thoreau. Ella Alford shared a similar expansive vision of what a forest deserves from owners and can offer the wider world.

I met Ella once or twice at the Ozark Area Community Congress (OACC), an annual gathering of folks committed to protecting their regional environment. I’ve met many inspiring folks at these bioregional sessions. Unfortunately, 20 or so years ago I began attending the national Oral History Association conference which is usually about the same time as OACC every autumn.

I’ve learned a lot about oral history as a result. In many ways OHA has become an academic swap meet with everyone going off on individual high-tech tangents. During my short career, oral history has evolved into several specialty skill sets involving manipulation of digital data as much as respect for individual experience. But this is probably natural for a field that has grown in recent years thanks to amazing technology.

Individuals such as Haenke and Ella Alford do not fit into any definite category or simple understanding. Ella was a private person who benefited from her family’s business experience in Texas and Arkansas during the boom and busts of the 20th Century.

Saving Alford Forest was just one of her charitable projects. The more I’ve learned about her and Alford Forest, the more hope I might wager on humanity.  “I know several people in this area who received help to save their farms,” David commented when asked about what Ella has done for the Ozarks. “No one really knows all the different things she helped. I think that’s the way she wanted it.”

Probably so. I know the land trust where Cathy and I lived for a few years before moving to Springfield benefited from Ella purchasing acreage so the start-up would not collapse. (Details on the Greenwood Forest Land Trust are in other postings.)

Luckily Ella’s family and friends planned a memorial to share stories and songs after her death in May 2005. Her friend Susan Wiseheart helped coordinate recording of the event and still makes CD copies available. I’ll pass on my copy to the State Historical Society of Missouri which has archived much of my oral history work.

In many ways isn’t a forest a living archive of people’s use and respect, abuse of or dependence on the essence of life?

Walk into a pine forest, you can hear all kind of singing when the wind blows. Some specialists now say they’re learning to listen to trees telling complex stories of helping one another.

It’s fortunate some humans are listening to the Ozark’s piney woods and profiting in ways that will benefit all.

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