Perry County is known for its caves. A new documentary explores the area’s karst landscape – with 700 caves, many springs, and thousands of sinkholes – and it tells how this terrain has led to innovation, consternation as well as controversy over a small fish.
“It’s been in the works for quite some time,” said documentary producer Denise Henderson Vaughn. “I have made several trips to Perry County starting in 2015. The most recent was last year. The whole thing got put on hold because of COVID. We kept waiting for an opportunity and then finally gave up.”
The new documentary will air on PBS Channel 8, WSIU, at 9 p.m. Monday, June 14 and 11:30 a.m. Sunday June 20.
“Karst in Perry County” highlights a few of the county’s natural attractions like Ball Mill Resurgence, Berome-Moore Cave and a disappearing, spring-fed waterfall at St. Joseph’s Shrine in Apple Creek. The video describes the county’s 100 square mile karst plain, where vast sink basins funnel storm runoff directly to cave streams. Cave photography showcases stalagmite and stalactite formation, salamanders, fish and other cave life.
On-camera interviews include two area landowners, former Republic-Monitor news reporter Crystal Lyerla, veteran caver Richard Young and Perryville City Administrator Brent Buerck, who explains how city officials have grappled for years with sinkholes popping up in people’s yards, leading to innovative stormwater engineering and the creation of several sink basin parks.
The showing on PBS is kind of an alternative premiere, Vaughn said.
Vaughn described her interest in karst and the process of producing the documentary.
“It took longer than it should have,” Vaughn said. “If I was working on it full time it wouldn’t have taken very long.”
One positive aspect of a more drawn out approach to producing the documentary led to new developments in the story to be included, according to Vaughn.
“I’ve been a journalist for decades, but I’m primarily a print journalist,” Vaughn said.
She spent many years with the West Plains Daily Quinn, covering karst issues in Shannon County in south central Missouri
“We have Big Spring, Mammoth Spring, Greer Spring, and many float streams,” Vaughn said.
Later, as part of her master’s program studies, she took a course titled “karst hydrogeology.”
“I just love karst,” she said. “I first learned about it Perry County’s karst in my class. I thought my area, the Ozarks, was king of karst. But I’ve been corrected. It’s Perry County. When I started coming to Perry County and seeing all the incredible stuff you all have, and this story of the grotto sculpin and how your community came together to address that controversy so creatively, I was just so impressed.”
Vaughn began working on the documentary in 2015. The controversy goes back to 2012, and possibly even earlier, Vaughn said.
“They don’t want people falling into the sinkholes, and they’ve done a lot in terms of engineering to adapt to this,” Vaughn said. “Then along came this grotto sculpin. It was proposed as an endangered species. You all creatively addressed this controversy and came up with a solution. The US Fish and Wildlife was very impressed with Perry County’s creativity and ingenuity.”
There was a problem and those in the area stepped up to address it, Vaughn said.
“The community came together and found ways to deal with it,” Vaughn said. “It’s really a good news story.”
Vaughn said debris and other garbage dumped into sinkholes can eventually reach the local caving system.
The effort of being maintaining a health environment for the future is one that has a long-term impact, according to Vaughn.
“People have an interest in keeping it clean for their own purposes, as well as the cave life,” she said. “The goal is that people (can) understand what’s under their feet, understand how water flows under the surface and can be polluted and how they can prevent it, and how it affects them, because it does.”
The impact of the pandemic delayed work on the documentary as well as the premiere, Vaughn said.
The documentary tells how pollution - farm chemicals, trash, and sewage – had entered the cave streams and at times killed the grotto sculpin, a fish species found nowhere on Earth except these caves, and it chronicles the controversy that erupted when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began the process of listing the grotto sculpin as a federally endangered species.
Vaughn said dispute turned into positive news when local leaders formed a multi-agency, community-wide partnership and decided to write their own rules on how to voluntarily protect groundwater quality and hence the sculpin. The USFWS praised the results, saying Perry County’s approach was “unique” and “unprecedented.”
Henderson produced a film titled “Karst in the Ozarks” in 2010.
“While producing that first documentary, I thought of southern Missouri as the Ozarks’ premier karst area because of our magnificent springs, float streams and many caves,” she said. “I was wrong. Perry County is the king of karst. It is one of the most intensely concentrated karst regions in North America.”
The 18-minute Perry County documentary has already been a featured presentation at the National Cave and Karst Management Symposium, Missouri Natural Resources Conference, and the National Natural Areas Conference. It will be featured in a February 2022 story in the Missouri Conservationist magazine.
“We were thrilled the L-A-D Foundation commissioned her documentary on Perry County karst,” said Brent Buerck. “The video is very informative and will most likely even educate lifelong Perry Countians on some of the treasure our natural environment offers.”
Vaughn produced her latest documentary in cooperation with Somewhereinthewoods Productions, Mountain View, under the auspices of the not-for-profit Ozarks Resource Center, West Plains. Funding was from the L-A-D Foundation, St. Louis, which owns Ball Mill Resurgence and nearby lands, and donates a lease to the Missouri Department of Conservation as part of its Blue Spring Branch Conservation Area.
After June 20, “Karst in Perry County” will be available for viewing on the L-A-D Foundation website, ladfoundation.org/perry-county-karst/. Its predecessor, “Karst in the Ozarks,” also is available on YouTube.