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Jun2

How a state park becomes one

[caption id="attachment_181" align="aligncenter" width="150" caption="Don Robinson, 82, watches visitors hike into Labarque Creek on land he'll donate to Missouri State Parks."][/caption] Missouri State Parks

CEDAR HILL – At 82, Don Robinson has finally slowed down. So he declined  to join the hike down the steep, wooded hillside to explore what he called ‘Green Gulch.’ But he pointed out the way.

“Head for that stack of wood,’ he said. “Then look to the left when you get to the bottom.”

And there it was – a small box canyon with ancient cedars clinging to the rim, lichen decorating the sandstone walls and rocks below. Mosses and Christmas ferns growing along a creek bottom. It was an explosion of green in the brown late winter landscape of the Labarque Creek drainage in northwestern Jefferson County.

This is Robinson’s land, just minutes from Interstate 44 and suburban St. Louis. It is land that is valued by many – developers and environmental groups alike. And upon Robinson’s death, this land will be donated to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and become the state’s newest state park – Don Robinson State Park.

“The most depressing thing I’ve ever had to do is worrying about what to do with this place,” he said. “I’m used to putting things together, not writing the last chapter. I didn’t want my cousins to get it. They’d chop it up in a weekend.”

Donations always have been a valuable tool in creating the state park system, and are appreciated even more in these tight budget times, said Don Stier, planning section chief for the Department of Natural Resources.

“Most of the system is built on donations of these outstanding resources,” Stier said. “For the most part, we don’t have the budget to go out and buy a new facility in total. We get offers at least a few times a year, and we then check to see if it meets our mission statement.”

To be accepted, the land should have outstanding cultural or natural resources, he said, or fill in a recreational gap. The team that inspects the property also takes into account geographic distribution to see how many parks already are in the area, the cost to maintain the land, visitor access and development potential.

The Robinson property was valuable, Stier said, because of its location near St. Louis, and it came with an endowment.

“It’s a pretty special piece of property in an area where there isn’t much open land left,” Stier said. “There is already a group protecting the Labarque Creek watershed. It’s kind of neat that we’re going to be a player in that.”

SNEAK PEEK AT THE CANYON

Entering through the far open end is easier than scrambling down the sides. A barred owl is spooked from a ledge and flies silently up the creek. A sun-bleached box turtle shell stands out rounded the leaf litter.

The only sounds are the wind and the dribbling of the melting icicles that formed from seeps on the canyon walls. Relics of winter, the ice sculptures hang around long after the spring warm up.

The area is the same size as New York City’s Central Park, but much more wild. And unlike Central Park, the park might grow. Robinson is after another 160 acres.

Robinson made his fortune marketing the spot remover Off and developing three subdivisions, never married and has no immediate heirs. His donation includes a trust fund to help maintain the park.

PROTECTING A PARK

On Robinsons’s cluttered desk in his hilltop home is a stack of cards left behind by agencies that had come to tour the property. The New York Botanical Garden. The Nature Conservancy’s office in St. Louis.

Doug Ladd, the Conservancy’s top botanist, had visited Robinson’s land and praised his donation to the Department of Natural Resources.

“It’s important ecologically because it has unique biodiversity,” Ladd said of the property. “Beyond that, it’s incredible scenery on the doorstep of St. Louis. Winding, steep-sided, sandstone canyons, trickling springs, moss mats. Scenery you normally don’t associate with the Midwest.”

Ladd’s specialty is lichen, which is abundant in Labarque Creek canyons.

“You’ll love this,” he said with a chuckle. “You can find slimy pink-spotted lichen, a rare species here.

“It’s an indicator of high-quality specialized habitats that have never been severely disrupted. Kind of like the canary in the coal mine. It tells us the landscape has not been disturbed.”

“On the aquatic side, Labarque Creek has the highest diversity of native freshwater species in the entire lower Meramec watershed. Forty-something.”

But can a delicate landscape like Robinson’s be developed for visitors without harming it?  

Ladd points to Hawn State Park near Ste. Genevieve, a gem in the state park system with a similar landscape of sandstone canyons and clear streams.

“DNR has demonstrated they are experts at configuring management to allow public benefit without degrading the resource,” he said. “They have opened up Hawn to Missourians, and the rest of the world, while protecting its integrity.”