A Biography of Leo A. Drey

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DreyLeo A. Drey, born in St. Louis on January 19, 1917 to Leo A. and Alma Drey, died peacefully at his home in University City on May 26, 2015. He graduated from the John Burroughs School in St.Louis and earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and business from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio in 1939.

After starting a business career, he served during World War II as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, including a posting as assistant to the General Staff Officer in charge of the Port of Embarkation in New York City. After the war, he returned to the Wohl Shoe Company in St. Louis, where he was assistant to the treasurer.

With a lifelong interest in conservation and the out-of-doors, he resigned from the shoe company in 1950 determined to acquire and manage timberland in a sustainable manner. He aimed in part to demonstrate the potential for a renewable resource-based economy in the Missouri Ozarks, which had been heavily degraded by rampant harvest of pine and then oak and other hardwoods in the early twentieth century. By 1953, with the assistance of a professional forester, he acquired some 30,000 acres of largely cutover, second-growth land.

He had already exceeded his initial goal of 25,000 acres when he learned in 1953 of the pending liquidation of a nearly-contiguous tract of 90,000 acres in Shannon County by the National Distillers Products Corp. of New York. He immediately began negotiating with the firm and bought the entire acreage, though Distillers officials insisted on cutting most of the larger white oak for whiskey barrel staves. The property had been assembled over decades by Pioneer Cooperage Company of St. Louis, which in the mid-1940s hired professional foresters devoted to state-of-the-art, single-tree selection management. The forestry staff transferred along with the land to National Distillers in 1946 and then to Drey in 1954,

Leo Drey’s Pioneer Forest soon comprised nearly 150,000 acres, the largest private land-holding in Missouri, primarily in Shannon, Reynolds, and Carter counties. With his forestry staff‹never more than two foresters and several forest technicians‹he oversaw the continued improvement of the land by cutting the worst trees and leaving the best, with careful attention to creating conditions for longterm growth, reproduction, and health. And he also became involved in a host of public forestry and conservation issues in the Ozarks, in St. Louis, and statewide.

In 1955 Leo Drey married Kay Kranzberg, who became, like himself, a noted environmental and civic advocate for more than half a century. Together they raised three children, Laura, Leonard, and Eleanor, and enjoyed hiking, swimming, and canoeing.


In 1962 Drey established the L-A-D Foundation, dedicated to preserving areas of outstanding natural or cultural resource value, primarily in the Missouri Ozarks. Over the years he purchased and donated to the foundation more than a dozen such areas totaling some 4,000 acres. These sites include seven state-designated natural areas leased to the Missouri Conservation Department (e.g., Ball Mill Resurgence, Clifty Creek, and Hickory Canyons), three areas leased to the Department of Natural Resources for state parks (Dillard Mill, Grand Gulf, and the Trails of the Roger Pryor Pioneer Backcountry), and thirty-five miles of frontage (including Cave Spring) on the Ozark National Scenic Riverways under scenic easement to the National Park Service, in addition to other natural areas and special designations within Pioneer Forest.

Leo Drey was a leading advocate for federal protection of the Current, Jack’s Fork, and Eleven Point Rivers, the nation’s first federally protected rivers (1964 and 1968), and sought on two occasions to garner public support for a statewide system of natural streams. When Greer Spring on the Eleven Point, Missouri’s second largest and most pristine spring, was threatened with development of a commercial bottled-water plant in 1987, he intervened to acquire the 7,000-acre spring tract and to facilitate its ultimate transfer to the U.S. Forest Service, persuading Anheuser-Busch to join him in donating $1 million of the cost.

He was instrumental in founding, supporting, and serving as president or director of the Missouri Forest Industries Committee, the Missouri Nature Conservancy, the St. Louis Open Space Council, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, and the Missouri Parks Association, and he served for many years on the School of Forestry Board of Visitors and the Fisheries and Wildlife Advisory Council of the University of Missouri at Columbia. He was a decades-long trustee, chair of the board of trustees, and supporter of Antioch College, and he received many awards and honors from conservation, forestry, education, and civic organizations and agencies.

Drey oversaw the policy leadership and financial management of Pioneer Forest and the L-A-D Foundation, as well as his many other conservation and civic interests, without so much as a secretary, during more than half a century of tumultuous change in forest and environmental policy in the United States, as public, private, and academic foresters and researchers shifted en masse from uneven-age management by single-tree selection, considered best practice in the first half of the century, to even-age management, largely by clear-cutting, during the 1960s and ’70s.

With clear vision and steadfast resolve, he continued with the uneven-age silvicultural system that he knew worked on his land, all the while maintaining cordial relations and inviting visits from forestry professionals, many of whom doubted the long-term viability of his methods. He also opened his land and records to researchers in any field who wished to study any aspect, from forestry or wildlife to soil microbiology or economics. As citizen organizations and a few forestry and political leaders began to question wholesale even-aged management, he cooperated with them, too, and they found in Pioneer Forest a beacon of sustainability. Eventually, by the 1990s, certain federal and state foresters and researchers began to recognize Drey’s Pioneer Forest as a model worthy of study as many conservation agencies began to transition to ecosystem management that emphasized maintaining the health of the land and the scenic, wildlife and recreational values appreciated by the public.

Wanting to sustain his lands and his conservation vision for the Ozarks into the future, in 2004 Leo and Kay Drey donated nearly the entire acreage of Pioneer Forest to the L-A-D Foundation in what was one of the largest philanthropic gifts in the nation that year. The Dreys remain involved to help facilitate the transition. As an Audubon article once put it, “Every State Should Have a Leo Drey.”

Photos and blog post courtesy of the L-A-D Foundation.



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