The Legacy of the Riverways

To some it's the gem of the Missouri Ozarks - 134 miles of heaven and an economic godsend for a poor part of the state.  To others it's a symbol of a heavy-handed federal government, trampled property rights and too many tourists.  But whichever side of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways you stand, there are still strong emotions concerning the National Park created by an act of Congress some 40 years ago.

This riverway attracts 1.5 million visitors a year, the number is actually down from its peak in the mid 1980's.  The Current and Jacks Fork rivers became a National Scenic Riverway in 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the first federal act to protect a river, in this case a pair of rivers, in the nation's history.  It was a proposal that took years of debate in congress and created divisions between neighbors in southeast Missouri. 

The Current and Jacks Fork rivers are known as the state's finest float streams and features towering bluffs, deep blue pools and swift runs that make the scenic riverway extremely popular for people across the Midwest.

Creating a national park to protect the rivers was not the first controversial proposal involving the Current river.  In the 1930's and 1940's the Army Corps of Engineers had plans to dam the Current river, as was the same for hundreds of streams across the United States.  In Missouri, after WWII, the Corps went so far as to do much of the survey work in preparation for a location for the damn.

Plans for damming the Current and other rivers gave birth to a nationwide "free flowing streams" movement that crushed plans for a Current river dam in the 1950's and in the 1970's saved the Meramec river in eastern Missouri.  With a fresh victory, many of the state's conservationists began to talk about forever preserving the Current, the Jacks Fork river, and the Eleven Point river in Howell County, an area totaling nearly 350,000 acres.

In 1961, U.S. Representative, Richard Ichord, whose 8th congressional district included the rivers, sponsored legislation to designate the Current, Jacks Fork, and Eleven Point rivers as a national monument to be managed by the National Park Service.  St. Louis Congressman, Thomas Curtis introduced a similar bill calling for the U.S. Forest Service to manage the rivers.  The two agencies battled back and forth for advantage in several congressional hearings, but neither bill cleared the committee in that session.

In the early 1960's Congress began a second round of hearings known as the "Park Service Bill", while Forest Service backers conceded they didn't have the support, therefore, the bill was dropped.

Back home in Missouri heavy debate heated up between land owners and those who argued the government did not have the moral authority to use eminent domain to take away private property.  Conservationists and many local business owners saw an economic opportunity in a national park and argued for the proposal.  Secretary of the Interior, Stuart Udall, who floated in the Current river in a much-publicized visit to Missouri, predicted that over 800,000 people a year would visit this park.

Though opposition to the National Park was fierce in Carter and Shannon Counties, it was vehement in areas around the Eleven Point river and in Ripley County, where the Current river enters Arkansas just south of Doniphan.  In order to pass the final bill in 1964, the Ozark National Scenic Riverway stopped at the Ripley and Carter County line and the Eleven Point was removed altogether. 

Despite opposition back home, supporters of the bill carried a lot of political weight.  Supporters included both United States Senators from Missouri and Governor John Dalton, the State Conservation Commission and state park board, which gave up two parks to the Scenic Riverways.  Congress passed a legislation and in August 1964 President Johnson signed the law.  Now there is the beautiful and illustrious Ozark Scenic Riverway for all to visit and cherish.

Source:  Rural Missourian Publication, July, 2004

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