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As Controversy Heats Up Over Federal Riverways Plan, Lawmakers Eye a Bill That Would Return Land to

Superintendent Bill Black oversees the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, which is run by the National Park Service. (Photo

There’s a controversy brewing in the central Ozarks region between locals and the federal government.  The two have been at odds many times before, but this time, it’s gone a step further. KSMU’s Jennifer Davidson reports in the first half of our two-part series on the new management plan for the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.

Reporter Standup:  “Right now, I’m walking along the riverbank of the Current River in the south-central Missouri Ozarks.  This is part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, run by the National Park Service, or the federal government.  And recently the Park Service made some waves in this community when it announced that it was going to be making some changes and updates to the way things were done around here. That didn’t sit well with many locals who say they like things just the way they are.”

“It’s been fairly dramatic,” says Bill Black, the superintendent of the Riverways.

“We had four public meetings. I was surprised there weren’t any bloody noses or broken arms,” Black said.

We begin by asking, “Why is a new management plan even necessary?”

“Well, the NPS policies are that we try to do a general management plan every 20 years—because that’s a long enough time, and things change,” Black said.

And this particular plan is over 500 pages long…something the Park Service is reevaluating, Black said.

“We’re in the seventh or eighth year. We’ve gone through three or four Superintendents in those seven or eight years. So they take too long, and we could do the same thing with plans on certain subjects, like river use, horse use, those types of things. So, we probably would have been better off doing something like that instead of the overall, generic type study,” Black said.

But now for that actual controversy:  there are several things in the proposed General Management Plan that locals don’t like. 

One main fear is that the new rules will hurt the local economy. That’s partly because the National Park Service wants to limit the jet horsepower attached to boats. It also wants to make some stretches of the 134 miles of waterways non-motorized, only allowing canoes, kayaks and tubes on those portions. Locals are afraid that will keep some regular boaters—and their money—away.

John Stewart and his wife grew up in Shannon County. Now, they own cabins, a motel, and a RV park for horseback riders. Years ago, he owned a fishing boat service that provided overnight camp trips.

“And [the National Park Service] put so many rules and regulations on me that they shut me down,” he said.

Stewart said one regulation was that if he had a gravel bar kitchen, that kitchen had to meet the same health inspection code that any restaurant would, which was hard for a little place on the side of the river.

He says the devastating fingerprints of the Park Service are everywhere here, including at the small community of Round Springs, which he says was thriving before the National Park Service came in.

It had two general stores, a post office, a state park, three canoe rentals, two lodging establishments, two restaurants, a saw mill and  a children’s camp, he said. Now, the only private business left there in Round Springs, he said, is one canoe rental outfitter.

But back to those boats and the Park Service’s plans:  specifically, the plan says No motorboats from the north end of the Current River down to Pulltite Campsite year-round, and no motorboats from Bay Creek campsite to the southernmost border of the Riverways on the Jacks Fork River.  Furthermore, it would ban motorboats from Bay Creek just beyond Alley Spring in peak season, and the same would apply to a stretch between Pulltite and Round Spring.

Back at the Ozark National Scenic Riverways office in Van Buren, Black says there’s a reason for those changes.

“One thing that’s changed is the number of users—boat users.   [In the past], you kind of had to know what you were doing, 25 or 30 years ago. You still need to, but anybody can get a boat with a jet motor.  And we’re seeing people drag them all the way over from Poplar Bluff and the Boothill that we never saw in the past,” Black said.

The bulk of the Riverways would still be open year round to boats with a 60/40 horsepower, as well as non-motorized watercraft.

“What we’ve said before is that, probably 90 percent of the boat users that are using the jet props in the rivers won’t be affected by this. In fact, the real limit on the motors is 40 horsepower; what we’re suggesting is that they be 60hp, with 40 at the pump like people are used to and have been allowed to do for the last 20 years.  So, those folks won’t be affected by this at all.  The ones who will be affected are the ones down below Big Springs, down below Van Buren. For that last 20-something miles of the river down there, [the size and motor people put on a boat] has been unlimited. They still need to be jets, because it’s shallow and they work so much better.  But I don’t think 25, 30 years ago, anybody envisioned someone being able to set a 300 horsepower motor on a flat-bottom Johnboat,” Black said.

Those bigger jet motors, Black says, cause noise that distracts from the experience of others, and they can pose a safety hazard for others floating the river.

[Sound:  hydraulics pump in car shop]

Over in Van Buren, in Carter County, local resident Dennis Smith is having his truck worked on.  He feels some locals are giving too much weight to recreation, and not enough to the ecology of the Riverways. He says it used to be a source of pride for locals who knew the river well enough to navigate it without these huge jet motors.

 “We have a small river here. And they’re not making any more of these rivers. People need to consider that. Look around at the rest of the world and see how human activity has been a negative for the natural environment,” Smith said.

But other locals are so upset about this new proposed plan, they’ve convinced some state lawmakers to file legislation to strip the Ozark National Scenic Riverways from the National Park Service and return it to a state park.

Join us tomorrow evening at 5:30 as we bring you part two in this series.   If you’re up for reading that new Management Plan yourself, you can find it by clicking here.