Political Battle Over Ozark National Park Heats Up
(Updated at 3:39 p.m., February 20)
Missouri senators passed a resolution to block the federal government's proposed changes in tourist restrictions at the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. The resolution passed on a 23-8 vote and now heads to the House.
The measure urges the National Park Service not to change the current general management plan. It asks the Park Service to either work with the Missouri Conservation Department or transfer control to state officials.
A group of Republican politicians wants to see Missouri's largest national park placed under state control.
U.S. Representative Jason Smith, Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder, and a number of state legislators want management of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways taken away from the federal government.
Smith introduced the bill in the U.S. House to decommission the national park on Monday.
In November, the National Park Service (NPS) proposed a new management plan for the area, which includes the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers. It would add some restrictions on motor-boating, horseback riding, and off-road vehicle use.
The national park draws more than a million visitors each year.
Speaking at a press conference, Representative Kevin Elmer (R-Nixa) said the federal proposal would hurt small, Ozark businesses which depend on tourism dollars. "If you restrict access and activities it is logical to conclude that not as many people will visit and use the parks, therefore resulting in further economic decline," Elmer said.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has come out in favor of the Park Service plan.
In a letter sent Friday to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Nixon said transferring ownership of the Ozark park to the state "does not seem the most prudent step." He said the Park Service's preferred management plan, called "Alternative B," strikes an appropriate balance between protecting the Ozark Riverways and allowing their continued use for recreation. But he cautioned that "the NPS must incorporate flexibility into any plan it implements."
Missouri Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder criticized Governor Jay Nixon for supporting the federal proposal. "That letter is a disgrace," Kinder said. "And…no one who is listening to the people could possibly have signed it."
Environmental groups see things very differently. They have criticized the Park Service for not going far enough to protect both water quality and the park's star inhabitant, North America’s largest salamander, the endangered Ozark hellbender.
The National Park Service is expected to release a final management plan for the Ozark National Scenic Riverways by the end of the summer.
Follow Veronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience