SALEM, MO. • Nathan Headrick, a farmer in cowboy hat and ankle-length coat, was not pleased. He stood inside a crowded auditorium here and examined giant posters detailing all the ways the National Park Service plans to change how it manages the popular Jacks Fork and Current rivers in the Ozarks.
He read about possible new restrictions on motorboats, and he seemed to shake his head. And then there was the limit on where horseback riding would be allowed. And the closing of roads that Headrick’s family and friends had used for years to reach the rivers’ gravel banks. To him, an entire way of life seemed threatened.
“The regulations they got now are more than enough, ” Headrick said. “I think they need to leave us alone.”
The Ozark National Scenic Riverways is the largest federal park in Missouri, encompassing 134 miles of spring-fed river and 80,000 acres of wilderness located about three hours southwest of St. Louis.
Today, the park is caught in a bitter battle over its future. At the heart of the disagreement is a question: Who is this national park for?
Last November, the park service released a 534-page tentative blueprint for how the park will be managed for the next two decades. Under this plan, floating and other recreation would still be allowed, but with more restrictions. Supporters of the plan say the park has been overwhelmed by visitors, especially during the summer, and the activity needs to reined in. Opponents, including a U.S. congressman, say that’s nonsense. And some of them — mostly people living near the rivers — want the entire park to be stripped of federal control and handed over to the state.
Now, with the park service’s finalized plan expected to be released later this year, the rush is on to sway park officials. The public comment period ends Feb. 7. The last of four public meetings, held in places ranging from Van Buren, Mo., to Kirkwood, recently wrapped up, having attracted more than 1,500 people.
“No one loves that river more than the people who live there,” said Christy Roberts, who lives in Eminence, Mo., in the heart of the park. She opposes new regulations.
“The temple has been defiled,” countered Roger Hitson, who lives outside Farmington and has visited the park for decades. “It needs more management.”
For years, environmental and conservation groups pushed the park service to stop what they saw as the degradation of the Ozark Riverways. They claimed rampant use of all-terrain vehicles was ruining gravel bars and horse manure was polluting the water. They felt the park service was ignoring the problems. In 2011, the river system was listed among the nation’s 10 most endangered rivers by American Rivers, a national advocacy group.
“It’s a tough park to manage,” said Lynn McClure, a regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association.
The park, the first of its kind when it was authorized by Congress in 1964, is long and narrow, with little buffer beyond the banks of the wishbone-shaped rivers. McClure said the problem is that authorities allowed unauthorized access points — river crossings and campsites — to fester. The proposed management plan appears to address this.
“Maybe they want to get right what they should’ve been doing over 30 years ago,” McClure said.
McClure said she sees why the proposal is controversial. “People near the river want to use it without interference from the park service, I understand that,” she said.
But, she added, the Ozark Riverways is not on a sustainable path.
The park service plan lays out three different routes for management, ranging from the most stringent (Alternative A) to something akin to doing nothing (Alternative C). The park service’s preferred option is in the middle, Alternative B.
Under Alternative B, the park service would “provide a high level of protection of natural and cultural resources, while expanding ways for visitors to experience and learn about these resources....” Visitors could still float, boat and horseback ride in the park, but with new limits. For example, 35 miles of new horse trails would be added to the existing 23 miles of sanctioned horse trails, but 65 miles of unauthorized horse trails would be closed.
Many people along the river are worried about the economic fallout of any new regulations.
“All we have is tourism and timber,” said Jerry King of Eminence, president of the Voice of the Ozarks, a group against the park service plan. He called the proposal “an attempt to control our water.”
In some places, the history of resentment against the Ozark Riverways stretches back to the park’s creation. Half a century later, some people are still upset by claims that their families were cajoled or forced to sell land when federal officials were assembling parcels along the rivers.
“It’s hard to trust them,” Kim Rains of Ellington, Mo., said about the park service. She said her relatives forced to sell land they owned along the Current River.
The distrust has more recent roots, too. Last summer, the park service was criticized for seeming to require permits for baptisms in the federally protected waters. Looking to head off a budding controversy, park officials clarified that baptisms were exempt.
Everything seems to be cause for suspicion, though, even the location of those four recent public meetings. Actually, it originally was just three meetings, but a public outcry by Ozark residents led the park service to add the town of Eminence to a list that already included the Ozark towns of Van Buren and Salem, plus the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood.
“Why are they having a meeting in Kirkwood?” asked Nancy Brewer, president of the Eminence Chamber of Commerce, during the public meeting in Salem on Jan. 17.
Brewer saw the Kirkwood meeting as a clear sign of the park service’s bias.
“It’s really easy to live in St. Louis and impose your views on someone who has to live down here and depends on the river for their livelihood,” she said.
But at the Kirkwood meeting last Thursday, John Hickey, director of the Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club, questioned why so many of the public meetings were held so close to the national park.
“This is a national park. This belongs to everyone. And the National Park Service’s job is to preserve it for everyone,” Hickey said, sporting an “I support Alternative A” sticker.
He said additional meetings should have been held farther away from the national park, in Missouri cities such as Columbia, Springfield and Kansas City.
As he talked, another Sierra Club member approached bearing yet another sign of the mounting distrust. That night’s public meeting was being held at the Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center, which has a small parking lot. Many parking spots had been taken up by protesters from the Ozarks who had traveled in a convoy pulling at least 30 boats on trailers. Sierra Club members couldn’t find parking spots as a result, Hickey was told.
“A lot of our people are being shut out,” he said.
Hickey said he worried the park service would buckle under political pressure and not even support the Alternative B plan.
The political pressure is clearly growing. In December, U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, took to the floor of the House chambers to publicly denounce the “ridiculous plan to limit recreational activity on the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.”
Earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder called for the Ozarks Riverways to be surrendered to the state. “The last thing this region needs is more overbearing management by bureaucrats in Washington,” he wrote in an opinion piece in the Southeast Missourian in Cape Girardeau.
At the Kirkwood meeting, Dena Matteson answered questions and handed out park maps. She is the park’s spokeswoman. She attended all four meetings. She has been following the management plan’s progress for years.
The next step for the park service is to absorb this final round of public comments, Matteson said. But the park service is not tallying “yeas” and “nays.” Park staff will look for suggestions or tweaks to the plan, “some alterations, yes, but not a major rewrite, I hope,” she said.
“It’s certainly not the hope of the park service to have the whole plan scrapped,” Matteson said.
Whatever route the park service finally takes, the rancor and doubt seem unlikely to ebb.
“There’s a lot of distrust here,” said Headrick, the farmer at the meeting in Salem.
He stood with a friend, Brad Jadwin, whose family also has lived here for generations. A nearby unincorporated town bears the family name. Jadwin, a logger, said he resents the federal government telling local people what they can do.
“They are taking our national treasure and giving it to somebody that cannot see what’s here,” he said.
The problem, of course, being that people look at this national park — its clear waters flowing from delicate natural springs, the many limestone caves — and see very different things.