The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

March 31, 2014

Andy Ostmeyer, columnist: State takeover of Riverways a lose-lose proposal

— It wasn’t that many years ago that folks in Lamar had a plan. What they needed was a partner.

Lamar is home to the Harry S Truman Birthplace State Historic Site, where the 33rd president was born in 1884.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which manages all state parks and historic sites, and the city of Lamar started drafting a master plan for the site in 1997 that included making additional room for buses and tour groups, rebuilding a version of the historic Franklin school with offices, a gift shop and more, and building a historic mule barn because Truman’s father was a mule trader.

Lamar officials see Truman’s birthplace as an underutilized attraction, and were excited about the possibility of a beefed-up historic site drawing in more tourists. The city acquired several nearby properties, removed old structures, put curbs and guttering in the neighborhood, moved power lines and so on.

And then waited.

The state eventually bought some of those nearby properties from the city but nothing much happened on the development end, and eventually locals grew so frustrated with the slow pace of things that in 2007 they asked the late Ike Skelton, their congressman, if the birthplace could be added to the National Park Service.

“We can’t get them (DNR) to turn loose any money,” City Administrator Lynn Calton said at the time. “We asked that they consider creating a national park so they could get this project done while I’m still alive. We’re just desperate here.”

Officials from the DNR said back then that the mule barn and school were just two of 500 capital improvement projects on a waiting list for the state’s 83 state parks and historic sites, and the state had only about $1.5 million a year budgeted for such projects.

Ultimately, the federal study concluded that Truman’s birthplace didn’t belong in the national park system, which already preserves his home in Independence and his farm in nearby Grandview, and determined the state was the best agency to maintain Truman’s birthplace. The decision frustrated some residents in Lamar.

So here we are today, nearly 20 years after the drafting of that master plan for Truman’s birthplace, and none of the proposed capital improvement work has happened. I bring this up as federal and state legislators debate the effort to strip the National Park Service of Ozark National Scenic Riverways and make it a state park.

This would be a mistake.

Missouri has a great state park system, one of the best in the nation, but its weakness is that it remains woefully underfunded. Today, state parks get half of a one-tenth-cent state sales tax, and soil conservation gets the other half. But the park system used to receive state general revenue funds as well as tax revenue until about 1990, when it was stripped out by legislators during a budget crisis.

Underfunding is evident at other parks in the area, too.

The state acquired its first 640 acres for Big Sugar Creek State Park in McDonald County in 1992 and more acquisition followed, but 22 years later, little has been done to develop that park. No campgrounds. No day-use areas. No canoe access. Nothing but one three-mile trail and a restroom.

McDonald County Presiding Commissioner Keith Lindquist agreed that Big Sugar Creek State Park is underused because it is underdeveloped.

“I’d love for it (park development) to happen,” he said, “but I don’t see it happening.”

The old lodge at Roaring River State Park — a CCC-era gem — has been idle for years, although just this past week, DNR officials confirmed the agency has hired an architect to put together designs for the building as a step toward restoring it to its original use as a lodge. But that’s the easiest and least expensive of steps.

Since 2007, things have gotten worse — not better — for state parks. Missouri’s state park system lost 20 percent of its staff during the legislative budget cuts that came with the recent economic downturn, according to the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. Also, state parks have a backlog of nearly $400 million in deferred maintenance and other priority infrastructure projects, and transfer of the Riverways to the state would add an additional $32 million to that backlog, the Coalition argues.

And now Republicans want the same state agency that in nearly 20 years hasn’t come up with money to build a mule barn in Lamar to take over 134 miles of the Current and Jacks Fork rivers — perhaps the two best float streams in the state — along with 80,000 acres of land, hundreds of developed and backcountry campsites, and dozens of historic buildings. The proposed state takeover of the federal park would be the fly trying to swallow the elephant.

Those 80,000 acres would make the state park system more than 50 percent larger than it is now. (It currently has 147,087 acres, and add $6 to $7 million in annual operating expenses to the state park budget. For Fiscal Year 2014, the operating budget of Missouri State Parks is $38.9 million.)

Missouri legislators are considering putting money in the state budget to operate Ozark National Scenic Riverways — should they get it — but if the additional revenue is there, let’s put it into existing Missouri parks.

What we’re getting is a lose-lose scenario for both Ozark National Scenic Riverways and Missouri state parks.

Andy Ostmeyer is the metro editor for The Joplin Globe. Contact him at aostmeyer@joplinglobe.com.

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