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Horses, River Access, and a Debate: the Ozark National Scenic Riverways Plan

This bend of the Jacks Fork River in south-central Missouri is known as "Baptising Hole." (Photo credit: Ozark National Scenic

The Ozark National Scenic Riverways consists of 134 miles of crystal-clear, spring-fed rivers in south-central Missouri. The Riverways are run by the National Park Service. But as KSMU’s Jennifer Davidson reports,  the Park Service’s new General Management Plan is causing waves across the state. Here’s the second half of our series.

Shannon County, Missouri, is one of the largest counties in the state when it comes to square miles.

Jeff Cowen is the presiding commissioner of Shannon County, and he is not pleased with some of the details in the Riverways’ new management plan.

“The biggest concern is the economic impact here in Shannon County. We are one of the poorest counties in the state. All we have for industry here in Shannon County is the timber industry and tourism,” Cowen said.

He’s concerned that the plan gives the Park Service too much control over the number of boats, canoes, kayaks, or tubes that can be on the water at one time. And that could be a big deal since each person visiting the water translates to money trickling into hotels, cabins, canoe rental facilities, and trail ride operators.

But among the locals I’ve talked to, there’s a deeper concern—a wound, if you will—that’s been festering for decades.  And here it is: many here don’t feel like they have a voice in the Riverways, despite that this is land their parents and grandparents protected, and waters they’ve built their lives around. They feel their traditions and livelihoods are being overlooked for the sake of bureaucracy and environmental extremes. Again, Commissioner Jeff Cowen.

 “In the enabling legislation that made the park, they had an advisory committee made up of multiple people, business people, local government people – but that was only in effect for 10 years and then they disbanded it. I think that needs to be reinstated,” Cowen said.

One popular pastime here is horseback riding, where riders try to spot one of many wild horses that still roam here. Many of those trails are unauthorized for horseback riding. The new management plan would close the unauthorized trails off to riders, and open new trails.

Bill Black is the superintendent of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.

Black:  We recommended that we have 65 miles of horse trails in the park. Well, we only have 23 now, so most people, we assumed, would think we’re adding 40 miles.   Well, everybody else thinks we’re taking away the trails they’re using.  But those trails were not established by the Park Service. They’re not legitimate trails. They’ve never gone through clearances. We wanted to go back and pick the best of those trails, that met the needs and wishes of the horseback riders, but also protected the resources. And add 40 more [miles of] trails.

Davidson:  What would, theoretically, be the problem with a family or a group of friends taking their horses on unauthorized trails?

Black:   It’s the resource problem. If they continue to go down a place that’s erodible, it just keeps getting worse and worse over time.  There’s a section now where the trail crosses the river something like six to eight times in a mile.  Well, prudent design would say, ‘Let’s not cross it that many times.—let’s figure out a way to maybe cross it twice or four times, or something like that.’

He says he’s working to make sure all three priorities are well addressed: conservation, preservation, and recreation.    Most locals I’ve talked to feel the Park Service isn’t doing enough on the recreation portion of that trio, and some say the conservation part – hunting, fishing, and trapping – could be a lot more active. 

Another issue is river access points: those here for a quiet float trip say there are too many vehicles driving up to the river;  but others argue they don’t want to have to go to a new spot. Black will soon sift through the comments the Park Service has received on this issue, and others.

 “The access issue is very, very important to the local people, especially, who have used these spots for many years, generations, in fact,” Black said.

In the meantime, the controversy has grown some political fangs, particularly in Jefferson City, where state lawmakers have set aside money to turn the federal park back into a state park.  Black says that was a curveball no one saw coming.

“I’m not saying the state can’t do it. I think we fall back on the original purpose it was set aside. A lot of people back in the ‘50s and ‘60s felt—and these were Missourians, most of them were—that this was a special place of national significance.  The cool, clear waters, the springs, the caves, the wildlife.  Everything was just special,” Black said.

But this debate is only heating up. Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder and state Representative Chris Kelly are scheduled to debate the future of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways on May 3 at the Shannon County Courthouse, which promises drama to rival that of an old-fashioned duel.

The Kelly-Kinder debate sprang from a Twitter exchange when Kinder called for state control. Kelly says that would mean going "back to the way it was with Dodge trucks caught in the rootwads. The oil in the water made neat rainbows."

Superintendent Bill Black says his biggest challenge hasn’t been the passionate debate – that’s important, he says. Rather, the real challenge has been fighting rumors.

 “The very first rumor was that we weren’t going to allow people to camp on the gravel bars as they travel down with canoes and kayaks.  That wasn’t part of the plan. It’s partly our fault:  it wasn’t written real clearly. But we put a press release out,” Black said.

Black encourages people to call the Riverways office in Van Buren if they hear something they aren’t sure about.

As for that feedback…

“We had 4,000 comments submitted. And they told me the other day that they were surprised: some of them were lengthy and detailed. For as small as our communities are around here, that’s a tremendous amount,” Black said.

He’ll be reading those comments until early summer.  Then, he’ll take that feedback and decide if the NPS needs to make changes to its draft General Management Plan. Those changes will be implemented in the fall, and the NPS will hopefully have a revised plan by winter.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Davidson.