By former Gov. Jay Nixon and Bill Bryan
Last week, an Oregon County Judge erroneously ruled the State of Missouri must sell 625 acres next to the pristine Eleven Point River downstream from Greer Spring. The Judge’s ruling threatens our beloved state park system and sets a dangerous precedent that cannot stand. Missouri needs to appeal – and appeal now.
The Judge’s ruling centers on the fact that the acres in question are covered by a federal conservation easement. In essence, the Judge reasoned that without unfettered public use of the land, it could not be a park. This defies both common conservation practices and common sense.
The federal easement on this land is certainly not unique. Other state parks, including Echo Bluff and Current River State Parks, are protected by similar easements. Other types of reasonable restrictions on use are frequently established and enforced by park professionals for safety and to ensure that parks serve everyone in perpetuity. For instance, at Johnson’s Shut-ins State Park, visitors are not allowed to jump from certain bluffs, and access to these areas for rock climbing is by permit only.
The Judge also misinterpreted the intent of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System Act of 1968. Its purpose is to preserve the free-flowing character of rivers like the Eleven Point, many of which are “generally inaccessible except by trail.” This language is an indication by Congress that these areas were to be managed by state and federal agencies and enjoyed by the public – but has nothing to do with whether the lands are part of a state park.
Today, the federal Mark Twain National Forest operates canoeing accesses and campgrounds on the Eleven Point both up and downstream from the land in question. During good weather, outdoor enthusiasts legally ply and trod the waters and banks of the Eleven Point daily. It is simply incorrect to rule that the law prohibits the Eleven Point from running through a state park.
Rather than a solitary judge in the wilderness making speculative decisions about what might or might not happen in the future, professional park and forest rangers should work together and make decisions based on real issues in the long-term best interests of our state and nation. For the foreseeable future, this 625-acre tract would serve as a conservation corridor along the river and help encourage vital discussions about how best to protect Missouri masterpieces like the Eleven Point.
The acquisition of this land is another testament to Missouri’s long and proud heritage of conservation. A significant portion of the purchase price back in 2016 came from a lead company bankruptcy that we chased all the way to Texas. As part of that matter, we worked with the federal government to clean up lead contamination and acquire new park lands to compensate for the land the company had ruined.
Acquiring this land for a state park was not a unilateral decision. The federal court prescribed the use of the trust funds set aside by the lead company’s bankruptcy,
and federal partners approved the expenditure of the trust funds in accordance with the court’s mandates. The Oregon County judge gave no consideration to these complex legal realities.
The Eleven Point is one of our nation’s greatest wild rivers, and it is a priceless gem of our rich natural heritage as Missourians. Coveted by paddlers for the backcountry experience and anglers for the Blue-Ribbon rainbow trout fishery, the Eleven Point belongs to all of us.
As Missourians, we need to fight for the legacy of our state park system and take this case to the Court of Appeals immediately. Recently, the Missouri Supreme Court unanimously overturned a local decision that deer on hunting preserves are “livestock” instead of “wildlife” to be managed professionally by the Missouri Department of Conservation. Correcting bad decisions is the role of the courts, not managing deer or parks.
On the day Missourians voted to elect President Trump with 57% of the ballot, 81% of the voters overwhelmingly reapproved the Parks, Soil and Water Conservation Sales Tax to ensure strong and reliable funding for our unparalleled state park system. Missourians must rally once again to protect our parks from short-sighted judicial activism. Rangers, not judges, should run our parks.
Jay Nixon is the former state Governor. Bill Bryan is the former parks director.