KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Motorboats, horseback riding and river access would be restricted in some areas of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways under a draft management plan released Friday.
The riverways are under the direction of the National Park Service, which oversees sections of the Jacks Fork and Current rivers, along with stretches of nearby creeks and streams within the park. The public has 60 days to comment on the plan that will direct management of the national park area, the first in the country specifically designated to protect a wild river system, for about the next two decades.
Environmentalists long have sought changes for the riverways, which they say are mismanaged. About 1.3 million visitors come to the park area each year to canoe and kayak, fish and camp, and ride horses and all-terrain vehicles. The spring-fed river system is also home to the Ozark hellbender, a salamander subspecies that exists only in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas.
The draft includes three different alternatives, with varying levels of restrictions, along with a no-action proposal. The park service is backing the middle-of-the-road alternative, which includes adding a small learning center near the town of Eminence and more trails.
Each of the three alternatives would place new restrictions on motorboats, barring them from some areas of the rivers or requiring lower speeds. Twenty access areas where float-trip outfitters drop off and pick up participants would close or move, depending on the alternative.
In areas that the park service seeks to keep wild and natural, five to 15 miles of roads would be removed, depending on the alternative, and replaced with hiking trails.
Horseback riders would notice changes as well. The area currently has 23 miles of designated horse trails and at least 90 miles of undesignated trails. The alternatives would close and restore about 65 miles of undesignated trails, replacing them with 25 to 45 miles of designated trails, depending on the option selected. The park service-backed alternative would allow horse camping in designated sites, something that is currently banned.
Camping on gravel bars would be restricted to designated campsites under all three alternatives and vehicular access to gravel bars would be eliminated or reduced with two of the alternatives.
The draft's release comes two years after the group American Rivers designated the Current River as one of the nation's 10 most endangered rivers, citing overuse and poor management. And the group Environment Missouri has collected nearly 15,000 signatures for an online petition that urges the park service to protect the riverways.
"The rivers are part of a world class spring system," said Stuart Keating of Environment Missouri. "They are famed for their crystal-clear pure water, and there are a lot of critters that rely on that water to be as clean as possible, like the Ozark hellbender."
But southeast Missouri Congressman Jason Smith, a Republican, said in a written statement that the Ozark National Scenic Riverways are "already over-managed."
"The Riverways support a vibrant and growing tourism industry that is critical to our region," Smith said. "I support the 'no-action' proposal that would make no changes to the current operating system and I will strongly advocate against further encroachment by the Park Service on our public lands."