With the announcement made last week by Gov. Jay Nixon last week that Eleven Point State Park in Oregon County is among three new state parks opening to the public in southern Missouri, residents of the Parkland can’t be faulted for feeling less than overjoyed by the news.
The state’s plan to turn the 4,167 acres of land into a state park caused an uproar among public officials, environmental groups and ordinary citizens when it was learned that $8 million in ASARCO settlement funds would be used to fund its purchase. The funds set aside in the settlement with ASARCO were specifically meant to be used to restore and remediate the Lead Belt region.
At a public meeting held Oct. 13, 2015, in Park Hills, members of the St. Francois, Madison, iron and Oregon County commissions, as well as city councils representing areas affected by ASARCO lead and zinc contamination complained to representatives of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources that a Sept. 2, 2015, meeting held at Johnson’s Shut-Ins where the purchase announcement was made had not been publicized until two days prior to it occurring, and then only on the DNR website.
Despite Missouri Department of Natural Resources Director Sara Parker Pauley insistence that an email list of nearly 500 people were given prior notice of the public meeting at Johnson’s Shut-Ins, no one attending the Park Hills meeting, including state representatives and members of the media, said they’d received it.
The DNR presentation was followed by a 40-day public comment period allowing the public to review the proposed projects and provide feedback. Despite receiving major opposition to the plan from the public, state elected officials, county commissions — and even the Oregon County Commission who feared a further dip in county tax revenue — the council said that after reviewing the comments made, it had “elected to fund and implement a suite of six restoration projects involving acquisition of over 5,400 acres and restoration of upland, wetland and bottomland habitats which will benefit migratory birds and other species, as well as improve water quality.”
In other words, even though the Oregon County purchase received strong opposition during the 40-day comment period, the state decided to buy it with ASARCO funds anyway.
With intense pressure placed on Nixon by 117th District Rep. Linda Black, R-Park Hills, 144th District Rep. Paul Fitzwater, R-Potosi, 3rd District State Senator Gary Romine, R-Farmington, and Congressman Jason Smith, R-8th District, the governor instructed DNR to fast-track several southeast Missouri ASARCO-funded projects, including the proposed Bone Hole County Park in St. Francois County and the Little St. Francis River Watershed Master Plan in Madison County. The governor even made a high-profile visit to both sites in Dec. 2015 to help stem some of the mounting criticism he was receiving from the state legislature, Lead Belt region county commissions and the general public.
In February of this year, the Missouri Senate approved Senate Bill 682, co-sponsored by Sen. Romine, that expands public notice requirements relating to land purchases made on behalf of any state department.
Responding to the governor’s announcement of Eleven Point State Park, Romine said, “It’s very frustrating. I talked with the governor and his staff. We’re still trying to get the Pilot Knob project … the Crane Lake project. And what is real frustrating is we’re talking about those things and they were not disclosed that these other projects were in the works.
“That’s a legacy I don’t think the governor really wants, but going out and doing things, I guess behind the scenes or in the dark, is not a good way to leave. If he wants to be upfront and work on those projects and work on our projects it would have been a whole lot better than stiff-arming us on ours and then going ahead and doing his behind closed doors.”
Rep. Fitzwater also had a strong response to the governor’s announcement of Eleven Point State Park’s opening.
“I guess the big thing was is how [Gov. Nixon] acquired it by using money in the ASARCO fund that was — I don’t like the word ‘earmarked’ — but it was earmarked for cleaning up the areas of past lead contamination. That’s a sour subject with me. We have 88 parks in the state of Missouri right now and we can’t take care of them and to think that we’re going to build three more. They’re calculating that it’s going to cost $212 million to repair some of the downgrades that obviously needs to be taken care of in our other state parks.
“So, I guess the bottom line is why is the governor out there spending money? I’ll tell you why he’s spending money — because he’s leaving and doesn’t really care. It’s really the same rhetoric we’ve had for the last eight years with Gov. Nixon. Hopefully we’re going to get back in January and do something about what he’s doing here. I’m not sure if we can, but we’re going to make an attempt.”
The two other parks announced by Nixon, neither paid for with ASARCO funds, are the $4 million Bryant Creek State Park in Douglas County, located near the Ozark County line and approximately 22 miles southeast of Ava; and the $2.8 million Ozark Mountain State Park located in Taney County, northwest of Branson along Highway 465. The three new parks bring the total number of state parks in Missouri to 91.
“These new state parks ensure that we can protect and preserve these valuable natural landscapes for generations to come,” Gov. Nixon said in his announcement of the openings. “At a time when other states are closing or even selling state parks or charging day use fees, we are expanding our system of state parks to offer more opportunities for Missourians to experience the outdoors, at no admission cost.”
Missouri State Parks Director Bill Bryan said, “These new parks were acquired to fill natural history gaps that were not previously represented in the state park system. For more than 20 years, the park system has been looking to add properties with these unique natural features for the public to enjoy.”
According to Nixon’s office, the new park lands “were selected based on goals identified in the 1992 Missouri State Park and Historic Site System Expansion Plan, which was developed following a nearly five-year process of public meetings, research and staff input. In 2004, Missouri State Parks also completed Missing Masterpieces: A Survey About Missouri State Parks and Historic Sites.”
Bryan said plans for development of the properties and future use “are in the preliminary stages” with early development focusing on natural resource stewardship. The park system will hold a series of events to allow members of the public to see the properties and provide feedback on park planning.
The first of these events will be guided hikes on the property. They will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. Jan. 6 at Ozark Mountain State Park, from 1 to 4 p.m. Jan. 7 at Eleven Point State Park and from noon to 2 p.m. Jan. 8 at Bryant Creek State Park.
For information on where these hikes will begin, contact Missouri State Parks at 573-751-0761 or email@example.com. For those who cannot attend the hikes, a presentation and opportunity to provide feedback will also be available online at mostateparks.com beginning Jan 6.
“So, I guess the bottom line is why is the governor out there spending money?” — State Rep. Paul Fitzwater
Kevin Jenkins is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3614 or firstname.lastname@example.org