In 1964 Congress established the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, protecting the Current River and its major tributary the Jacks Fork. That law was supported by Missourians across the state, the Governor, and the entire Missouri Congressional delegation. One reflection of the state’s support was the donation of three Missouri State Parks (Round Spring, Alley Spring, and Big Spring) to the Park Service to form the nucleus for the Riverways.
In 1963, before the Subcommittee on National Parks of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, George B. Hartzog, Assistant Director of the National Park Service said:
In this proposal for Ozark National Rivers, it is intended that preservation of the area’s natural and wilderness qualities shall be a major consideration, and while public enjoyment will be encouraged, it is recognized that preservation is basic to all planning, development, and administration.
This first national river park provided the legislative as well as practical park experience for the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System in 1968 and then for the Buffalo National River in Arkansas in 1972.
The Ozark National Scenic Riverways includes more than 60,000 acres of fee title property and more than 9,000 acres of privately-owned property where publicly-funded scenic easements restrict further development in order to protect the scenic river corridor. There are more than 1.3 million visitors to the park each year. This is a place where waters from some of the largest springs in North America empty into forested river valleys, the cool clean water providing wonderful floats in all seasons. The river valley comprises important aquatic habitat, hundreds of caves, classic karst geology, rich flora, and remnants of prehistoric as well as traditional Ozark culture. It is a resource of truly national importance.
Tragically, in recent years, overdevelopment and motorized access, commercial horse over-use, scenic easement violations, and overcrowding have taken their toll. The natural and cultural quality of the Riverways has actually declined under Park Service stewardship. Up and down the 134 miles of river the impact is severe and is growing worse. Some of the shocking evidence of this degradation is presented here.
A growing number of Missourians and conservation and outdoor organizations have begun the call for reform. Together we are working for a better future for this most important river resource.
When the Riverways was established key access areas were planned approximately 15-20 miles apart. In 1981 these principal service areas numbered 14 within the national park plus a number of private drives to reach cabins and homes. Over the next 25 years motorized access to the river has proliferated up and down the rivers; there are now at least 130 points where motorized vehicles reach the river, drive along and even across the riverbanks and major gravel bars. This explosion of motorized access has downgraded the user experience and seriously damaged resources. It is virtually impossible to find a secure refuge from motorized vehicles anywhere in this park.
What Does This Impact?
The escalating number of roads to the river has impaired the riverbank in many places and causes increased siltation in the river waters.
Carter Riley Field
Years of unauthorized vehicular access across the national park at Carter Riley Field (three miles above Akers Ferry) has left severe impairment in numerous locations. There are now so many roads criss-crossing this field that it may be the most damaged piece of parkland at Ozark National Scenic Riverways. At the time of purchase this privately-owned farm had been respectfully cared for by its owner. Since then, under NPS ownership, it has been degraded and abused.
A very egregious violation occurred in the fall of 2007 at a location known as Flying W (three miles below Cedar Grove) when Shannon County road equipment illegally plowed across park land to the river. Several times since then county road crews have returned to grade and gravel this illegal road. There has been no sign of any effort to protect the park property, the river corridor, or the national public values.
The Park Service must dramatically reduce the number of motorized access points, at least by one half. The Park Service must also act immediately to energetically enforce existing laws prohibiting illegal vehicle trespass.
What Does This Impact?
The scenic beauty of this national riverway is being lost, even on lands on which taxpayers have already purchased easements or title.
The National Park Service holds scenic easements on more than 9,000 acres of private land within the ONSR. These easements were purchased with federal funds and are intended to maintain the scenic and natural integrity of the river’s corridor.
Since the Coalition for the Environment’s lawsuit in 2005, there have been additional disclosure of inappropriate concessions on scenic easements and inadequate compliance with NEPA. These include several new construction actions approved by the NPS on scenic easement properties. New construction, additions, expansions to structures, and even property trades continue to degrade the visual integrity of the Riverways.
Cabin Below Two Rivers (Current River, mile 52-53)
All new construction in which dynamite was used to excavate the foundation. This supposedly “replaced” a previous primitive cabin.
Completed three-story A-frame cabin located within 15 feet of the river’s edge; provisions of scenic easement violated.
Moss Beal Land Exchange (Current River, Mile 71)
This land exchange twelve miles below Powder Mill, and approved by NPS officials has disgraced this park. NPS-owned fee title property was traded for privately owned land which already had scenic easement protection. The land traded away included a prominent high bluff and permission to build a new, large, and highly visible lodge that can be seen from the river for more than a 1.2 mile away. This land trade is a serious scandal.
The Park Service must reform its administration of the publicly-owned easements on the Riverways, correct past abuses, and prevent future ones.
What Does This Impact?
Too many horses concentrated in particular areas in this national park are causing pollution of the rivers.
In 1964 there were no commercial equestrian stable operations in the vicinity of the Riverways. Today there may be a dozen or more. There are few, if any, restrictions for a thousand or more riders to have access to many areas of the national park for individual or group rides multiple times each summer. The trails were never designed and cannot accommodate such high use. Too often they follow the river and too many horses degrade the river’s water quality. A river with potential health problems is an economic disaster waiting to happen.
The Park Service must establish and enforce reasonable regulations regarding the number of horses allowed on the Riverways, reduce the number of river crossings within the park, and develop a trail system which protects the riparian habitats along the river.
What Does This Impact?
The number of users and their variety of recreation competes for the small spaces of the river and impairs the experiences of this national river for everyone.
When the Riverways was established in 1964 and use was mostly limited to canoes and low-horse powered fishing boats, few would have predicted the high volume of watercraft used in the Riverways today. The numbers of commercial and non-commercial tubes, rafts, and canoes, along with outboard motors and jet boats have significantly increased over the years and user conflict is at an all time high. The National Park Service has done little to address the carrying capacity of the rivers. It has become much more difficult to find recreation experiences on the Riverways where natural sounds and sights prevail.
The Park Service must identify the carrying capacity of the rivers for all uses. All concessions operations must be coordinated so as to ensure that conflicts are minimized. Existing horsepower regulations on boats must be enforced. Peace and quiet should be a priority resource.
What Does This Impact?
We can still protect the only true wilderness remaining in this park, and prevent its future mismanagement.
Protecting the wild character of lands adjoining a proposed Ozark Rivers National Monument was emphasized by the National Park Service in 1961. Three such areas were identified by conservationists as outstanding wildlands: Upper Jacks Fork, Cardareva, and Big Spring. Mismanagement in the form of roads, development, and motorized intrusions have now ruled out all but the Big Spring area. Here the natural rugged hills and hollows have been undisturbed since at least 1924 when it was purchased for the state park. This remote tract of 3536 acres lies adjacent to a tract of US Forest Service land (4512 acres) that is also wild and primitive in character. There are no serious competing demands on this public wild land. Together these two federally-owned properties comprise a nationally important opportunity to protect a remnant of the primitive Current River Hills.
Based on 2005 figures from the US Forest Service, Mark Twain National Forest, the combined acreage for Big Spring Wilderness at 8048 acres could be expected to generate more than $300,000 each year, in recreation related economic activity. This particular wilderness would be expected to bring more visitors than most such areas in Missouri when we consider the attraction of nearby Big Spring, the national park, the facilities available at the town of Van Buren, and that it can be readily enjoyed both on foot or horse, as well as visually by car from the adjacent “Sky-line Drive.”
The Park Service must continue to manage the Big Spring backcountry so as to protect its existing wild and roadless character. The agency also should encourage and work with the Forest Service to protect its portion of this scarce resource. Congress will then have an opportunity to consider the permanent protection of this valuable area.
The preceding review makes it clear that the Ozark National Scenic Riverways needs reform. The primary solutions for reform are:
Overdevelopment and Motorized Intrusion
– The Park Service must dramatically reduce the number of motorized access points, at least by one half. The Park Service must also act immediately to energetically enforce existing laws prohibiting illegal vehicle trespass.
– The Park Service must reform its administration of the publicly-owned easements on the Riverways, correct past abuses, and prevent future ones.
Commercial Horse Over-Use
– The Park Service must establish and enforce reasonable regulations regarding the number of horses allowed on the Riverways, reduce the number of river crossings within the park, and develop a trail system which protects the riparian habitats along the river.
– The Park Service must identify the carrying capacity of the rivers for all uses. All concessions operations must be coordinated so as to ensure that conflicts are minimized. Existing horsepower regulations on boats must be enforced. Peace and quiet should be a priority resource.
– The Park Service must continue to manage the Big Spring backcountry so as to protect its existing wild and roadless character. The agency also should encourage and work with the Forest Service to protect is portion of this scarce resource. Congress will then have an opportunity to consider the permanent protection of the valuable area.
As Missourians have learned more about the actual condition of the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers, they have begun to speak out. Following presentation and discussion, a landmark resolution was adopted in March 2009 by Missouri’s largest and most broad based conservation organization, the Conservation Federation of Missouri:
The affiliated members of the Federation include 80 organizations throughout Missouri and 85,000 members. The Missouri Parks Association, at its 2008 annual meeting at Montauk State Park, also resolved to work towards improving the management at this park. In fact, a new group devoted specifically to the reform agenda outlined in the publication, has now come into existence, the Friends of Ozark Riverways (www.friendsofozarkriverways.org). Together, we are committed to restoring Missouri’s finest river to a condition of which all Missourians and the nation can once again be proud.
For Friends of Ozark Riverways:
- Ron Coleman (The Open Space Council St. Louis)
- Terry Cunningham (Pioneer Forest)
- Leo and Kay Drey (Conservationists)
- Susan Flader (Missouri Parks Association
- Honorable Wayne Goode (Retired, Missouri State Senate)
- Ted Heisel (Attorney)
- Kally Coleman (Carter County Missouri native)
- Greg Iffrig (Pioneer Forest)
- John Karel (L-A-D Foundation)
- Kat Logan Smith (Missouri Coalition for the Environment)
- Rindy O'Brien (Former legislative staff, US Senate)
- Charley Putnam (Retired National Park Service, ONSR)
- Tony Robyn (Audubon Missouri)
- Jerry Sugerman (Friends of Ozark Riverways)
- Terry Whaley (Ozark Greenways)