Ozark towns slog through shutdown as parkland remains closed

Friday, October 4, 2013 | 8:08 p.m. CDT; updated 8:36 p.m. CDT, Friday, October 4, 2013
Shutting down the federal government has affected those in mid-Missouri. The Current and Jacks Fork rivers have been closed to the public, hurting the economy of the town of Eminence.

VAN BUREN — The canoe rental outfitters dotting the Ozark hills were still stymied as the government shutdown entered its fourth day, but at the Jolly Cone Drive-In in Van Buren, some of the locals gathered were more worried about fish gigging than anything else.

"Gigging isn't just fun for us; it's a way of life," Valerie Foerster said. "The tradition for churches this time of year is to gig fish and have a fish fry, but they can't do that if they can't get on the water."

"They can't stop you from getting in the water," J.T. Mann chimed in. "Of course, you couldn't get on the bank to clean 'em."

All of the locals seemed to know that the Ozark National Scenic Riverways' parkland, which is managed by the federal government, was closed. But, they wondered, what about the Current and Jacks Fork rivers that run through it?

The mayor of Eminence, as he sat behind his desk at the Shady Lane Cabins and Motel on Friday morning, was preparing a handwritten list of things still available in Eminence: private campgrounds, wild horse viewing, restaurants, trail riding — the list went on.

"There are a lot of things to do in Eminence even though the park is closed," Jim Anderson said. "We're trying to get a press release out to that effect."

Anderson, the mayor and owner of Shady Lane, said that he estimates the town of 600 has lost 20 percent of the revenue it would have made this week if the park had been open.

Cross Country Trail Rides had a large event in town this week. Numerous horse trailers could be seen going down Main Street on Thursday as horses stomped down a gravel trail and sloshed around in a stretch of the river at Eminence that is not controlled by the park service.

Riders were barred from entering the park and its more than 20 miles of horse trails, Anderson said.

"They went home early," he said of the riders.

The question remained whether the stretches of the Current and Jacks Fork rivers were open. On Thursday, for Phil Moss and his son, Calvin Moss, the prospect of not going on the river because of the shutdown didn't seem to enter their minds.

After traversing miles of back-country roads, gravel grinding under the tires of Calvin Moss' red Chevy pick-up, the crystal-clear river was in sight.

The two talked at length about their upbringing on the river and their complicated decades-old relationship with the National Park Service as they powered down the river in their jet boat.

As the boat sped down the river, Phil Moss sporadically pointed to land he and his relatives had owned before the park service bought it in the 1960s.

The river was empty, except for two deer high-tailing it out of the water and away from the boat. A flock of blue-winged teal flew off into the sun as the boat approached.

Back in Van Buren, townspeople gathered at the Jolly Cone Drive-In to grab ice cream and catch up with their neighbors. 

Addy-Grace Reed, 4, ran up to another customer and handed her a paper note. The birthday party she had planned on going to this weekend had been canceled and relocated to a local church, the note said.

"A lot of us plan birthdays out there," said Jennifer Reed, her mom. "We also like to ride bikes in the park, but that wasn't an option tonight."

Across the drive-in, the conversation about the park's closure quickly segued into one of politics. 

"I hope they shut down until the Republicans win," Don Weaver said. "They act like 6-year-olds — the whole bunch — Republicans, Democrats, Independents."

"They have about as much sense as them, too," Leroy Routh said.

In Eminence, the mayor wasn't concerned with the political brinksmanship in Washington. He wanted answers, especially concerning access to the river.

Anderson said the state of Missouri had historical claims to the river, but he wondered if that changed when the federal government came in to form the park in 1964. 

Anderson said that though he considers the city and the park service partners, there was "a distinct possibility" the question would end up in court.

The closing of the canoe rental sites, or floating companies, has been a major drain on the local economy, he said.

Though most park employees and emergency personnel have been furloughed, Anderson said, the rivers should still be open.

"If somebody's never been canoeing before, they shouldn't go this week. There's no emergency services available to them," he said. "But why shouldn't experienced boaters be able to go?"

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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