Protecting the Ozark National Scenic Riverways

Great Rivers has raised legal concerns about a National Park Service plan to manage illegally created roads and trails within the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.

The Scenic Riverways are a highlight of Missouri’s natural resources and a favorite destination of over a million nature enthusiasts each year. The clean, cool waters of its rivers feed from jewel-toned blue springs, offering once-in-a-lifetime experiences to canoers, swimmers, and fishermen. At last count the waters and the surrounding park provided habitat to a known 112 species of fish, 197 species of birds, over 1,000 varieties of plants, and 58 types of mammals. 

The cool waters (58 degrees Fahrenheit) of Alley Spring in the Ozark Scenic National Riverways provide delicate habitat for colorful Ozark fishes like the southern redbelly dace, the Ozark sculpin, and the bleeding shiner.

Unfortunately, the ecological stability of the Riverways has come under assault by the proliferation of illegal roads and trails traversing this fragile and precious park. Largely created by horse riders and off-road and all-terrain vehicles leaving the designated trails and roadways of the park, these illegal traces, river crossings and trails can cause significant disturbances to creek beds, water quality, vegetation, and wildlife.

Even more unfortunately, the Park Service seeks in their proposed plan to standardize and make legal this destructive abuse of the park by authorizing many of these illegal roads and trails.

Great Rivers staff believes that the Scenic Riverways should be enjoyed – but they must be enjoyed responsibly. Our use of these pristine areas must be undertaken with care in a way that will safeguard them today and for future generations.

Great Rivers has raised several concerns of the legality of the Park Services’ process and proposed plan and its alternatives. Our concerns include the Park Service’s failure to honestly assess the environmental impacts of their proposed plan and their improper prioritization of recreation within the parks over resource protection when the parks are already taxed by illegal roads and trails.

NPS estimates that 1.3 million guests enjoy the Scenic Riverways each year.

We further allege that the Park Service attempts to justify its decision to increase user access at the expense of resource protection by presenting a false choice to the public in their proposed plan.  The Park Service hides behind a lack of funding and mismanagement that has resulted in the degraded condition from illegal roads and trails, while claiming that somehow increasing trails and roads subject to funding will result in better protection.

If lack of funding caused the expanse of illegal trails and roads in the first place, it is unclear how NPS’s plan that authorizes increased trails and roads in the park will result in better on-the-ground conditions at the parks.

An improper plan won’t just be irresponsible — it will be counterproductive. Through posing threats to water quality and wildlife populations of the park, a bad plan would reduce the parks’ ecological significance and their ephemeral qualities that make them special to so many.

Great Rivers raised these concerns in comments on behalf of the Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper, a nonprofit organization with the goal of providing drinkable, fishable, and swimmable water to all residents of the State of Missouri.

You can read the full comments here.

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center is a Missouri-based public interest law firm that provides free services to individuals, organizations and citizen groups working to protect the environment and public health. We receive no government funding and rely on donations to sustain our work.

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