Eldon’s own green warrior fights to preserve milkweed population for monarchs

BY CHRISTINE COESTER

ELDON, Mo. — Over the course of a lifetime, Ben Duffield and his family drove past the Eldon airport wetland. He remembers seeing the property attacked with heavy equipment and machinery. “Attacks,” meant to drain the land of water.  It was not until 2005 though, when the now 66-year-old became obsessed with the plot of land situated snugly alongside State Highway 87.

In bloom swamp milkweed with monarch caterpillar on stem. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Anderson, USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.

Swamp milkweed, in bloom, with monarch caterpillar. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Anderson, USDA-NRCS PLANTS.

All because of a plant. Duffield’s most admired milkweed species, the swamp milkweed, or Asclepias incarnata. A Missouri wildflower with light pink and fuschia flowers that grows in swampy areas or along stream banks and is a preferred food source by a host of pollinators, especially declining populations of monarch butterflies.

For a year now, Duffield has been speaking at Eldon City Council meetings, enlisting any and all help he can through local and national environmental organizations, writing letters to newspaper editors and keeping the issue in the local papers.

In his efforts to convince others that the property should be restored as a habitat for the swamp milkweed and monarch butterflies, he has caused quite the ruckus in the town of just over 4,500 people.

He has become a green warrior and this his battle.

Missouri Wetlands

Only a small fraction of natural wetland communities are left in Missouri and the United States. In most cases, it is impossible to restore the habitat without investing in a full-fledged restoration effort, especially on properties that have been sprayed and have other plant species invading.

Missouri is in the top six states with the highest percentage of wetland loss. Other states include Illinois, California, Indiana, Iowa and Ohio. Iowa lost 90% of its milkweed populations from 1999-2009.

There are other sites in Missouri where the swamp milkweed can be found, but the concentration at the Eldon airport wetland is worth bragging about, Duffield said. Statewide, there are 17 native types of milkweed plants, including the swamp milkweed. Only the Mead’s milkweed is endangered.

Water pooling from the seep on the Eldon Airport  property.

Water pooling from the seep on the Eldon Airport property. By Christine Coester

Deep within the soil there is a seed bank, or dormant seeds, for swamp milkweed and other wetland-dependent plants. If given a chance to grow, with proper management and some plant restoration, the swamp milkweed population would make a comeback and help support the monarchs and other pollinators. And with monarch populations decreasing year after year, he wants to see the plants thrive.

In earlier years, Duffield recalls seeing milkweed, capable of growing 5 feet tall, skeletonized by monarchs. “The larva ate every leaf,” he said. Currently, the property is managed by the city, which sprays and mows it several times a year. Duffield wants that to stop.

Duffield’s battlefield is adjacent to a Cenex gas station, in a drainage ditch. Overall, it appears unimpressive. Like a peninsula, it is surrounded on three sides by development – airplane hangars, a two-lane highway, and an old small rodeo arena. The grass is mowed short, allowing a clear view of earth saturated with pooling water. It is hard to envision the biodiversity that centuries ago was found here naturally, but Duffield sees five and a half acres primed for restoration.

“It’s an unpolished gem,” he said. “Imagine being there in the evening watching butterflies float around.”

Duffield has even attempted to grow swamp milkweed on his property, located less than a mile from the airport, but the populations do not survive.

Mike Edinger, one of Eldon’s six aldermen, heard Duffield present his proposal to the council for the restoration of the wetland last summer. Edinger explained that the city council’s concerns hinge on two main issues: proper management of the property and proximity to the airport.

In 2012, the city had to remove woody vegetation, which was quite an expense and inconvenience when compared to consistent mowings throughout the year, Edinger explained.

“We were concerned that it would be returned to the same state that would need to be resolved,” Edinger said. That was a part of the discussion the City Council held.

The other concern pertains to the wetlands proximity to the airport. There is a fear that the wetland would attract wildlife, like birds, to the airport and that they could pose a potential danger for pilots.

For Duffield these concerns seem unfounded, when considering the 20-foot hangars that block the wetland from the runway and other taller foliage closer by. With two runways, the airport website reported an average of 21 flights per day from data recorded in 2006.

In the end, the council decided that it was not the proper location for what Duffield envisioned.

“We are not opposed to Ben, to the process, to the butterfly. The problem is with the location,” Edinger repeated several times.

After Duffield’s proposal was denied, Edinger felt that in Duffield’s frustration, Duffield set out to embarrass the city. “He’s trying to get his way by belittling the city, the mayor and the council, » Edinger said.

So they keep mowing it and Duffield keeps protesting.

“It’s a territorial thing,” he said. “They slap me in the face and mow it.”

The Green Warrior

A born and raised Missouri boy, Benny Lee Duffield grew up working on the family farm in Eldon. In 1965, he was admitted to the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he studied forestry as an undergraduate and later went on to get a Masters degree in forestry.

An only child, Duffield described his younger self as timid and shy before he came to the university.

“It was the combination of college and ROTC that made a man out of me,” he recollected. “I was the clay they molded.”

Duffield had orders to go to South Vietnam after field artillery training, but was relieved of his second lieutenancy and honorably discharged so he could care for his ailing parents,” he said. In 1971, the Selective Service drafted through 125 and Duffield held draft number 131.

He bore witness as his generation went to war. He felt the grief, saw the losses and knew how easily it could have been him.

Ben Duffield at the Eldon Airport property.

Ben Duffield at the Eldon Airport property. By Christine Coester

“I just wonder if turning into a green warrior isn’t compensation for survivor’s guilt,” Duffield said, as he leaned up against the front of his red pick-up truck, sitting beneath open Missouri sky.

For 22 years he worked as a real-estate appraiser in Missouri. He also worked with The Nature Conservancy, River Network, The Conservation Fund and volunteered with the Missouri Prairie Foundation and Trout Unlimited.

Retired now, Duffield grows and sells native Missouri seeds for extra income on his farm. He also serves as a board member for the Missouri Native Seed Association, or MSNA, an organization of  seed producers, collectors, state and federal agencies that propagate and grow native seeds.

With a knack for memorization, having received A’s in dendrology and forest entomology, Duffield knows Missouri plants and taxonomy. He can identify plants on site and spouts off their Latin names in an instant. His passion for plants has permeated every aspect of his life.

Proactive Species Management

Bob DeWitt, a forester with the Missouri Department of Conservation, thinks being proactive is the most solid approach when it comes to host and species management.

“So much of it is gone and gone forever,” said DeWitt, referring to wetland habitat loss.

If the numbers are suggesting a decline in the monarch population and we are also seeing the butterflies become rare, it is time to start conservation efforts, DeWitt explained. It’s important to catch things before they become endangered.

DeWitt also thinks the city could use the property to maximum advantage.

“The monarchs are nationally and internationally recognized as being in decline and Eldon is a corridor to the Lake of the Ozarks,” said DeWitt said. There are opportunities for tourism.

Duffield, a Sierra Club member, also reached out to John Hickey, chapter director of the Missouri Sierra Club, a branch of the largest grassroots environmental organization in the United States.

He asked for advice on how to convince the City of Eldon to stop mowing the property. Hickey did what he could to support Duffield by linking him to other members in his area, providing strategic advice and reviewing campaign materials.

Hickey considers Duffield’s work to be “one of many examples of Sierra Club members involved in a local campaign that fits into larger Sierra Club goals,” which in this case translates into protecting wetland habitat in Missouri.

This issue is an example of why the state of Missouri and the country as a whole has lost so much of its wetland habitat in the last 100 years, Hickey said.

Duffield’s homegrown effort, though small, is important, especially when considering the size of Missouri and the various environmental challenges the state faces, Hickey said.

Airplane hangars behind pooling water.

Airplane hangars behind pooling water. By Christine Coester

“This campaign succeeds when it is put in the larger context, when it is not just the story of Ben Duffield and the City of Eldon, but it is the story of all the wetlands across Missouri that are threatened,” Hickey said. “Whether those threats are tar sands pipelines, channelization, retail development in floodplains or draining for agriculture,” he continued.

The consequences of habitat loss ripple across the ecosystem, impacting migrating waterfowl, local amphibian and fish populations, bald eagle distribution and water cleanliness.

“We just need many more people like Ben, who can protect wetlands and other critical habitat across the state,” Hickey said. “We would all be better off for that.”

When it boils down to decisions made for conservation, DeWitt thinks it is best to explain the economics.

The Missouri Department of Conservation has a variety of programs dedicated to conservation on municipal lands and private property that could help the city manage the property and address the concerns of woody growth and foliage above a certain height.

“How would costs vary for the city if they substituted wetland management instead of mowing the property?” DeWitt asked aloud. “I don’t know if that was ever put down on paper for them.”

Duffield’s goal is simply to make it something better. Possibly a park or an attraction for the town, similar to the World Peace Wetland Prairie in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Duffield jokes that the city of Eldon must really be behind, if they are behind the thinking in Arkansas.

Duffield's Earth Day flier.

Duffield’s Earth Day flier.

In the cab of his red pick-up truck, Duffield pulled out a sheet of paper. In all caps, the flier reads, “Welcome to Eldon, Missouri: Gateway to Lake of the Ozarks and monarch butterfly hating capital of North America.”

“It’s happening,” he said. “We’re having Earth Day at the Wetland.”

Come Earth Day, April 22, Duffield will be at the wetland. Whether anyone else is there with him remains to be seen.

“I know I’ll be there,”  he said. “It could be total flop or it could be a multitude. I’m hoping for the latter.”

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