Green Horizons Newsletter - AgEBB

Green Horizons

Volume 10, Number 4
Fall 2006

Landowner Spotlight - Healthy Forests and the Tumbling Creek Cavesnail
Hank Stelzer, Extension Forester

In southeast Taney County, near the town of Protem, lays the Tumbling Creek Cave Ecosystem and the home of Tom Aley. Tom is a unique individual. Not because he gave up his lucrative day job as a hyrdogeological consultant in California back in 1965 to buy a nondescript cave in the middle of the Ozarks. But, because his tenacious vision is helping landowners and professionals alike gain a better understanding into the delicate balance of karst ecosystems. Karst is a special type of landscape that is formed by the dissolution of soluble rocks, including limestone and dolomite. Karst regions contain aquifers that are capable of providing large supplies of water.

In the United States, 20% of the land surface is karst and 40% of the groundwater used for drinking comes from karst aquifers. Natural features of the landscape such as sinkholes, losing streams, caves, and springs are typical of karst regions.

The Tumbling Creek Cave Ecosystem offers a diverse complex of woodlands, glades and underground cave communities. The aboveground plant communities provide habitats for a variety of wildlife including species of conservation concern such as Bachman's sparrows, painted buntings, eastern collared lizards and gray bats. The rarest species, however, live underground.

Tumbling Creek Cave is home to at least 110 animals, making it the most biologically diverse cave system west of the Mississippi River known to date. The cave stream contains the planet's only known population of the federally endangered Tumbling Creek cavesnail ( Antrobia culveri ). These cavesnails measure about one tenth of an inch in length, with a white body and pale yellow shell. The species lives beneath rocks in portions of the stream where there is usually little or no silt, and feeds on microscopic organisms in the creek. The cavesnail population was once estimated at 15,000, but today less than 1% remains. Biologists believe the cavesnail's drastic downturn may be due to deteriorating water quality in Tumbling Creek.

Within the recharge area, Aley discusses the ecological challenges relating to sinkholes (left) and losing streams (right), and the need for maintaining healthy forests to protect these sensitive areas.
Water that feeds into Tumbling Creek Cave can be adversely affected due to increased erosion caused by the removal of streamside vegetation and livestock overgrazing on steep slopes within the recharge area. Other potential sources of pollution include the drainage of barnyard and feedlot wastes and the discharge of treated sewage into sinkholes. Accidental chemical spills and dumping trash into sinkholes also threaten Tumbling Creek's water quality. The resulting turbidity, sedimentation and pollution of these various actions may harm the cavesnails directly, or may somehow allow other cave stream animals to "out compete" the snails.

Because the cavesnail inhabits Tumbling Creek, the species is an excellent barometer of water quality within the cave's recharge area. Actions that protect the cavesnail from extinction will conserve the cave, its other inhabitants, and local water quality.

Aley owns the 2,560 acres of land containing the entrance to Tumbling Creek Cave and its known system of passageways. But, the land area that contributes water to the cave (the recharge area) covers an additional five square miles for a total area of 5,760 acres. Since about two-thirds of the recharge area is privately owned, encouraging compatible private land management is critical to maintain the cave's health.

Inside the cave, Tom Aley displays the Ozark Underground Laboratory’s cavesnail restoration experiment and rehabilitation hotel.
To help "pay the bills" and further his outreach efforts, Tom founded the Ozark Underground Laboratory (OUL) which provides groundwater tracing and other hyrdogeological services throughout North America. The OUL has been in continuous full-time operation since 1973 and has designed and either conducted, or assisted with, over 4,000 groundwater traces in the United States and Canada, in addition to a modest number of traces in Australia, Barbados, Indonesia, New Zealand, and Peru.

Tom also strongly believes that endangered species are actually assets that can have direct monetary payback as well as the indirect benefits of furthering outreach efforts.

With Aley's guidance and the cooperation of local, state and federal government, the little cavesnail helped the Mark Twain Elementary School in Protem replace their aging water treatment lagoon that was leaking raw sewage into the cave's recharge area. Without the cavesnail, the first federal grant (that was used to leverage eight different funding sources) would not have been funded and the school would have been forced to pick up the $90,000 tab. That is a big bite out of a small school's budget and probably would have forced closing the school.

I actually met Tom a few years ago when he joined the Missouri Consulting Foresters' Association. But, it wasn't until recently when he hosted the Association's fall meeting that I really got to know him and appreciate his knowledge of forest hydrology; both above and below ground.

For more information on the Ozark Underground Laboratory and the Tumbling Creek Cave Ecosystem, visit

So, what can you do as a landowner to protect your drinking water in Karst Country?

Follow these Best Management Practices (BMPs):

  • Minimize soil erosion and nutrient-laden runoff to karst features
  • Maintain forest buffers of 100 feet along both sides of streams and around sinkholes
  • Make sure that your septic system or lagoon is not discharging raw sewage
  • Do not use sinkholes for "natural" dumps
  • Cap abandoned wells

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