VAN BUREN, Mo.—The hills surrounding town have begun a quiet thaw. It won’t be long before caravans of families and partiers will roll through for weekends on the rivers. Horses and revelers will slosh through the water; motorboats will speed through it; government will try to manage it.
There’s no stretch of the state greener than a summertime float down the bluff-lined and spring-fed Current and Jacks Fork rivers. But having land this beautiful comes at a cost to locals: not being able to control it themselves.
The Ozark National Scenic Riverways, snaking along 134-miles of the two rivers, is operated by the federal government. So too is the Mark Twain National Forest, large swaths of disconnected land spanning the southern half of the state.
Government is often at the center of controversies here. More regulations are commonly seen as harmful to the local economies of some of the poorest areas the state. For many people, though, government action is also seen as a threat to a one-of-a-kind Ozark culture—one fashioned on its independence, durability and attachment to the land.
Now the National Park Service has a plan that would to close down some river access points, limit horseback riding to areas with less impact on the rivers, and have more motorboat restrictions—all for the health of the riverways, they argue.
Local groups like the Voice of the Ozarks are more than skeptical. Why would rivers that seem the same as they did 200 years ago need anything changed?
But things have changed here, albeit slowly. More horses, more visitors, bigger rafts, all terrain vehicles and motorboats can make for a slurry of booze, crowding and E. Coli on the weekends.
Rebecca Landewe, the Nature Conservancy’s Current River project manager, is at the center of this debate.
Landewe, 33, stands tall behind her laptop in the Conservancy’s Main Street Van Buren office. Her laptop is set on a four-legged platform on her desk, raising it high enough so she can stand up while using it.
“I think better on my feet,” Landewe said.
She’s wearing a jacket, leather boots and canvas work pants. She’s fresh from meetings in Jefferson City and won’t be in the office for long.
Up the side of Skyline Drive was one of the Conservancy’s warehouses, where the heavy equipment is stored. Landewe approached two workers who were repairing equipment and preparing to go off to the Chilton Creek property. Landewe has only been in Van Buren for a year and they didn’t know what exactly she did for the Conservancy.
She gave an uneasy laugh, thinking up the most appropriate answer. Her job is multi-pronged.
She said she was working on “landowner outreach” and “forest management.”
Working with private landowners to draft “conservation easements”—legal designations that discourage heavy development—is one part of Landewe’s job.
Relationship building is key when you have an ambitious goal to clean up the watershed. A goal for national non-profit group’s Van Buren project is to reduce sediment flow that dirties the water and harms habitat for sensitive animals like the Hellbender salamander.
Dustin Cramer, the prescribed fire and stewardship manager in Van Buren, said Landewe is well equipped to work among the interests at play.
“She’s good at understanding and being able to relate to a diverse group of people,” he said.
Landewe said that relationships with industry, landowners and those who maintain roads are vital to success, but she knows there could be disagreement in the future.
The Nature Conservancy isn’t a homegrown organization. Their main Missouri office is in St. Louis. Landewe said she’s heard from some people that the group “pushes agendas from St. Louis to impact the park in their backyard.”
“We’re obviously not going to agree on everything,” Landewe said, but she understands where people are coming from with their criticisms of an outside group that has undoubtedly advocated for some change.
Kurt Homeyer is from the Ozarks and manages the 10,000-acre Bee Rock property in the upper part of the watershed. He used to have Landewe’s job.
He said that while he liked the job, there was always animosity from some toward the NPS and the Nature Conservancy.
“One of the most difficult things was things to deal with the mentality that I was a tree-hugger,” he said. “We Ozark people are probably the most stubborn. If there’s some preconceived notion that something is what it is, no amount of proof is going to change that.”
Homeyer said earning respect can only happen through actions, something he said Landewe has the ability to do.
There are actions that can benefit both county governments and wildlife. Making sure there’s enough room for water to flow under roads is an example, Landewe said. When streams and roads cross paths, the water can flow through narrow pipes under road crossings. The gravel roads can be washed-out when there is flooding.
From an ecological standpoint, the road cuts the natural flow of the river and disrupts gravel flow.
And for Landewe, it’s her own experience on the river that characterizes her commitment to it.
“Every summer there was always a family canoe trip to the Current River,” she said. “I have memories of stopping in Van Buren at the Jolly Cone to get ice cream or filling up gas at the Amoco station.”
She grew up in Springfield, one of the Ozark’s largest cities. She’s worked in Minnesota, New Mexico and Kansas City. Now Van Buren is home.
“I can go for a hike after work and it only takes me 10 minutes to get to a trail,” she said. “I can go down to Big Springs and put my feet in the water. When I lived in Kansas City I lived by the Missouri River and you’re not going there for an afternoon swim.”
It remains to be seen how successful the Conservancy’s efforts here will be, or how to even measure success given that nature works at its own pace.
The raging debate
Land all over the region is set ablaze by landowners and government alike in the spring and fall. The flames burn through leafs and twigs on the forest floor, cleansing the land and inviting new growth.
But the deep black char that covers the ground and can stain and ruin harvestable oak timber.
At their 5,500-acre Chilton Creek property, one of the Conservancy’s projects has tracked the effects of prescribed burns on forests.
It’s a delicate slice of land. In one fenced off area is an old cemetery with no more than a couple dozen worn-down graves from generations ago. A county road crosses over a creek bed, disturbing its natural flow. Then there are the charred oak trees that are bruised from the Conservancy’s long-term experiment.
“There is some mortality,” Landewe said plainly about the burning. “That’s one of the concerns that people have about the fire around here. The forest products industry is concerned that there’s going to be too much mortality—either mortality or scaring.”
Pine thrives when the ground is bare. Ground free from litter helps pine seed spread and thrive. But after heavy pine harvesting in the early 20th century, loggers largely moved on to oak harvesting in Missouri.
“Oak is the product people here are cutting,” Landewe said. “What’s interesting is if you go south into Arkansas, it’s all pine. All they care about is pine and it’s still part of the Ozarks.”
After the National Forest Service started an aggressive shortleaf pine restoration program, Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, proposed legislation that would prohibit burns in the Mark Twain National Forest. The NFS did not respond to calls for comment.
Jeff Cowen is a Presiding Commissioner for Shannon County who worked in the timber industry for 20 years. He agrees that prescribed burns have benefits, but he said more aggressive burning by the National Forest Service has taken a toll on the land.
Cowen said the NFS has been cutting down smaller trees while leaving larger ones to grow. Trees that grow too large, Cowen said, invite rot and squirrels, while smaller trees aren’t able to grow to a harvestable size.
“The forest is like any other agricultural crop but it grows on a much slower scale,” Cowen said. “If you have a corn crop and you just let it grow, it’s going to rot. It’s the same with forests.”
Homeyer, who manages the Bee Rock property, said there has to be designated areas for burning and logging.
The 10,000-acre property near Raymondville was purchased from the Nature Conservancy after the Conservancy legally designated most of it a conservation easement.
“It’s virtually all wooded,” Homeyer said. “You have to identify land for timber and land for diversity. The two are not always highly compatible. You can’t have frequent burning on timberland.”
At the Nature Conservancy’s Chilton Creek property, it was too wet to burn, so the crew spent the day cutting down the most flammable trees and brush to prevent future fires from getting out of control.
Some land at Chilton Creek is burned every year while some plots are burned periodically so researchers at the Nature Conservancy can track the long-term effects.
“We’re not just out here making anecdotal observations,” Landewe said. “We’ll actually have data to tell us what’s going on. And that will hopefully inform future management, not just for Conservancy property but for other resource managers.”
Landewe said that without burns, dense leaf cover discourages diversity. With burns, more grasses and plants have sprung up, benefitting wildlife, Landewe said.
But even though a debate over burns rages now, offering forest management solutions that satisfy both the timber industry and ecological interests will take time.
Give and take
The issue has been in the news all around the state: Should the National Park Service’s new management plan be put in place?
Opponents fear unnecessary control from the federal government would mean choking off old roads and access to the river. They argue other regulations would harm the tourism industry. Some people have started wondering if putting up with the federal government is even worth it anymore.
The Missouri House recently endorsed a measure that would provide $6 million to operate the park if the federal government returned the land to the state—a perhaps unprecedented move. It’s unclear if the federal government has never decommissioned a national park because of local uproar.
Though not a government agency, the goals of the Conservancy and the NPS are similar. Maintaining land against activities that could harm it is important.
But the Conservancy doesn’t operate in lockstep with the government.
“I understand we’re they’re coming from,” Landewe said of local concerns about the NPS. She said she’s heard complaints that the government hasn’t followed through with previous promises and won’t be able to follow through with this plan.
The 534-page plan has been years in the making and will overhaul management. It gives three options—Alternatives A, B and C—that lay out the degree to which management would change.
The NPS and Nature Conservancy prefer Alternative B, a compromise which they said balances the interests of tourism while supporting a more sustainable approach to management.
While supporting Alternative B, the Conservancy disagreed with designating a large swath a “wilderness area” because it would prohibit power tools from being used on the land. They also want to know more about effects of motorboats on the rivers before the NPS applies new rules.
There have been disputes with the National Park Service and county governments for years. The ownership of some roads is up in the air.
“We butt heads with them,” Cowen, one of Shannon County’s presiding commissioners, said of the NPS.
The Nature Conservancy weaves through these disputes, trying to build relationships with anyone, and free from a lot of the red tape that stymies ambitious government projects.
“One thing I always liked about the Conservancy is that they’re not just talking about all the things that should be done,” Landewe said. “They’re actually on the ground doing those things.”
Curiosity and drive has lead to experiments taking place now, but battling impatience and natural setbacks are sometimes what it takes to get results in conservation.
“This is where my impatience comes in,” Landewe said. “I want to be able to start a job and start doing things but you have to build relationships, work with partners, and identify common goals.”