Floaters on some of Missouri's finest streams found unwanted company this spring -- drivers of ATVs, Jeeps, even pickups, playing in the rivers. More than a decade after a statewide crackdown on recreational motor vehicles in the water, the practice is present, and growing.
Floaters on some of Missouri's finest streams found unwanted company this spring -- drivers of ATVs, Jeeps, even pickups, playing in the rivers.
More than a decade after a statewide crackdown on recreational motor vehicles in the water, the practice is present, and growing.
"It has once again gotten relatively active," said Ken West, a regional protection supervisor with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Riders are churning through the Current and Jacks Fork -- whose scenic beauty earned them the distinction as the nation's first federally protected rivers -- and the Black, which, despite its name, is one of the clearest of the spring-fed Ozark rivers.
Canoeists approaching Eminence on the Jacks Fork on a Saturday this month found a half-dozen ATVs on a gravel bar, and several in the river. "Is that legal?" asked one floater.
No, is the answer in most cases. In 1990, Missouri banned motorized vehicles from streams for recreation, citing studies that showed the flow of traffic through a riverbed harmed aquatic life.
But some riders are using a technicality in the state law that allows vehicles to ford rivers at "customary crossings." Most of the crossings were used by farmers decades ago, and the only people now using them are recreational vehicle owners who enjoy playing in the rivers.
Noah Poe, superintendent of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, the national park set up in 1965 to protect the Current and Jacks Fork rivers, this spring asked for a legal opinion from the U.S. Department of Interior on the term "customary crossings." He expects an answer within weeks.
"We are seeing a significant increase in ATV use in the park," Poe said. "A ford may have been used by farmers or ranchers getting from one place to another in the past, but do we have to allow that use to go on today even though it's all recreational? The question is: Do we have the authority to close those fords now? It's a big problem, and I think we're going to end up in court, where we want to win."
Frank Manganaro, of Glendale in west St. Louis County, celebrated his wedding anniversary by floating and fishing the Black River last month. As he and his wife rounded a bend they found two Jeeps and several ATVs in the river.
"They were churning up mud and gravel," Manganaro said. "From there down, that crystal-clear river was murky. They waved, but we didn't wave back."
Mike Lancaster, the conservation supervisor in charge of the Black River basin, said his agents issued 13 citations for vehicles in the river last month. But Lancaster said the $200 fine, plus $79.50 in court costs, doesn't seem to be a deterrent.
"It must not be because we'd see a decrease in the amount of use, and we're not seeing it," Lancaster said. "I think an increase in the fine would help."
Missouri once was a mecca for river riding because adjoining states had laws against driving in streams. Lancaster said many of the illegal riders in the Black River area still come from out of town and, in some cases, other states.
"Of the violations we have written, 80 percent were from St. Louis," he said. "And there's a significant number from out of state, quite a bit from Illinois and Indiana.
"We're going on 15 years fighting this, and most folks know it's illegal and causes problems. You're putting petroleum products in the water -- we had complaints of oil in the river -- you're stirring up sediment that can choke fish beds, you're compacting the gravel and that can change the river's hydrology."
The problem previously came to a head in the mid-'90s and was centered on the Parks Bluff Campground on the Black River in Lesterville. On summer weekends -- and especially on Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day -- the campground would draw up to 8,000 owners of off-road vehicles, including Big Foot trucks hauled in on flatbed trailers. License plates came from as far away as Oklahoma, Ohio and Kentucky.
The Black River was turned into a fuming traffic jam, with floaters complaining they could not get through.
Gary Cravens, a Conservation Department supervisor who viewed the scene from a helicopter on Memorial Day of 1996, said at the time, "It was a mess, a congested mess."
But the department found it was hogtied by a ruling from a local county prosecutor, who said off-roaders had been crossing the river to gravel bars for years at the campground, so it must be a "customary crossing."
Nonsense, said Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, an avid floater himself. He threatened a suit that would seek fines of up to $25,000 per day, per incident, against Jayme Parks, the owner of the campground.
Parks responded by posting signs warning riders to stay out of the river, and by opening mud pits on her property and inviting the off-roaders to slosh through those. But several serious accidents, at least two fatal, followed and Parks now bans off-road vehicles and operates a family campground.
"It's a nice, clean-looking campground right now," said Lancaster, the conservation supervisor. "No ATVs are allowed through her gates. But that's a good and a bad thing. A lot of the traffic that was in her mud pits is now in the river, again."
Eugene "Woody" Woodcock of Lesterville agreed that most of the river running these days on the Black is done by outsiders. "People come down here and camp, splash around in the river on a four-wheel-drive or a dune buggy for two days, and go home," he said, but, "we're local, we're the ones that's guilty."
Woodcock, 68 and a retired trucker, is a charter member of the Black River Jeep Club, which started in 1967 and has a new wave of members. He remembers the old days when club members would drive through one of the river's deepest holes in rigs modified with "snorkels" on the exhaust to go underwater.
"There'd be 50 to 150 people waiting for us with cameras," he said. "The water was 13 feet, 6 inches deep. We'd go in one end, and come out the other. It was fun, it was an every Sunday thing, to go on rides up and down the river.
"But people who were supposed to be real smart with Conservation come down on us that we were killing fish, and doing this, and doing that. We never gave it much thought at the time."
Woodcock said he no longer owns a snorkel rig, and has given up driving in the water.
"The locals still go down to the river, the women sunbathe, the kids play around in the river," he said. "I'm not saying that, occasionally, somebody doesn't drive across the river here and there.
"As far as problems, the locals get the bad rap on this. Most people who come down here don't even know what 'no trespassing' means."
Tony Rolls lives at Sutton's Bluff, a picturesque area where the Black River bends around a towering bluff. The area is bordered by woods designated by the U.S. Forest Service for off-road vehicles. Riders must get permits and are asked to stay on the trails through the forest.
"Last Memorial Day weekend, it sounded like I was sitting in the pits of a grand prix racetrack -- it went on until 2 a.m.," said Rolls, who works for Black River Floats. "Thirty vehicles were out on the gravel bar, and a black pickup got stuck in a deep hole in the river. He was in the water for over 20 minutes, before a Jeep pulled him out.
"There was no conservation, no forestry, no sheriff's office saying anything to them."
Reynolds County Sheriff Gary Barton echoed the common reply when asked why law enforcement could not curb the river running.
"On any weekend there's going to be a vehicle in the river somewhere," Barton said. "I've got four guys and I can't patrol that river like it should be. I told a governor's committee that I needed four to five additional deputies with four-wheel drives at a minimum. They turned it over to conservation."
Lancaster, the conservation supervisor, said his agents responded to the report of the black pickup stuck in the river, but arrived at the scene after the driver was long gone. Lancaster, too, said his department was understaffed.
"There's no way that we've got enough people to handle the ATV traffic and work everything else," he said. "Because we have to work the ATVs, we're ignoring other things, like fishing. We have one agent in Reynolds County, although we're getting another one in October."
Indeed, Lancaster said the biggest concentration of off-road river traffic on the Black is between Highway K and Clearwater Lake, in another federal jurisdiction. The Army Corps of Engineers governs that 12-mile stretch, and Chief Ranger Randy Devenport had a familiar complaint.
"It's a manpower issue," Devenport said. "We have 18,000 acres; that's a lot of ground to cover. Plus, you have to consider their mobility. The ATVers tend to have pretty good ears and eyes when it comes to a white corps vehicle."
Barton, the sheriff, added: "I grew up on the Black River. You've got to keep in mind, this is what these people like to do. In behind Lesterville, there are probably 50 to 60 customary crossings used for more than 20 years.
"Personally, I don't see anything wrong with crossing a shallow part of water and going up to the next fishing hole. But that's different than playing in the water. We're on the same page there."
ATV-RELATED WATER-POLLUTION CONCERNS
Here are a few examples regarding ATVs and concerns about water pollution:
New Mexico: The U.S. Forest Service undertakes a major initiative to revive a Jemez Mountain watershed and a fishery that was choking on its own streamside sediment, churned loose in part from excessive vehicle traffic. The initiative bans car, truck and ATV traffic along stream banks in an effort to bring the watershed into compliance with water quality standards and restore a lost fish habitat.
Duluth, Minn.: The Duluth City Council bans ATVs from city-owned property after residents complained the vehicles were degrading streams, trails and land. The proposal was pushed by Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation, who argued that the ATVs were creating deep ruts and erosion in city woods, through trout streams and near wetlands.
Arkansas: Officials from Arkansas' Ouachita National Forest announce they will curb the use of ATVs in two popular areas of the western Arkansas forest to ease erosion that is causing water-quality problems. Off-road use of ATVs is banned from nearly 12,000 acres of national forest at Wolf Pen Gap and 45,000 acres south of the Little Missouri River in Polk and Montgomery counties. Violators can be fined and sentenced to up to six months in prison.
--Matthew Fernandes, Post-Dispatch news research
To see more of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.stltoday.com.
Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News