Ozark National Riverways Become Source of Controversy
SHANNON COUNTY - The Current River and Jacks Fork River flow through some of the most primitive parts of the Show-Me-State, but they also serve as a major source of cash flow in some of the poorest counties in the state.
Congress formed the Ozark National Scenic Riverways when it set aside more than 80,000 acres along 134 miles of the cool, spring-fed streams in 1964. The park was the first river system to become a national park. Missouri has several national monuments and memorials like the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, but the riverways are the state's only national park.
For decades this designation has served as a source of pride for Missouri, but local landowners, conservationists and government officials are debating the future of the national park designation.
All agree the Current River and Jacks Fork River are a special resource deserving special protection, but the National Parks Service's new management plan has stirred controversy and spurred legislative action in Washington and Jefferson City.
PARK SERVICE PUTS OUT NEW MANAGEMENT PLAN
The National Parks Service (NPS) told the public it is trying to update an outdated management plan that park officials have used since 1984.
NPS accepted public comment on the plan from November of last year until Feb. 7.
The plans include taking no action, as well as alternatives A, B and C. Each alternative would place varying restrictions on motorboats, close certain floating access points, close off certain roads and horse trails and reduce vehicle access to gravel bars.
Alternative A is a more environmentally restrictive plan, while Alternative C is the least restrictive. NPS told the public Alternative B is its preferred option, as the plan strikes a balance between plans C and A.
RIVERS CREATE ECONOMIC BENEFIT
Bob Parker owns hundreds of acres in Shannon and Texas counties and leads the Ozark Property Rights Coalition. All of his land drains into the riverways.
The riverways attract 1.3-1.5 million vistors each year and deliver a $65 million annual economic impact to the local economy.
Parker said tourism is one of the few ways people can make it in his region.
"We have a pretty tough economy here, we're pretty limited in what we have," Parker said. "Tourism is a part of that and agriculture is a huge part of that. But that'll continue to be restricted more and more I think as they continue to get more restrictions on the river."
Parker said if NPS clamps down with a greater regulatory footprint it could make things harder on certain businesses.
"Every dollar that we lose is somebody's job, somebody's ability to stay here, it's a store staying open, it's those kinds of issues," Parker said.
LAWMAKERS TAKE ACTION
Some state lawmakers heard the concerns of Ozark landowners like Parker and have initiated an effort to turn the park over from federal to state control.
U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, R- Mo., filed legislation in Congress to give the riverways to Missouri. The riverways lie within Smith's congressional district.
The Missouri House provided $6 million in its plan for the next budget year to manage the riverways if the federal government decides to give up the park.
The Senate did not included this funding in its budget plan, but the two chambers still have to work out differences and pass a budget before May 9.
Some state officials are very passionate about the issue and want to get the public more involved in discussions. Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, will hold a riverways debate on the front steps of the Shannon County courthouse on May 3.
Kinder has argued for state control while Kelly argues the federal government should manage the park.
CONSERVATION GROUPS WEIGH IN
If the riverways become state-controlled, the state would add more than 80,000 acres to its current 200,000 acre park system. That would increase the size of the state park system by nearly 50 percent.
Brandon Butler is fighting against the state takeover as the Executive Director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri.
"It's as ludicrous as the idea of Tennessee taking control of the Great Smoky Mountains, Wyoming taking control of Yellowstone or Arizona taking control of the Grand Canyon," Butler said. "The Ozark National Scenic Riverways are a national treasure. And we feel they belong to Americans."
Butler said the park should remain a federal park because it gets nearly $8 million in federal investment each year.
The park also has $32 in deferred maintenance, but Butler said this would become an even bigger problem if the riverways became state-owned.
The state park system has a $400 million backlog in deferred maintenance and Butler said it would be irresponsible to throw the riverways on top of what the state currently manages.
FIGHTING FOR LOCAL CONTROL
Parker said he feels a state takeover is the only way to ensure his voice and his neighbor's voices get heard regularly.
"We want to have access to the rivers and if the federal government doesn't understand that, let's turn it back to the state of Missouri where we can have a little closer reign on our local officials," Parker said. "We feel like we've lost touch. The federal officials have lost touch with the people out in the country and how we feel about it."
NPS is looking to start using a new management plan sometime this year.