Pioneer Forest, MO

Forest Statement
by Terry Cunningham and Eytan Krasilovsky

Pioneer Forest has been part of the Model Forest program since 2002, but ecologically minded management has been part of the forest since 1952. The forest consists of roughly 160,000 acres: 154,000 acres of managed forest and 6,000 acres of reserve land. Owner Leo A. Drey began acquiring parcels of what was eventually to become Pioneer Forest in the early 1940s and 1950s. The forestland he acquired was recovering from two intensive harvest periods: one spanning 1880–1920 and the other from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s. In 2004, Drey donated the entire forest to the LAD Foundation ( to ensure that it would remain intact, continue to be managed under a Guild-style, sustainable approach, and serve as a model to others in the future.

Pioneer Forest is located in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks. Its staff members have pursued ecological forestry in the oak-hickory forests with a foundation in single-tree selection and uneven-aged management in association with their goals “to develop and manage native tree species of large diameter and high quality for wood products while also providing a host of recreational and ecosystem benefits.” Since its inception, Pioneer Forest has invested in forest inventory and research through a system of continuous-forest-inventory plots as well as partnerships with numerous research institutions. Specific research projects have focused on other ecosystem elements such as birds, salamanders, insects, and wildland fire. In addition to silviculture and research, Pioneer Forest conducts active sales throughout the year that support a small economy of forest workers, wood haulers, and mills. The forest also maintains several interpretive, hiking, and backcountry trails to provide a variety of recreational opportunities.

In the fall of 2007, a stand with a significant sinkhole wetland (as well as locally unique overcup oak) was harvested. Using Pioneer Forest’s techniques, this stand had been harvested once in the 1960s and again in 1984. The site was monitored by a conservation biologist in March 2008 for spotted salamanders, which are sensitive to traditional harvesting during their breeding season (approximately six months after harvest). This monitoring indicates that populations remain successful and abundant and have not been adversely affected by the active harvesting using Pioneer Forest techniques. During the salamander monitoring, the green wood frog, a locally rare species, was also unexpectedly found in the same sinkhole feature, adding to Pioneer Forest staff members’ confidence that their management protects a suite of forest values.

Prior to becoming a Guild Model Forest, Pioneer Forest was proactively sharing and promoting the ecological and economic benefits of its management approach to other private landowners in the Ozarks and across the nation via its website. According to manager Terry Cunningham, the role of management at Pioneer Forest is “to serve as a model of excellent, sustainable, uneven-aged management in the upland oak-hickory forest of Missouri. We intend to remain very active in outreach and education both locally and nationally by hosting conferences, offering demonstrations, and making the forest available for research by graduate students.”

Recently the Pioneer Forest received Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification through 2013. The entire forest has been FSC certified since 2003. This was part of previous Pioneer Forest manager Clint Trammel’s long-term vision. FSC certification validates that the methods Pioneer Forest has been using for over 50 years meet the stringent FSC guidelines relating to ecological, cultural, and social standards. Furthermore, sensitive areas, unique habitat, and water resources are protected.

Terry is planning to introduce fire into a 50-year-old shortleaf pine stand in an attempt to restore a shortleaf pine woodland. Partnering with The Nature Conservancy, the forest has hired a consultant to record the location of some old “monarch” pine seed trees in the area to protect them from the fire. They will also inventory understory vegetation both pre- and post-fire. Burning will occur periodically for as long as three to five years, with concurrent thinning of the pine stand and subsequent monitoring of understory vegetation.

Looking ahead, Terry expresses confidence that the staff can meet future challenges including climate change by “continuing to manage our forests on a sustainable basis by using sound scientific and ecologically friendly methods coupled with vigilant monitoring of our forest’s health.” He also plans to increase educational outreach by promoting the uneven-aged management system to other landowners, both public and private, as a timber-management method for increasing carbon sequestration. Interestingly, whereas others in the region have experienced oak decline, particularly scarlet oak (with a relatively short life span of 80-100 years), a variety of oak species are successful under Pioneer Forest management with its emphasis on managing for multiple species, multiple age classes, and individual tree health.

Forest Statistics and Documentation

  • Acreage: 154,000
  • Forest Type:  Ozark Oak-Hickory 
  • Model Forest Manager: Terry Cunningham
  • Primary Uses: timber, flooring, fuelwood, recreation, wetland and wildlife protection
  • Affiliations/Links: LAD Foundation
  • Certification: Forest Stewardship Council

Downloads of documents and maps