Party Pollution Threatens Ozarks' Rivers The spring-fed, protected rivers that wend through the Missouri Ozarks have begun to draw swarms of drunken party-goers, and the National Park Service's attempts to crack down run up against staff shortages.
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Party Pollution Threatens Ozarks' Rivers

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Party Pollution Threatens Ozarks' Rivers

Party Pollution Threatens Ozarks' Rivers

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In south central Missouri, the Ozarks National Scenic Riverways features some of the prettiest and cleanest streams in the country. But in recent years, rippling waters and birdcalls have been drowned out by human wildlife.

(Soundbite of a man making birdcalls)

SIEGEL: The National Park Service has imposed new regulations this year to curb the heavy drinking, nudity and violence.

Frank Morris of member station KCUR floated one of the rivers and brought back this story.

FRANK MORRIS: Dozens of springs feed the Current River and normally it runs almost crystal clear. So park ranger Bill Terry, a big, rough-looking 34-year veteran of this park can easily point out the abundant wildlife above and below the surface of the water.

Mr. BILL TERRY (Park Ranger, Ozark National Scenic Riverways): Right there is a school of (unintelligible), there's a yellow sucker. And I guarantee, if you threw a spinner bait back in there, you could find goggle-eye, but he's hiding right now.

MORRIS: The river winds through steep in densely forested Ozark hills, past cliffs or soft, strangely weathered gray rock. There are mink, bear and beaver, ducks, eagles and heron out here. But most of the week, people are very scarce.

Mr. TERRY: This is exactly how it used to be all the time. And it's how we, as National Park Service professionals, would like for it to be.

MORRIS: But that's not how it always is.

(Soundbite of noise)

MORRIS: The Current River can get pretty noisy on warm Saturdays. In the recent years, naked women, fist fights, pot smoking, serious injuries and people relieving themselves in plain view have become commonplace on this stretch of the river. Park superintendent Noel Poe says that's about to change.

Mr. NOEL POE (Superintendent, Ozark National Scenic Riverways): If you took your family to Yellowstone, you would never expect to see something like that. But here, you take your family to another national park area, and you have this occurring.

MORRIS: At 10 a.m. on a recent Saturday, tipsy-looking young adults packing coolers of beer and vodka-drenched watermelons drag their rented aluminum canoes into the water under a ranger's gaze.

Unidentified Man #1: I will tell you right now, there are people on the river that will be watching you.

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, sir.

Unidentified Man #1: So do not get caught.

MORRIS: The park has imposed new rules this year. No beer bongs, no kegs on the river, no Jello shots and no Mardi gras beads.

Unidentified Woman: No Mardi gras beads? Why not? Is that really a rule?

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah.

MORRIS: But despite some objections, the new restrictions seem to be holding. Well, except for the one against cliff jump.

Unidentified Man #4: Come on, Jack, jump.

MORRIS: Thirty or forty people sit glumly on a gravel bar staring at a ranger perched on a cliff over a favorite jumping spot. Before long, a wiry man steps past the ranger and leaps off the 20 foot cliff. It's Max Maxim(ph), a local guy here with his 12- and 14-year-old sons. A few minutes later, Mason and his sons are back on their horses, cowboy hats on, ready to make a get away.

Mr. MAX MAXIM (Local Resident): That's another way for the federal government to control us, and this is one time I'm going to show them that it's not going to happen.

MORRIS: Most here, though, are as relaxed and accepting of the rules as they seem to be of each other. Middle aged locals stand on gravel bars talking with 20 something's from Kansas City and St. Louis as the little kids search for crayfish. Just about everyone is friendly.

Tony Vest(ph) of Centralia, Illinois, is a regular here with his wife and young daughter. He says the crackdown has driven off much of the hardcore party sect.

Mr. TONY VEST: It's still a good time to come down the river and take a float with the family.

(Soundbite of phone conversation)

MORRIS: A little ways down the stream, Eugene Maggard runs the canoe rental business he inherited from his dad out of his parents' old house.

Mr. EUGENE MAGGARD (Owner, Jacks Fork Canoe Rental & Campground): Yeah, and this is right where I grew up. You know, I can still see mom here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MORRIS: Like many here, tourism is Maggard's lifeblood. And park attendants is down. He says media reports have exaggerated the partying and cut into the fragile local economy.

Mr. MAGGARD: I think along with the getting rid of the so-called bad behavior type people, we don't want to run off the good people.

MORRIS: Well, the park service is determined to rid the Ozark National Scenic Riverways of this certain type of wildlife. It hopes the effort will make families and the animals themselves just a little more comfortable.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

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