ST. LOUIS — The National Park Service is asking people to weigh in on several proposals for how to manage the use of the 45-year-old Ozark National Scenic Riverways national park, arguably Missouri's most important piece of public land.
A final plan for how much development would be allowed at southern Missouri's national park, and what restrictions should be in place, will replace a plan from 1984 and help guide decisions for the next 15 to 20 years.
Five public meetings next week will let people assess the options, ask questions and express their opinions on managing the 134 miles of river. Public comment will be accepted through July 31.
Opinions often clash among the park's more than 1 million annual visitors. Some want more motorized boating or trails for all-terrain vehicles or back-country horseback riding. Others prefer quiet floating, fishing or caving.
In recent years, the Park Service has cracked down on public intoxication and rowdiness, littering, loud stereo systems and other behavior that has driven off visitors.
"We are trying to balance a diversity of stakeholders to make sure they have the best experience possible here," park spokeswoman Elisa Kunz said. "They all have their own activity at this place they love, but we want to make sure they enjoy it without degrading the resource."
The park, established in 1964, is the country's first to protect a wild, spring-fed river system. It is home to one of the nation's best floating streams, the Current and Jacks Fork rivers.
In 2006, the Park Service began soliciting public opinions about the park's future, and those comments formed the basis of three alternative plans now up for discussion. The proposals present a range of how much development would be permitted and what restrictions on water vehicles would be allowed. Two of the proposals would designate 3,400 acres in the Big Spring area as wilderness. Another plan would take no action.
Kunz said no decisions have been made — "these are just starting points for conversation."
Users have organized to influence the outcome.
A back-country riding group will meet with park officials Friday on horseback. The nonprofit Voice of the Ozarks is attracting new members over local recreational users' concerns about horsepower limits on motorized boats, said Poplar Bluff attorney Christopher Yarbro, who is advising the group.
And Friends of the Ozark Riverways, composed of such groups as St. Louis-based Missouri Coalition for the Environment, has encouraged members to review the plan and speak up.
Yarbro said his group wants to maintain the status quo, without the horsepower restrictions on motorized boats that all three action alternatives would implement. He said many local recreational users believe motorized boating is too restricted already. "They can't go any further or we wouldn't enjoy our use of the waterway," he said.
Coalition for the Environment president Kathleen Logan Smith said she's heard people liking — and disliking — various parts of the alternative plans.
"Nobody wants the rivers to be trashed," Smith said. "The question for all of us is where do we come together to ensure the resources are safe?
"Our argument is that the rivers need to be protected ... so that the qualities we originally sought to preserve in the '50s are still there in 2050. We can't do that without actively working toward that."
Public meetings on the alternative plans run Monday through Friday, one each day in Van Buren, Eminence, Salem, Columbia and suburban St. Louis.