One of the people who responded to my recent column about the Truman Project commented–I presume with tongue in cheek–that 110,000 acres of public land wasn’t big enough to let him “stretch his legs.” In the hope that 1.5 million acres of land might do the trick both for my correspondent and for others of the more adventurous among the rest of you, here’s some information about the Mark Twain National Forest.
If Missouri’s only national forest was in one piece, it would cover about 2,344 square miles, but it isn’t. Instead, It’s broken up into dozens of non-contiguous blocks of land of various sizes and shapes located in nine distinct districts.
One of these districts, Cedar Creek, lies north of the Missouri River in Boone and Callaway Counties. Its relatively hunter-friendly terrain and its proximity to population centers make deer hunting in this district a very public affair. As MDC biologist Lonnie Hansen put it, “The deer in the Cedar Creek portion of the Mark Twain really get pounded.”
The other eight districts form a “string of pearls” which nearly spans southern Missouri’s portion of the rugged Ozark Plateau. People who drive through the area after having seen the Rocky Mountains often chuckle when they hear natives talk about the “Ozark Mountains.” Hikers and hunters who’ve struggled to the top of an Ozark peak over nearly vertical, brush-entangled slopes don’t laugh. To the contrary, they marvel at how little oxygen the air seems to contains at elevations which seldom surpass 1,500 feet msl.
To be honest, most of the Mark Twain National Forest isn’t a practical choice for one-day hunts. It’s possible to have an enjoyable forest hunt over the course of a two or three-day weekend, but hunters who can spend at least a week in the Mark Twain are most likely to return home convinced they’ve had an outdoor experience that’s second to none.
Having an enjoyable, to say nothing of a successful, deer hunt in the Mark Twain takes plenty of pre-trip planning. Obtaining a map of the entire forest from the Forest Supervisor’s Office in Rolla is a logical first step. While this map shows insufficient detail for use during your hunt, it does show where the various blocks of the forest are located in relation to cities and other landmarks.
In general, lands administered by the US Forest Service are exceptionally user friendly, but regulations are not uniform throughout the forest for a variety of reasons. A good deal of the national forest is open to general use, including motor vehicles. Other portions are designated as “Non-motorized Semi-primitive Dispersed Recreation Management Areas” and “Wilderness.” This is more than a semantic distinction. Motorized vehicles are completely prohibited in the latter two forest management categories. Regulations governing any given block of land are subject to change on short notice, so look before you leap.
Just as would be the case in a national forest located in one of the Rocky Mountain states, the farther you can get from where motor vehicles are allowed, the “lonelier” you’re going to be. That said, for many of us, it’s difficult to overstress the convenience of being able to drive to and from a centrally located campsite. The last time I hunted the Mark Twain, I was very glad I didn’t have to walk all the way out after spending the day seeing the other side of one too many mountains. Fortunately, being that gung-ho isn’t necessary. If you’re more than a quarter-mile away from your road-end camp, you’re beyond 90 percent of the competition.
For purposes of illustration, let’s assume that, taking every pre-season scouting and logistical variable into consideration, you’ve decided to hunt somewhere in the
Potosi/Fredericktown or Salem Ranger Districts. The next step is to obtain a more detailed map of your potential hunting area.
The first thing you’ll notice is that the forest in all three districts is checkerboarded with private inholdings ranging in size from a few acres to several sections. Only a tiny minority of the private property within the forest is identified as such in any way, but then while the Wilderness Areas are clearly marked, the Dispersed Recreation Management Areas are not.
Visit the Forest Service’s District Office with your map in hand. Ask someone to help you pencil in the boundaries of the restricted access areas. Don’t make a pest of yourself, but part of the job of anybody wearing a uniform is assisting the public. It’s OK to ask for tips on blocks of forest both in and out of the specially managed zones you might want to check out.
When you’ve narrowed your focus, you’ll want to get topographic maps of the area you’ll be hunting, but that’s a subject worthy of its own essay. I can’t promise it will be next week, but I will get it to you before you need to make the final plans for your hunt.