Waiting doesn’t seem to be an option when it comes to the future of the Current and Jacks Fork rivers.
It was only Friday that the federal government stopped taking public comments on its long-range management plan for the home of these two rivers, the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, which is Missouri’s largest federal park. It had been soliciting input for months. But the National Park Service already stated it was leaning toward a plan with some new restrictions on motorboats, horseback riders and ATVs. And that made some people nervous.
So, rather than waiting for the park service’s final decision, expected later this year, a U.S. congressman and some state legislators are trying to take the decision out of federal hands — or at least tie them down.
“We are taking a multi-pronged approach,” said Justin Gibbs, communication director for U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, who opposes new restrictions in the federal park, which runs through his district. “This is a direct response to constituent concerns.”
One prong of the strategy came Monday, when Smith introduced a bill in the U.S. House to decommission the national park and transfer it to state authority. On Tuesday, a Missouri House panel listened to public testimony on that idea.
Another prong arrived separately last week, when the U.S. House passed a hunting and fishing bill that included a provision — pushed by Smith — that at least blocks the park service from changing the rules for motorboats along the Ozark Riverways.
“It’s too bad he felt he had to do that,” said Lynn McClure, a regional director for the advocacy group National Parks Conservation Association, which supports the management plan that is the park service’s current preference.
Distrust is deep over what will happen to 134 miles of spring-fed river and 80,000 acres of wilderness about three hours southwest of St. Louis, a spot popular with floaters and wildlife-seekers. And it hasn’t dissipated with the end of the public comment period, which was marked by passionate speeches and protests.
The problem is that some residents living near the rivers believe any new restrictions would hurt tourism and restrict the water access they’ve enjoyed for generations.
But environmental and conservation groups, plus some people who live farther away and use the rivers for recreation, believe tighter rules are needed to protect the waterways from degradation. Three years ago, the advocacy group American Rivers listed the Ozark waterways among the nation’s 10 most endangered rivers.
In a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Gov. Jay Nixon threw his support Friday behind the park service’s preferred option.
The fight over the Ozark Riverways, simmering for years, reignited with gusto in November, when the park service unveiled a 534-page blueprint for managing the park over the next couple of decades. It included three options, ranging from doing nothing new to imposing strict restrictions. The park service favored a middle-of-the-road approach.
For example, the park service would close 65 miles of undesignated horse trails but add 35 miles of new horse trails to go along with the existing 23 miles of sanctioned trail.
Also, the park service would place new boat horsepower limits on certain parts of the rivers and prohibit motors in a few select areas. Currently, the park service allows motorized boats all along the rivers, even up to 60-horsepower motors in some spots. But according to its current regulations, which have so far been overlooked, boats should be limited to 40 horsepower.
Smith’s amendment, if it became law, would prevent the park service from tinkering with the current motorized boat restrictions.
“This is about protecting access to the park,” Gibbs said.
The amendment was tacked on to hunting and fishing legislation, HR 3590, featuring a grab bag of provisions. One urges federal agencies to take a more favorable view of recreational hunting and fishing on some public lands. Another allows the importation of polar bear parts legally taken in Canada before a specific date in 1997.
The full bill passed the U.S. House last Wednesday on a 268-154 vote, with all of the no votes coming from Democrats. But the entire House delegation from Missouri supported the bill, including Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis. His office did not reply Tuesday to a request for comment.
The U.S. Senate has not taken up the legislation. The White House has said it strongly opposes parts of it but did not directly address Smith’s amendment.
Smith’s bill to strip federal control the Ozark Riverways would be an unusual move. The decommissioning of one of the more than 400 National Park Service units is rare, occurring fewer than 30 times since 1895, according to one tally, and it’s a tactic usually reserved for minor, administrative reasons. The most recent example arrived in 2004, when the Oklahoma City bombing memorial was transferred to the group that originally raised the funds and built the memorial. And the park service still provides services there.
McClure said Smith’s bill to place the Ozark Riverways under state control “is a move for all the wrong reasons.”
But Gibbs said the congressman is doing what people in his district want him to do. And there are more things he could do.
“This is just one piece of the bigger pie,” Gibbs said.
The fight over the Ozark Riverways is not over.