The Ozark National Scenic Riverways is an 80,000-acre national land stretching for 134 miles across southern Missouri. It includes stretches of Jacks Fork and the Current River and is home to conjoining state parks such as Big Spring, Alley Spring and Montauk. Popular recreational use of the riverways includes boating, both motorized and non-motorized. Currently only ten percent of the river remains off limits to non-motorized vehicles, thus both motorized and non share majority of the waters. Horseback and ATV riding remains a regular activity of the area, with little restrictions on where they are permitted.
Overuse of the land has strained the park's natural resources, resulting in a reconsideration of the park’s management. Every 15 to 20 years the National Park Service reevaluates the management of any given park and the Ozark Scenic Riverways are currently being discussed. Naturally, conflicts of interest have stirred up quite a controversy.
There are four proposed changes being considered by the National Park Service in regards to the ONSR’s new management plan:
"Alternative A" emphasizes the non-mechanized forms of recreation, with quieter and less crowded, slower paced experience by making 51 percent of the river non-motorized as well as closing illegally developed roads and restoring degraded biological communities.
"Alternative B" would include 28 percent of the river designated as non-motorized. Also, both A and B would include designating 3,400 acres of the Big Spring Area as wilderness, which would no longer allow any use of motorized watercraft within its boundaries.
In "Alternative C," the 3,400 acres will be zoned as primitive as opposed to wilderness, as well as non-motorizing only 10 percent of the river.
Finally, the last alternative would be to leave everything as is.
There are many discrepancies concerning the ways in which the park is being used, which have helped instigate this internal diagnosis of the current environmental conditions and how they are being managed. The Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club is most likely the biggest advocate for this change particularly because the Ozark Riverways are recognized as an "Outstanding Natural Water Resource." Unfortunately, under the Clean Water Act, Jacks Fork has been classified as an "impaired water source." Thus, action must be taken to address this major environmental concern among others.
The poor water quality of these rivers can be attributed primarily to equestrian recreation. Although riders usually stay on trail, some of those trails cross the rivers in multiple places. Horses can do a great deal of damage to fragile watershed environments. They leave fecal droppings in the river of on the trail, which contributes to unhealthy high E. coli levels and unsafe swimming waters for swimmers. They also stir up river sediment when passing through.
Another use of the park that may see more regulation is ATV riding on protected lands. ATV riders tend to ride on the banks and through the rivers. This contributes to a great deal of erosion and pollution, as well as disruption of local river habitats. ATV users have also contributed to the creation of illegal roads and access points. In lieu of these roads being created, a decent amount of forest and protected land had to be destroyed. Under the new management, these will be eliminated with focus on re-growth of impaired biological infrastructures.
Another externality that the park has little control over is the private land surrounding the park. If you refer to the map above, it shows the protected land in green, which hugs the rivers very closely. The land not in green consists of mostly private property, which is unprotected. This leads to quite a lot of river pollution, particularly when it rains. The run-off from these private lands will almost always end up in the river and park officials have little way of controlling what comes into the protected lands and waters. However, this is not being discussed in the proposals for the new management plan.
A major use of the river, particularly by locals, is the operation of motorized watercraft, with horsepower limits through 90 percent of the waters. Use of these motorized boats contributes to much of the congestion, especially in the summer months when the river tends to be used beyond its sustainable capacity. This creates a lot of user conflict with the use of canoes and other forms of non-motorized water recreation sharing the same waters as motorized boats. The river in many places can be narrow and shallow, and thus will become obstructed very easily. The major concern is the increasing numbers of water recreation, both motorized and non-motorized in use is threatening the stream health. There are only so many boats that the river can support at any one time, and regularly stretching these resources leaves the river unable to mend itself.
Regardless of the environmental impacts, many locals feel a great deal of loyalty towards the land and feel it encompasses their identity, as many of them have been here for generations. It is their culture to live and use the waterways the way they do, and as they have done in the past. These are the people who want the river to be protected and used as it is today, and they feel strongly that they should have the most control because it is their "lifeblood" and the land they depend on.
They also argue that many of those in support of limiting use on the rivers come from cities like Columbia and St. Louis, or those who probably do not use the river everyday. What makes this issue so controversial is the interpretation of how nature is meant to be experienced. Both sides want the area to be preserved, no doubt, so that their grandchildren will one day be able to enjoy it. The opinions begin to differ on what counts as conservation and what this natural area should be preserved for.
Despite the allegiance the surrounding inhabitants have toward these waters and land, the ways in which the rivers are being used are not sustainable and will continue to deteriorate this fragile natural resource if not acted upon. It is crucial to educate the public about why these changes must happen, and promote practices of conservation within these communities. The most important focus needs to be on what is for the good of the environment, and the greater good of all. Developing sustainable recreation will be the most effective way to preserve the land and still allow the public to enjoy the land as it is meant. The Ozark Scenic Riverways is to be preserved as it was meant for generations to come; it is a national land and should belong to everybody.
Photo: Alexandra Siebenthal