Deep in the heart of the Ozark Mountains in southern Missouri a battles rages over the use of a National Park, The Ozark National Scenic Riverways. This National Park is visited by millions each year and was the first federally protected river system, established in 1964.
In 2011, Ozark National Scenic Riverways was identified by the non-profit American Rivers as one of the most endangered river systems in the country, citing mismanagement. Last year the park announced a plan to address usage based on what it says is a changing demographic. This is the Ozark National Scenic Riverway's first usage study in 30 years.
I visited the park late last year and spoke with residents and park staff. There, I found a community still battling for independence amidst what they see as too much government control.
I met Eric Mansfield at a grocery store in Ellington while he’s buying food for his mother. He’s a talkative man, full of energy. In the first 15 minutes we have already discussed religion, Russian literature and possum recipes. He is the president of the Ozark Heritage Project. He’s been an outspoken critic of the management of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Mansfield says the park service wants to protect the cultural heritage of the area, but he is skeptical because of historic structures falling apart under the park’s supervision in the past.
“We will be giving up rights, we will be turning over granted nationally-owned treasures, but treasures that were in local families for generations and just watch them abused and misused," Mansfield said as he drove.
Mansfield said the rugged individualism of the residents stem from a long history of battling the federal government. The Ozarks were settled by independently-minded European settlers, who created a self-sufficient culture and society. It was also the scene of some bloody battles during the Civil War, which only fueled the animosity toward the federal government.
Mansfield led the way to a private easement in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways to meet Phillip Moss, his wife Charlotte, their granddaughter Kim Rains and their two great grandchildren. It was a half moon on a crisp night last fall and we were going out on the Current River to gig some suckers, or “hog mollies” as they’re called. It is easy to sniff out an outsider because they say "catch a fish" not "gig a fish," Moss explains.
Rains' children make the eighth generation to grow up on this river. Rains grew up gigging and it’s less about sport and more of a way of life, which she wants her kids to be able to experience.
“This is what we’ve done for years. People used to live for this," she said leaning over the john boat preparing to gig a sucker. "That's how they put food on the table and it's how we put food on the table."
Three flood lights hang off the end of the john boat that carries the group upriver. The lights give full view of the river bottom and the fish they're attempting to gig.
Mansfield and Rains are not against the National Park Service, but they say it might be stepping too far. The new general management plan proposals could affect what they are doing here tonight.
“You can over-regulate to death because the people who spend the majority of their time on this wouldn't want to eat fish out of a polluted stream," Mansfield said. "We don't need regulations for us to be good stewards."
Phil Moss was born and raised in Shannon County. He is the owner of Blazer Boats and comes from a generation of river guides. He started guiding on the river at the age of 12. Moss is somewhat of an Ozark tycoon owning more riverside property than he can count and a boat company that sells boats for gigging and river use. He still has fresh wounds from the eminent domain the park service used in acquiring his family’s private land for establishment of the park more than 50 years ago.
"A typical Saturday this place is completely full," explains Pat Jackson who is a national park field ranger.
The story is not so black and white for Jackson, who grew up on this river and is teaching his son how to use it as well. He said his memories of life are on this river including countless afternoons with his son, scuba diving on his days off and his bachelor party with friends. As the face of the park service, Jackson deals with the pull between the residents he grew up with and the government he works for.
“And they don’t understand when they say the park service this or that. I want to say guys, listen, I’m from here and you don’t realize what we’d have. We would have a Branson all the way up through here if we didn’t come through and protect what we have," Jackson said. "It hasn't changed much except what nature changed. It looks the same here as it did in '62 or '59, except what God or nature wanted to change. And that's important to me."
Ozark National Scenic Riverways is expected to make a decision on the new management plan proposals sometime this summer.