Like so many topics in our divided nation these days, discussion of the future of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways often devolves into two extreme camps.
On one side are the environmentalists who work tirelessly to protect the nation's significant waterways. Their work is important; the Ozark Riverways made the American Rivers list in 2011 as one of the 10 most endangered waterways in the country.
On the other side are the folks in south central Missouri who make a living off the Current and Jacks Fork rivers. They'd prefer that the National Park Service and everybody else just leave them alone.
The reality, of course, is that people in both camps recognize the gem that is the Ozark National Scenic Riverways and want to protect it for future generations. They just have different ideas about how to get there.
On Friday, the public comment period ends on the Park Service's proposed management plan for the 134 miles of some of the most scenic and (at times) pristine stream-fed waterways in the country.
There are those who make a living at treating the federal government as a bogeyman — people like Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, both Republicans — who suggest the Park Service should butt out.
Never mind that the riverways wouldn't be protected at all if not for the national park status bestowed upon the area by Congress in 1964. Mr. Kinder and Mr. Smith are just trolling for votes. They can and should be ignored.
The real question for the Park Service is whether to designate most of the Ozark Riverways as wilderness area. This would entail a nearly complete ban on access by horses and mechanized vehicles, such as ATVs and motor-boats.
The other practical alternative is a more balanced approach that would permit some of the commercial activity along the rivers to continue while making serious efforts to protect the natural environment.
In the management plan, the more stringent, preferred by environmentalists, is called Alternative A. The Park Service prefers the latter approach, called Alternative B.
So do we. Doing nothing is not an option. Doing too much would create political conflict that could backfire.
Since the mid-1960s, commercial access to the Current and Jacks has exploded. That has been good for the local economy, but the benefits will disappear if this unique national treasure continues to be degraded.
There's no doubt that most of the commercial operators and residents along the rivers do the best they can to take care of the natural resource. The rivers are as much a part of their heritage as the air they breathe. But with more than 1 million visitors per year, many of them with less respect for the rivers than the locals, the damage is being done and has been well documented.
The Park Service would be negligent to do nothing and let Visigoth visitors trash the park.
Alternative B, while closing some access points to the river and reducing the amount of use that is allowed in some areas by motorized commercial vehicles and horses also would add new trails and nature centers to enhance the visitor experience.
It is a carefully thought-out plan that has undergone tremendous public scrutiny over the past couple of years. It makes allowances for local businesses even as it does what the Park Service must do: Protect a national treasure.
Those political conservatives who fear regulation would be wise to talk to some of their like-minded brethren in southwest Missouri. There, in Branson and Springfield, a bastion of red-state Missouri, business leaders decided long ago that if the natural beauty that defines the area was not protected, their livelihoods would cease to exist. They created the Watershed Committee of the Ozark and made improving water quality an important community value.
The debate over the Ozark Scenic National Riverways is bigger than this. The area is home to at least 200 unique species not found anywhere else in the world. It is a resource that is bigger than south-central Missouri. As a matter of public policy, that resource belongs to every American.
Some of them must do a better job of respecting the park when they visit for float trips. Unfortunately, we need the Park Service's help to do the right thing.
Adopting Alternative B as a long-term management plan will protect the Current and Jacks Fork rivers while preserving economic opportunities for the people who make a living in that area. The Park Service should move forward with its favored management plan.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.