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Dogwood Canyon Nature Park in Missouri During Travel South.

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Outdoors With Purpose: Dogwood Canyon Nature Park

Park Manager Discusses The Evolution Of Outdoor Preserve & His Journey From Fly Fishing Guide To Conservationist  At Travel South In Missouri

Park Ranger Chad Phillips At Dogwood Nature Park. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

Finding a way to preserve the natural order of life is sometimes difficult but to keep an area of land pristine and restore it to its full potential without impacting its natural state is a feat. Johnny Morris, the entrepreneur behind many successful enterprises, most notably Bass Pro Shop is a native Missourian with a love of the outdoors as shown in his brand. In 1990, his bought 10,000 acres on the border of what would become the Dogwood Canyon Nature Preserve. Chad Phillips, the park manager, who rose up through the ranks from a fly fishing guide, sat down with MRV: The Buzz Editor In Chief Tim Wassberg at the park to discuss history, conservation and the evolution of his journey.

The Buzz: How did you find yourself managing a nature preserve in the middle of Missouri.

Chad Phillips: I started working for Mr. Morris in 1995, and back then it was actually at the big Sierra Lodge Resort doing activities and kids fishing programs. Then I heard about the opening of this new nature park preserve, and basically, as I think fate would have it, I knew how to fly fish really well. I grew up doing that in Michigan as a kid with my dad, and I never thought I would do it as a profession. They decided to pay me to take people fishing out here on guided trips. We did half-day. We still do those to this day. That's what kind of brought me to Dogwood and then there was not much to offer. We did the trams. We started those. I started as a guide, doing the tours, fishing, and kind of growing with the property. There was four of us that started here in 1996. So from '96 to 2017. We've had a massive change -- especially in the last year or two, with all the growth and the new facilities. We'll have almost 90 associates here now by the summertime.

The Buzz: This area was first purchased in '90. What was your first impression upon seeing it?

CP: It had just a beautiful stream setup. I could see they were still building some of the stone bridges that you guys crossed today on the tour. There's 17 of those that they built, and they are still in the process of half of them. They're trying to make it accessible, where we can get in with the trams and with larger groups of people, so everybody can access it. ]We're] putting in paved trails for the bikes, and walkers, so all the people can explore it, where it's not too rugged because it's a very rugged piece. There's 10,000 acres here and a third of it's in Arkansas. The preserve kind of straddles that Missouri/Arkansas border where you guys went. It is just very raw, rugged land. The streams had a lot of debris in them, and there was a lot of cleanup involved to make it accessible where you could view everything and everyone could see it in different ways. Obviously, we've added rainbow trout to the streams. The trout started off as something -- mainly because the streams were cold water spring fed. The trout do better than most any species in that condition. The trout were just a no-brainer. Taneycomo in Branson does the same thing. They stock fish from the hatchery there in from the state. So this became a private fishery, and the fish have grown large because a large portion of what we do is catch and release only, which gives you in return big, beautiful rainbow trout. We also do the Orvis fly fishing schools which we started, oh, about 12 to 14 years ago --

The Buzz: Now, can you talk a little about the fishing school? We saw the people out there doing it.

CP: It's a great school. It's two days. We do a one-day kind of condensed version also. But it's great for beginners, to intermediate, to even people that have done it that want to brush up on some of their skills with casting. We do offer a lot of terminology, the flies themselves, and entomology of the stream, and to learn what the fish are eating. What you're trying to do is emulate what the fish naturally eat anyways. We're also trying to teach people basics of all the equipment as well. There's a lot to learn about a fly rod versus your traditional spinning or casting rod. We started off with it as just sort of a little kind of a fun course. Now, it's still fun but there's a lot more teaching involved. Mr. Morris lets us use his cabin in the back for the school. And we do indoor [training] -- it's kind of like a golf school. We video people. We go back in slow motion and we watch them and say, "Oh, you're bringing your arm back too far. You've got to do this motion here to get your cast to lay out a little flatter for you, [so you can be] smoother, get distance, accuracy." So a lot of people – they come here just because they're getting ready to take a trip this summer to go out to Montana or Wyoming, and they say “I don't really know what I'm doing.”

A Beautiful Flowing Spring At Dogwood Nature Park. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

The Buzz: It is interesting because of the mixture of Mr. Morris who has everything on track in terms of business with Bass Pro, then mixes it up with this kind of nature park...it's really unusual...and really unique.

CP: It started off as the nature park, which caught a backseat, I think, to the fly fishing experience. And then we realized we can have a lot more growth, a lot more people will come see it if we have different offerings. So we added the horseback...we added the segways, and then we added the tram tours as well as the hiking and biking. People can bring their own bikes. We're also doing a lot more towards education now with this new education center we're sitting in right now. We have three indoor classrooms, and then we've got some outdoors ones we've been working on. We want to have 200 to 300 kids a day all summer long in a summer school program. And it's all about the outdoors, education and conservation. We've been working with the Department of Conservation of Missouri, and they've been a big help for us because they already have a curriculum. They have this “Explore Nature” curriculum they're doing, and we're kind of copying some of the stuff they're doing and adding our own twist to it. We draw the kids from all these different southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas schools.

The Buzz: Can you talk about what the geographic set-up of this place is? You have a valley streams but then it goes up onto a plain at one point.

CP: Mr. Morris kind of acquired a lot of this property to preserve the streams originally. That [other] property, it's all run off back there in Arkansas where these creeks originate from. And then they flow through the property and into Table Rock Lake in Missouri. He wanted to protect the watershed first and foremost. But also there's those beautiful rock blossom things you guys saw on the tour that is a lot of limestone and rock created over thousands of years. This whole thing was carved out into a canyon and the creeks have been here way before any of us. That's why we were so lucky with the significant finds of the remains that they talked about on the tour.

The Buzz: Could you relate a little bit about that.

CP: [Mr. Morris] didn't buy this property for that reason. He's a big history buff. It kind of fell into his lap. He's collected arrowheads his whole life, and as a kid...he's got incredible museums of this stuff. And we've got some of it on display here at Dogwood, which you probably saw coming in. But this stuff [we're talking about] was found as they were working on the property. They didn't go spelunking and cave exploring looking for remains and arrowheads. They found a lot of the stuff when they were cleaning the streams, building bridges, and then it got them more curious. Obviously, they looked a little harder once they found the first set that dated back to 960 AD. They were like, "Wow. This is a significant --" We had archaeologists from Missouri, and Arkansas University, and Fayetteville, come in and do studies. They did all kinds of reports and said it's not uncommon. This was an Osage Indian area. Some of these were from early archaic time periods. [Mr. Morris] also has some of this stuff on display at the Top of the Rock Museum that he has over at the golf course. And who knows...we could still find more stuff. We're not actively looking. We've kind of beautified and cleaned it up the area and we keep it preserved. And that was his whole goal, to preserve a giant chunk of the Ozarks that he is passionate about because he's from here. He grew up in Springfield, Missouri his whole life, started Bass Pro Shops from a little store, and turned it into what it is. And he's had a lot of good people helping him along the way. And Dogwood is a property that he really holds dear, just like Top of the Rock and Big Cedar, because they're right there in his backyard. And a lot of people do not know that this region-- what the beauty is, and what there is to do and see here. When people hear Branson, they think of the shows and things. But they forget [what the geography is)...a lot of people that have not been here, me included back in the early '90s when I moved to this region...I was from Michigan and Ohio...I could not believe that this it was so similar to the Appalachians. We lived down by Kentucky and these hills around in the Ozarks are similar and all. But all these streams and lakes...that's what we didn't have. Clean, cool water...it's just perfect for all the recreational sports, especially the fishing. People think of it as the bass fishing capital area, but it's also that you've got great trout fishing in northwest Arkansas and with us here, especially at Taneycomo in Missouri. There's a lot of that that people can put to use. And we do have locals that actually do the schools and things, as well, because they say “Hey, I've always wanted to get into this. I've retired. I've moved to the Branson area, and we want to take some trips locally because there's a lot of places to fish here.

Go To Part II Of Interview

 

Tim Wassberg

A graduate of New York University's Tisch School Of The Arts with degrees in Film/TV Production & Film Criticism, Tim has written for magazines such as Moviemaker, Moving Pictures, Conde Nast Traveler UK and Casino Player. He enjoys traveling and distinct craft beers among other things.

Dogwood Canyon Nature Park

Make Sure To Check Out:

Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, which is a one-of-a-kind experience for nature lovers and adventure seekers of all ages. The park has miles of crystal-clear trout streams, dozens of cascading waterfalls, ancient burial caves, unique hand-built bridges and bottomless, blue-green pools.

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