A River in Danger: Ozark National Scenic Riverway

Back in October,  National Park Traveler reposted a two part series (Part 1 and Part 2) by Susan Flader outlining the history and problems encountered at the Ozark National Scenic Riverway (NSR). The set are worth a read if you have not seen them already (and I do apologize for not mentioning these earlier).  While I could mention some specific Civil War related connections to the park, that particular region of Missouri was a backwater within a backwater of the war.   But I’ve got several non-Civil War reasons to bring these articles to your attention.

Ozark NSR was the first park of its type in the National Park Service when created in 1964.  The first of Flader’s articles details the issues faced establishing the park.  Some of the issues are probably familiar to those versed in the battlefield park histories – land acquisition and park administration for instance.  But since a riverway park was a new concept, the NPS took a long time drafting the overall general management plan.  Although dedicated in 1971, the park didn’t have an approved plan until the 1980s.

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Big Spring: the largest of several in the park

The plan’s delay was in part due to being the first attempt at preserving a watershed.  There were hundreds of native species, some endangered, finding refuge within the new park boundaries.  There were also some unique geologic features, chiefly the multitude of caves and springs, worth preserving.  Archeologists found numerous prehistoric and historic sites worth cataloging.  Indeed the story of the “hill folks” was interwoven with that of the river.

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The Mill at Alley Spring

But on the other hand, there was the question of river use.  Canoeing and fishing were long established activities along the Current River.  The best the park could do is regulate them.  But with time came new activities, such as motor-boating and four-wheeling, along with recreational horseback riding.  The park’s visitation swelled through the 1980s and 1990s (this author included in those numbers), as did the pressure on the park’s infrastructure.  Many visitors saw the park more “recreational” than “preservational.”

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Old visitor station at Big Springs - Constructed by the CCC

Flader does a better job chronicling the park’s history and these issues than I can (or have space to).  What I will say is that the clear, swift flowing waters I floated along in my youth became a crowded – and in places trashy – secondary destination for many.  Not only did visitation decline, but in May 2011, American Rivers named the Current one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the U.S.

The problem was scope. Flader closed her examination with a quote from then park superintendent Ben Clary to Congressman Bill Emerson in 1996:

We have withdrawn from the rivers, our primary resource and purpose for the park. We have withdrawn from preserving and interpreting the Ozarks cultural heritage which is so important to the area…. Perhaps we need to re-evaluate where we are headed. Are we in fact Ozark National Scenic Riverways or Ozark National Scenic Campgrounds? While all of our activities and visitors are important to us, I think that it is time to start looking at quality and purpose as opposed to quantity.

Although the battlefield parks and historic sites, and even other scenic parks, have perhaps different challenges than that faced in Ozark NSR, there are lessons that may be applied. We are right to ask questions about the focus of treeline restorations; or new roadways; or additional horse trails; or changes to access policies. It is after all not Gettysburg National Tour Parkway nor is it the Great Smoky Mountains National Hunt Club.  (And that is not to say we should oppose such changes, but rather that we should ask if such changes are within the spirit of the park’s purpose.)

The National Park Service has a somewhat thankless role preserving, protecting, and ultimately presenting some of our most treasured public properties and lands.  Each of these gems has a slightly different reason for being.  Each park draws visitors for different reasons.  And each visitor takes away different experiences.

In the end, as Clary said, it is quality and purpose which makes those parks our national treasures.

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One response to “A River in Danger: Ozark National Scenic Riverway

  1. Craig, thanks for calling attention to this particular national riverway–a gem of a resource that reminds us of the importance of these smaller waterways to the history of our country. Back in the early 80’s, I took my (now) NPS-son on a canoe trip down the Current, and this “immersion experience” left a very soft spot in our hearts for this then-remote park. Good for those who work for its true purpose, and its future preservation.. We owe them a substantial debt of gratitude for placing “preservation first.” (As you know, without preservation at its core, nothing else is possible.)