Lack of public education and illegal entry were blamed Tuesday when officials at Ozark National Scenic Riverways were confronted with a report that said they are not properly caring for the national treasure.
Chief of Interpretation Faye Walmsley also questioned the contention in American Rivers' Most Endangered Rivers report that there are hundreds of miles of illegal horse trails and 10 times more river access points for all-terrain vehicles than had been planned for the scenic riverways.
"There are some disputes I have," Chief Walmsley said when presented with the numbers.
The American Rivers report released Tuesday morning portrayed the scenic riverways in Missouri as being strangled by poor National Park Service management. Since 1984 all-terrain vehicles have created a dusty, spaghetti bowl network of trails, some that lead down into the Current and Jacks Fork river corridors and onto gravel bars used by canoeists and other boat campers, states the report.
Additionally, horse use of the park has gotten out of control; while there are only 23 miles of designated equestrian trails in the park, "National park management allows equestrian use on any unpaved roads and trails, and there are now more than 250 miles of horse trails and 80 places where horses cross the rivers in the park, which harm water quality with erosion and manure."
Chief Walmsley, however, questioned those numbers. Regardless, she said off-road use of ATVs in the park was illegal, as was horse use beyond those 23 miles of trails.
"ATVs are not authorized in the park. They’re only allowed on county roads," she said. "So, those in the park that are not on a county road, they’re running their ATVs illegally.”
While Chief Walmsley acknowledged that the park's law enforcement rangers couldn't be everywhere in the park at all times to look for illegal uses, she was of the opinion that the main issue was educating the public as to what they could do in the scenic riverways and where.
Since 2006 the park has been working on a new general management plan, one that will outline ways to manage recreation in the scenic riverways and also evaluate areas for possible designation as official wilderness. Revisions to that draft are ongoing, and officials hope to have a version for public review later this year, Chief Walmsley said.
While the Park Service describes the scenic riverways as home to "two of America’s clearest and most beautiful spring-fed rivers," the American Rivers report paints a decidedly different image.
In 1984, there were 13 developed river access points and public campgrounds. Today, there are more than 130 vehicular river access areas, many characterized by a maze of unmanaged dirt roads that send untold amounts of sediment into the river. Virtually all gravel bars (used for canoe and boat camping) are subject to invasion by all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and other vehicles. The vehicles destroy vegetation, and contribute to severe erosion and harm water quality.
This is not just the case of a national environmental organization filling out a list. The scenic riverways' local friends group has been working to highlight the various threats to the Current and Jacks Fork rivers as well, stating quite bluntly that "(M)ismanagement of Ozark National Scenic Riverways has degraded Missouri’s premier National Park."
According to Friends of Ozark Riverways, when the unit was added to the National Park System in 1964 to specifically protect a "wild river system," river access points were planned to fall roughly 15-20 miles apart down the length of the Current and Jacks Fork rivers. Today there are more than 130 access points, or almost one every mile along the 134-mile riverways, the group notes.
"This explosion of access has downgraded the user experience and seriously damaged resources. It is virtually impossible to find a secure refuge from motorized vehicles anywhere in this park," the friends group notes on its website.
Horse use in the scenic riverways also is leading to high E. coli levels in the rivers, according to the group.
Even the most recent data from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources Water Protection Program shows that E.coli levels in the lower seven miles of the Jacks Fork have been increasing since 2002. E.coli levels have been linked to increased horse waste in the river and its tributaries. These rivers, the Jacks Fork and the Current, are supposed to be of the highest water quality in Missouri. Their high quality for recreation, especially for swimming in the national park, must not be degraded. In 2002 at river mile 4.5 the annual E.coli geometric mean was 26 and ... in 2009 it was 116. We must reverse this alarming trend.
Groups supporting the Friends of Ozark Riverways in its campaign to reserve these trends include:
* Missouri Coalition for the Environment
* Missouri Parks Association
* Missouri Wilderness Coalition
* Ozark Fly Fishers
* St. Louis Adventure Group
* St. Louis Canoe and Kayak Club
* Missouri Archaeologial Society
* Environment Missouri