Last week, a Missouri conservationist known for his work in preserving the state’s forests died last week at the age of 98.

Leo Drey stands next to a tree.  (Photo Courtesy of the L-A-D Foundation)

Leo Drey stands next to a tree. (Photo Courtesy of the L-A-D Foundation)

Leo A. Drey died in his sleep with his family gathered at his home in University City, nearly two weeks after a stroke.  Drey was Missouri’s largest private landowner before donating it all to a foundation he set up to preserve the land.  The L-A-D Foundation was established in 1962 to protect natural areas throughout the state.  In 2004, Drey and his wife Kay donated 146,000 acres in Pioneer Forest to the L-A-D foundation.  The donation was valued at $180 million and is considered to be the largest private gift of its kind in Missouri’s history.

Former L-A-D Foundation Vice President Susan Flader said Drey’s work in the Ozarks will be part of his greatest legacy.

“He had a vision for what that part of the state could become with an economy based on the renewable natural resources of the area, the forest, the wildlife, the free flowing streams,” said Flader.  “He worked all of his life in all of those different areas to try and make those things begin to happen and to get people to think about them and work with him.”

Drey began to acquire and manage Ozark timberland in 1950.  His purpose was to harvest timber conservatively to show that it could be done economically and allow for a forest to regrow.  Drey harvested timber using a “single-tree selection” method rather than clear-cutting.  Flader said Drey always looked for ways to improve the health of a forest and saved natural areas that were endangered.

“Leo’s philosophy was you take the worst and you leave the best, you’re always thinking about maintaining a continuous forest,” said Flader.  “He didn’t go in and buy areas that were being adequately taken care of by others, but when they were threatened with development that he thought would destroy their character, he bought those lands.”

Leo Drey (Photo Courtesy of the L-A-D Foundation)

Leo Drey (Photo Courtesy of the L-A-D Foundation)

In 1987, Drey bought Greer Spring for $4.5 million to keep Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc. from buying it to bottle and sell the water.  Drey later sold it at a loss to the U.S. Forest Service.

Drey helped form the Open Space Council in 1965.  Former Executive Director of the Open Space Council for the St. Louis region Ron Coleman said Drey was his mentor.  Coleman said Drey helped conserve nearly 50,000 acres of public land along the Meramec River.

“If it hadn’t been for Leo’s support, places like Castlewood State Park, Bee Tree County Park, and other facilities that join the Meramec River probably wouldn’t exist,” said Coleman.  “He was the ideal spokesman for why we should conserve and protect these things today, so future generations and the environment can enjoy the benefits.”

Coleman said when it comes to a leadership figure in the realm of conservation, parks, and the environment, Drey stood out like the tallest tree in the forest.

Drey is survived by his wife, two daughters, a son, and one grandson.  Drey donated his body to the Washington University School of Medicine.