Ken McCarty is on a mission to save Missouri's native scenery.
The chief of natural resources management for the State Parks Division works to maintain portions of Missouri's majestic wildlife as it was before European settlement, mass grazing, row crops and the invasion of a multitude of foreign species. He hopes those who visit state parks can experience Missouri's diverse ecosystems as they once were, back when everything in sight was provided by nature.
"Through all of the different ways that we try and restore and manage (the land), the fascinating part to me is just understanding how nature works, because each (ecosystem) tells a different part of that story," McCarty said. "It's been a wonderful opportunity in this job is to look across the whole state and see all of Missouri's expressions of nature, not just to see and visit them, but to actually work with them and try to restore and make them healthy and vibrant then watch other people enjoy them."
McCarty is a Tennessee native who moved to Missouri when he was in fifth grade. He graduated from the University of Missouri with a master's degree in biology in 1981 and went to work for Lincoln University for five years as a research specialist studying a prairie restoration project with the forestry service.
"That was my first taste of restoring nature, which is what I ended up doing for my career ever since," he said.
McCarty applied with the State Parks Division and has worked there 36 years. He said the drive to preserve nature has never failed to fuel his efforts. These efforts include saving the full range of Missouri's landscapes, from prairies to forests to glades.
"We keep time capsules of Missouri's natural heritage," he said. "There is a lot of behind-the-scenes work to those landscapes that people experience."
Preservation projects include deer management, landscape restoration, pollinator promotion, endangered species assistance, controlled burning and invasive species removal.
"A lot of effort goes into maintaining them, and that in turn gives us the rich landscapes of wild flowers and animal life," McCarty said.
This summer, a major campaign will begin across all state parks and historic sites in an attempt to aggressively address invasive exotic plants, such as bush honeysuckles and Bradford pears.
"A lot of our people this summer are going to be involved pulling, cutting or otherwise trying to control the invasive species and keeping our parks from being overrun," he said.
Some exemplary parks to see different Missouri ecosystems are Prairie State Park for more than 3,000 acres of grasslands and a bison herd, Hawn State Park for beautiful short-leaf pine forests and miles of hiking trails, and Ha Ha Tonka for beautiful glades.
McCarty said the scenery at Ha Ha Tonka near Camdenton will be optimal around Memorial Day weekend, when wild yellow coneflowers are in full bloom.
"It really hits the essence of what we are trying to do in our state parks system in preserving Missouri's native landscapes," he said. "Ha Ha Tonka is the best place to experience what the central and western Ozarks looked like in Missouri 200 years ago when our first explorers came into this country."