ST. LOUIS - Paddlers, partiers, boat owners and other outdoor devotees have long flocked to the spring-fed Current and Jacks Fork rivers, which a half-century ago became part of the federal national park system.
As the National Park Service updates its management plan at the Ozark National Scenic Riverways for the first time in three decades, the federal agency is trying to balance the competing needs of preservationists who want more environmental protection against nearby property owners fighting for less government regulation, not more. Many of the conservationists hail from Columbia, Kansas City and St. Louis, with opposition concentrated in the southern Missouri counties where the two rivers wind for more than 130 miles.
"You're looking at a couple of the poorest counties in the state," said Mike Slack of Thayer, a leader of the Ozark Property Rights Coalition. "This would totally devastate the tourist economy."
The agency's preferred alternative among three suggested options would close 65 miles of undesignated horse trails and unauthorized stream crossings while also adding restrictions on the use of motorized boats and converting 150 miles of off-road trails used by all-terrain vehicles to hiking paths. Another 35 miles of approved horse trails would be created.
"The 1984 plan is not working anymore," said Kat Logan Smith, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. "It's time to seriously look at relieving the overcrowding in some places. And we have to have more enforcement."
Among those opposed to the park service's plans are two powerful state Republicans: Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who wants the federal park to instead be managed by the state; and first-term Rep. Jason Smith, who has spoken against the draft management plan as an "extreme measure that looks punitive in nature."
"I adamantly oppose their proposal to appease environmentalists by limiting the public use and enjoyment of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways," Smith said in a written statement. "This proposal would hurt small businesses that rely on the Riverways and keep my constituents from enjoying the rivers that belong to them."
In the current dispute, both Kinder and Smith invoke the National Blueways System, a U.S. Interior Department program intended to recognize conservation efforts along the nation's waterways that was dissolved in early January amid opposition from landowners and politicians who feared it would lead to increased regulations and possible land seizures.
The voluntary program had given that designation to just two bodies of water: the Connecticut River, in the Northeast; and the White River, which spans more than 700 miles through Missouri and Arkansas.
Similar fights have also unfolded in recent years in North Carolina, where National Park Service rules limiting off-road vehicles at Cape Hatteras National Seashore were challenged in court; and the Point Reyes National Seashore in northern California, site of an oyster farm recently evicted to make room for a federal marine wilderness area.
The park service is accepting public comments on the Ozark Riverways plan through Feb. 7.