As float season winds down on the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, it is a good time to recommit ourselves to effective stewardship of this precious resource by finally implementing National Park Service protections that were supposed to be enacted years ago.
What protections, you wonder? Let me begin with a story. In August 2015, I was swimming in the Current River with my son and a group of his teenage friends. It was hot, so we were snorkeling in the cold, clear water, having a blast. I heard the roar of a motorboat. I was acting as the lookout because the kids were underwater. I flagged the boat operator to alert him to the snorkelers. Fortunately, I got the boater’s attention, and he stopped before he hit anyone.
The boat operator then asked me for a favor. He said his friend had flipped a jetboat a week earlier at that very place. His friend was going so fast that the boat turned over when it struck a partially submerged log, and dropped his loaded .44 pistol into the river. Could I look for the pistol, he asked, since I had a mask and snorkel? While I did not find the pistol, I did get very concerned about the safety problems posed by motorboats to swimmers and canoeists.
In fact, I was surprised to even see a motorboat on this section of the Current River, because I knew that the National Park Service had finalized a plan to make this section of the river (upstream of Round Spring) free of any motor boats during the peak floating season (approximately April 1 to Sept. 14). In fact, the park service had signed that decision, called the “General Management Plan,” on Jan. 22, 2015, seven months earlier.
When I got back home, I contacted the park headquarters and told them that a motor boat was violating the rules at the park. I was told that the horsepower limits had not yet been implemented, and so I would have to wait for that process to be completed. I responded that it had already been seven months, and it was already high season for canoeing and swimming. When would the new protections be put into place? Soon, I was told.
Now it is more than 4½ years after the policy was signed, but the horsepower limits have still not been implemented. That is unacceptable. These limits were decided after an extensive democratic process. Over 1,450 people attended public meetings in Van Buren, Eminence, Salem and Kirkwood. The National Park Service received over 3,000 public comments, and 83% of the commenters were Missourians. It was an inclusive and transparent process. This is a democratic country, and we should follow the rule of law.
The horsepower limits are critical for public safety as well. My own story illustrates the danger posed by fast boats sharing the same narrow, winding river as swimmers and canoeists.
Finally, limiting motorboats to the lower stretches of the river is good for water quality. The National Park Service draft plan explains that limiting motorboats “could help reduce the threat of water quality degradation from petroleum-based pollutants resulting from motorboats in these areas during the peak season.” Who wants an oil slick on the river in a national park? Also, powerful motorboats generate wakes that erode the river banks and disrupt fish nests on the river bottom.
The plan includes flexibility. Traditional gigging — spearing fish at night using powerful lights on johnboats — is allowed during the fall and winter months when it is practiced. These boats have smaller engines than the big jetboats. Giggers operate at night, when recreational boaters are not on the water. And since gigging is done in the cold weather, these boats do not share the river with swimmers.
The plan allows motorboats to operate all year long downriver from Round Spring. In the park, there are 35 miles on the Current River upstream from Round Spring, and over 50 miles downstream from Round Spring. There is plenty of opportunity for motorboats on the Current River in the summer.
The people have spoken. It’s time for the National Park Service to do its job. Four and a half years is too long.
John Hickey is a lifelong Missourian and chapter director for the Missouri Sierra Club.