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Leo A. Drey: Keeper of Missouri Forests & Streams

Leo A. Drey

Leo A. Drey: Keeper of Missouri Forests & Streams
January 19, 1917 – May 26, 2015

By Margaret Hermes

In 1970, as Board President of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, which he co-founded, Leo Drey wrote, “When the majority demands that this planet be kept habitable, the powerful will respond.” A powerful figure in Missouri conservation, Leo didn’t wait around for the majority to demand anything.

While Leo was leading the Coalition and helping to found the Open Space Council, he was also tending Pioneer Forest, nearly 160,000 acres spilling across six counties. The heart of Pioneer Forest is in Shannon County, which is in the heart of the Ozarks, which is where some would say Leo’s heart was located, too.

In 1951 he made his first purchase of forestland. From the outset, his goal was to operate sustainably, using uneven-age harvesting to produce a healthy income, a healthier forest, and a successful model for other timber outfits. Rather than clear-cutting all trees in a given area at one time with the trees replacing them all the same age, he chose to harvest individual trees at the height of their maturity and value while culling defective trees.

But Leo wasn’t content to see that just his own holdings were properly administered. He funded studies that resulted in the Missouri Natural Area Survey, which helped identify land for the State to preserve as natural areas. As Leo managed his forests — for the long term — he also acted on behalf of other environmental issues and organizations.

He was a philanthropist in every sense — giving not only generously of his money but also of his time. Leo worked to establish conservation policies for both state and federal governments, including the creation of wild rivers legislation and the Ozark Scenic Riverways national park. He donated a unique series of easements through parcels of timberland to help create the 150-mile Ozark Trail for hiking through Missouri and Arkansas. For the sum of $1 per year, he leased 3,300 acres to the state for parks and natural areas that include Grand Gulf State Park, the picturesque Dillard Mill Historic Site, and the Piney River Narrows. He single-handedly saved one of Missouri’s natural treasures, Greer Spring, the second largest in the state, from commercial development by purchasing it and the surrounding lands and then turning around and reselling the property to the federal government for a fraction of his cost. Owning frontage on the arrestingly beautiful Current and Jacks Fork rivers, Leo never permitted any tree-cutting there, and he was the first individual in the state to designate natural areas on his land.

In 2004 Leo and his wife Kay donated to the L-A-D Foundation 146,000 acres of forest where visitors can hike, camp, fish, and float. Worth approximately $180 million, theirs is the largest private gift of its kind in Missouri history.

Generations of locals first heard the name Drey as teenagers. A graduate of John Burroughs, in 1969 Leo leased 44 acres of Ozark forest to his alma mater for $1 a year. The school dubbed the wilderness camp Drey Land. There students explore forest and stream ecosystems and enjoy canoeing, Leo’s favorite form of recreation.

Leo called himself a tree farmer. Others think lumber tycoon or timber magnate more appropriate. Perhaps the obituary in The Daily Beast best pegged this restorer of forests as the “Lorax of the Ozarks.”

Leo is survived by his wife, Kay; two daughters, Laura, of Durham, N.C., and Eleanor, of San Francisco; a son, Leonard, of New York City; and his grandson and namesake, Leo, also of San Francisco.

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