By: KELSEY CARROLL
There are more than 200 different types of flora, 100 year-old trees, 11.25 acres of land and only six people who actively care.
The nameless plot of land the Woodridge neighborhood is home to, commonly called the Berrywood Forest by residents, is a remarkable area that is more than 300 years old and has stayed mostly untapped by urban society.
In 2008, the City Council approved plans from Oklahoma company SOCH LC to construct the Senior Oak Senior Living Center on the land. Neighbors lobbied against the proposal and urged council members to understand the significance of the forest not only to the neighborhood but also to the environment.
“It is quite special to the neighborhood,” said Allen Hahn, Woodridge Neighborhood Association chairman. “Those in City Council that have seen it understand that it’s a unique forest.”
SOCH LC defaulted on its loan earlier this year, and Legacy Bank in Oklahoma City now owns the property. Since then, six members of the Woodridge neighborhood have been working to preserve Berrywood Forest. Hahn said they have talked with Legacy Bank, which is looking to sell the property, and members of the neighborhood have tried to work out a compromise.
The bank wants to turn a profit, but if an offer from the neighborhood surfaced, it would try its best to work with the neighbors, Hahn said.
The economic downturn has actually provided residents with relief and a window of opportunity. Even though the downturn caused SOCH LC to abandon the retirement home, Hahn said the major obstacle is finding funding to purchase the land.
“No one really wants to see it get built on, but it’s still hard to get donations,” he said.
No formal fundraising efforts have been made, but Hahn contacted The Nature Conservancy and was attempting to contact the Missouri’s Sierra Club chapter. The residents want the land put in a conservancy where it could not be used for anything other than a wild area, Hahn said.
Another option Hahn said he was exploring is working with MU’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. He said he has read that natural environments can help calm those affected by autism spectrum disorder. The forest could potentially be an appropriate environment. Its enormous canopy serves as a shelter from outside noise, creating a quiet, relaxing atmosphere among the trees and wildlife.
“Right now we’re just trying to look for people with significant funds that would be willing to help us,” Hahn said.
Hahn said the city briefly discussed acquiring the property, but this will depend on whether the parks sales tax — Proposition 1 — gets extended to fund such parks and recreation advancements. The proposition would extend the one-eighth-cent sales tax and would produce an estimated $12 million for Parks and Recreation Department efforts, $2 million of which would be used to acquire and preserve land, according to a previous Missourian article.
One of the neighbors’ major selling points to the city for preserving the forest is that its two springs drain into Hinkson Creek. Hahn hopes that this will help legitimize the argument for keeping the land as is. In an open letter to the City Council, one neighbor wrote that the forest is easily accessible by public transportation, unlike Rock Bridge Park and other Columbia forest areas.
He added, however, that compromises with the city could be negotiated — such as having the city extend Woodridge Park or part of the trail system — as long as the forest remains in its natural state.
The history of the forest is evident. Fallen trees are disintegrating into the ground, adding to the complex ecology. Bending the neck completely backward is required to fully gaze at the canopy.
Enclosed in a bubble of nature, the forest provides a peaceful atmosphere even though the interstate is in close proximity. The only noises are birds chirping, squirrels scurrying, water trickling and leaves rustling.
A resident created a website where the public can access more information about the neighborhood’s efforts, the documented floral species and how to contact the six- member group.
“We just want something that would allow the area to retain its wildness,” Hahn said.