Politics makes strange bedfellows, according to an old proverb.
So do Ozark rivers.
More than 70 years ago, the fight to save the Current River from dams united locals, whose families had lived along the river for generations, with residents of St. Louis, who wielded money and influence.
More than 50 years ago, Republicans and conservatives in Arkansas shared cause with Democratic Gov. Orval Faubus to save the Buffalo River.
That’s the case today with the Eleven Point, or more accurately, Eleven Point State Park.
Today, the fight for the state park includes former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat representing a host of conservation and environmental organizations, and Eric Schmitt, the Republican Attorney General, whose office is representing the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the division of state parks.
Both are challenging a ruling last year by an Oregon County judge that ordered the state to divest 625 acres of the nearly 4,200-acre park.
A little background here is critical.
Ozark rivers led the way on conservation in this country, including the Current and Buffalo, and the Eleven Point. Originally, it was going to be included as part of Ozark Rivers National Monument, an early proposal to protect several of Missouri’s best rivers, but the Eleven Point was dropped as part of a compromise that ultimately became Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Nearly a decade later, in 1968, Congress passed the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. It states “that certain selected rivers of the nation which, with their immediate environments ... shall be preserved in free-flowing condition and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”
Included among the inaugural wild and scenic rivers was the Eleven Point. It was another first for Ozark rivers, another signal that what we have is nationally significant. Forty-four miles of the Eleven Point were protected from dams, channelization and other development, and a narrow strip of about a quarter-mile on each side of the river was “encumbered” with easements restricting use, to be overseen by the U.S. Forest Service.
The easement, prevents, among other things, campsites, roads and buildings, for example.
About five years ago, Nixon, then the governor, had an opportunity to use money from a settlement stemming from mining damages in the region to acquire nearly 4,200 acres along the Eleven Point for a state park, including 625 acres that were in the easement.
Now everybody agrees that the Eleven Point is an extraordinary river. What they disagree about is whether the park is compatible with the easements. The court said it was not and that the state must sell the 625 acres.
Enter Nixon, on behalf of a number of organizations, including the Missouri Parks Association, the Sierra Club of Missouri, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, the Ozark Society and the Conservation Federation of Missouri. He argues that the circuit court erred and “conflated a public purpose ... with unfettered public access.” There are numerous examples of state parks restricting use or access to state-owned land, including along the nearby Current River, that nothing in the easement makes those 625 acres unsuitable for inclusion in the state park, and that all infrastructure needed for a park, such as roads, trails, utilities, do not need to be in the easement.
Nixon also wrote: “According to the circuit court, because the federal government was the first to decide that this stretch of the river should be protected from development and preserved ‘in free-flowing condition’ and ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations’ DNR/Parks cannot do this very thing, though in a more permanent way. So, says the circuit court, a private party can buy the land but DNR/Parks cannot.
“The logic is more tangled than a rootwad,” Nixon’s brief asserts.
Along with that bit of river vernacular, Nixon’s brief weaves in quotes from both Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Henry David Thoreau with its arguments and citations of cases.
Nixon’s brief argues, “The easement and the creation of the park share a common mission: to protect this remarkable place in its natural state for current and future generations.”
Indeed, the park would protect between 6 and 7 square miles of habitat and the recharge basins for springs that feed the Eleven Point.
There are a host of other challenges to the circuit court’s ruling contained in the filings.
It’s interesting to me that both briefs also cite support for the park from the U.S. Forest Service.
“The USFS, as the easement’s holder, is familiar with DNR’s plans for Eleven Point State Park, including its plans on the encumbered easement lands, and agrees that DNR’s plans will not violate the easement,” the Attorney General’s office wrote in its brief.
In essence, the steward of the river has given its blessing to the park.
Elsewhere, the AG’s brief argues that the state of Missouri has honored the easement since acquiring the land “and intends to keep honoring it.”
Nixon’s brief also notes the Ozarks role in inspiring Aldo Leopold, the nation’s leading voice for conservation, who once wrote of the land along the Eleven Point: “I have a special affection for this area.”
Missourians do, too. And now, along with the Eleven Point National Wild and Scenic River and the adjacent Irish Wilderness, that area can include a spectacular state park.
Let’s hope that Nixon and Schmitt are successful.