Leo Drey was a lumber tycoon who became Missouri’s largest private landowner; indeed, until he began giving it away, he owned more acres than the entire state park system. But he was also an avid conservationist who demonstrated that selective felling could be economically profitable; he co-founded the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and tirelessly campaigned for the preservation of areas of outstanding natural beauty. He died on May 26 at the age of 98.
Drey’s first land purchase came in 1951, when he acquired 1,407 acres of forest largely given over to oak, much of it in serious decline. At that time, the lumber companies’ practice of clear-cutting great swathes of woodland had left much of the Ozarks scarred, and the land typically worth less than $4 an acre. Drey’s insight was to realize that uneven edge management, in which single trees were selected for felling, while leaving the rest of the forest intact, could be economically viable.
It proved more than viable: it made Drey a multi-millionaire and led to enormous holdings until, in 2004, he donated 146,000 acres of what had become known as Pioneer Forest, stretching across five counties, to a private charitable foundation. It was the largest conservation-related donation in Missouri’s history and listed by Time magazine in the top 10 charitable donations of that year.
“I get too much credit for doing just what I wanted to do,” said Drey, who was noted for his modesty and soft-spoken manner, in a filmed interview after the gift. “All I was doing was what came natural; I was trying to put together this demonstration area that would prove you could manage land through individual tree selection and not go broke in the process.”
Leo A. Drey (his surname was pronounced “Dry”) was born on Jan. 19, 1917, the son of a well-to-do St. Louis businessman. His father, also called Leo, was president of the Schram Manufacturing Company, which produced glassware; their secondary lines included the Drey Improved Everseal, the Drey Perfect Mason Jar and the Drey Square Mason. He died in 1920, and the company was bought out by Ball Brothers in 1925.
Drey grew up in Clayton and attended John Burroughs School before going on to Antioch College, at Yellow Springs, Ohio. In 1937, he was on a trip to Shanghai with his classmates when he was caught up in the bombing which marked the outbreak of war between China and Japan. After graduating in 1939, Drey enrolled in the Army, serving in the Second World War.
After demobilization, he took a job in the accounts section of the Wohl Shoe Company, but found it dull. “I was not cut out for business,” he later claimed (inaccurately, as things turned out). He did, however, find himself entirely at home in the backwoods and streams: “I enjoyed hiking and certainly canoeing the clear Ozark streams.”
In 1950, he quit his job and looked around for an opportunity to combine his love of the countryside with earning a living. He returned to Antioch to consult his grades, and found that business had been his worst subject, and began to investigate land management techniques.
Within a couple of years, he had picked up 22,000 acres of forest. In 1953 he was taking a break whilst helping to fight a forest fire when Charlie Kirk, the chief forester of National Distillers, “plopped down” beside him. He mentioned that the company planned to clear-cut a 90,000-acre tract of land and to liquidate their white oak (which was used in cooperage). Drey engaged in six months of negotiations, and eventually acquired the land, which was to become the beginning of Pioneer Forest.
Drey kept all the forestry workers employed and began to explain—to some initial resistance—his ideas of selective felling, and of opening up the land to visitors. “While I was putting Pioneer Forest together, I was running around in the backwoods country, meeting people, getting my feet on the ground,” he said. Six employees would individually select trees which had reached maturity for harvest, but leave others, almost as well-developed but not yet at the point of decline, to be felled in later years.
By creating gaps in the canopy which allowed seedlings to develop into saplings, and by waiting until trees had reached full maturity, Drey found that not only could he run a profitable timber business, he could also maintain and expand areas of forest. As he acquired more land, he found certain areas so spectacular that he opened them to the public. With his wife Kay, whom he married in 1955, and who became a formidable environmental campaigner in her own right, he was instrumental in saving open spaces all across the state.
In 1964, he contributed 35 miles of riverbank to allow the establishment of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, and the following year set up the Open Space Council, a precursor of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, which he co-founded in 1969. He was instrumental in preserving many other areas, such as Dillard Mill, Dripping Springs, the Piney River Narrows and the Grand Gulf State Park. In 1987, he put in $4.5 million for the purchase of Greer Spring, which Anheuser-Busch had considered acquiring, allowing its purchase and preservation by the U.S. Forestry Service.
Drey and his wife lived modestly in St. Louis, and he ran his business from a small downtown office—stuffed with ancient filing cabinets and utility furniture—that he reached by train. He much preferred, however, to be out in the woods. His answering machine delivered the message: “I’m out planting a forest. Please leave your name and number and I’ll try to get back to you before it matures. Thank you.” He had an answering machine because he did not bother employing a secretary.
Politically liberal, the couple were tireless environmental and conservation activists, campaigning on issues such as nuclear energy and public access to the countryside. They had met at a wedding, when Kay Kranzberg overheard someone ask Leo about his trees. “Oh, you have a tree!” she cried. “I’m a tree worshipper.” Drey, who then owned 100,000 acres, walked off, but later got in touch with her.
“I was very impressed that he had a tree,” she told St. Louis Magazine in 2007. “Two or three, actually,” her husband added dryly.
Leo Drey received numerous awards recognizing his work for the environment, and was described as “one of the most important conservationists of the 20th Century. His employees and those with whom he campaigned described him as modest, personally generous, unfailingly courteous and stubborn in achieving his aims. In 1981, a Conservation Department official said: “One of these days, Missourians are going to wake up to Leo Drey and they’ll sanctify him.”
He is survived by his wife, their two daughters and a son.