For more than 60 years, Leo A. Drey worked to transform cut-over Ozark land to productive, beautiful forests and woodlands, open for hiking and public enjoyment.
His work also included seeking out some of Missouri’s most important landmarks, both cultural and natural, and making them available for generations to come.
Drey died peacefully May 26 at his home in St. Louis. He was 98.
Drey began his life’s work in 1951, purchasing small parcels of Ozark timberland with a plan to restore the forest. Later, he learned of clearcutting plans for 90,000 acres owned by a whiskey distillery. He successfully negotiated to buy this land, previously assembled by the Pioneer Cooperage Company.
Pioneer Forest, as it is now named, comprises 143,000 acres in Shannon, Reynolds, Dent, Texas, Carter and Ripley counties. Over the decades, Drey and his foresters have demonstrated that Ozark oak forests can regenerate, flourish and be profitable without clearcutting.
Forest land is managed using uneven-age, single-tree selection, which results in continuous forest improvement by cutting the worst trees and leaving the best. Careful record-keeping and university research have validated their success.
In 1962 Drey and his wife, Kay, established the L-A-D Foundation to preserve Missouri’s outstanding natural, scenic and cultural resources. Today, the L-A-D Foundation continues to manage the lands donated by Leo Drey, including a dozen properties managed in conjunction with the state of Missouri as parks or conservation areas.
At one time, Leo and Kay Drey held more property than any other Missouri landowner. Then in 2004 they donated Pioneer Forest to the L-A-D Foundation. Their gift was one of the largest philanthropic donations in the nation that year.
During the 1960s, Drey was a leading advocate for protection of the Current, Jacks Fork and Eleven Point Rivers, which became the nation’s first federally protected rivers. In 1988, Drey bought Greer Spring plus 7,000 acres to protect it from commercial development.
Widely considered the gem of the Eleven Point River, Greer Spring is now part of the Mark Twain National Forest.
A conservationist in the broadest sense, Drey worked with everyone. He felt at home in the woods, working with loggers, saw mills and truck drivers, but he was equally comfortable with Sierra Club members.
His work includes membership or leadership roles in the Missouri Forest Industries Committee, the Missouri Nature Conservancy, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, the St. Louis Open Space Council, and the Missouri Parks Association. Drey’s work has been honored by the logging industry and numerous environmental organizations alike.
Born in St. Louis in 1917, Drey graduated from Antioch College in 1939, and served in the U.S. Army in World War II. In 1955 he married Kay Kranzberg. They raised three children: Laura, Leonard and Eleanor.
These scenic Missouri properties were donated by Drey to the L-A-D Foundation and are open to visitors:
• Grand Gulf State Park, Oregon County: a collapsed cave and dramatic canyon with a trail.
• Dillard Mill State Historic Site, Crawford County: features a picturesque gristmill and trail.
• Ball Mill Resurgence Natural Area, Perry County: An unusual sinkhole that sometimes “resurges” as a spring.
• Clifty Creek Natural Area, Maries County: A loop trail with natural bridge and scenic overlooks.
• Cave Spring, Shannon County: A large spring on the Current River accessible by trail or boat.
• Hickory Canyons Natural Area, Ste. Genevieve County: trails to a waterfall and a sandstone canyon.
• Dripping Springs, Horseshoe Bend, and Piney River Narrows Natural Areas, Texas County: Beautiful spots along the Big Piney River, accessible by boat.
• Roger Pryor Pioneer Backcountry, Shannon County: Long-distance backpacking trails.