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Future of three state parks in jeopardy

Missouri State Parks is seeking public comments from Dec. 4 through Jan. 5 on the future of 2,917-acre Bryant Creek State Park in Douglas County, 1,230-acre Jay Nixon State Park in Reynolds County and 1,011-acre Ozark Mountain State Park in Taney County.

The agency has also scheduled three public meetings next week — one near each park in question. Although it isn’t clear what could happen to the parks at the end of the public comment period, their sale appears to not be out of the question.

According to a statement given to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by Connie Patterson, spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources, Missouri State Parks has the authority to decide the fate of each individual park. She criticized former Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration for purchasing the lands secretly and without local input.

“There were insufficient public engagement opportunities before these properties were purchased,” Patterson said. “These properties have had a high level of public interest and Missouri State Parks wants to receive input on the future of these properties from nearby residents and the public. That input will be seriously considered as we evaluate and work to move toward decisions on each individual property.”

This latest idea by Missouri state parks leadership to provide some needed relief to a tight state budget — while providing Republican lawmakers a little political payback at the same time — could most certainly be directly traced to the uproar caused among state Republican lawmakers, when a little more than two years ago it was learned that then-Governor Jay Nixon used ASARCO settlement funds to purchase 2,463 acres of Oregon County ranchland for the creation of Eleven Point State Park.

The legislators were further incensed a year later when they learned that the outgoing Democratic governor had bought land in Reynolds County for one of the state parks targeted by Missouri State Parks. Further salt was rubbed into the wound when it was learned Nixon had named the park after himself.

And it wasn’t just state lawmakers who got their dander up about the two parks either. Other complainants included U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, city councils and county commissions, as well as residents living in areas where ASARCO settlement funds were supposed to be used.

While Oregon County’s Eleven Point State Park isn’t mentioned in the press release, three county residents filed a lawsuit in September challenging the legality of the land’s purchase and as a state park. According to Patterson, Missouri State Parks is waiting for the lawsuit to be resolved to begin a public comment period on that park. According to online court records, the Department of Natural Resources has file a motion to dismiss the case.

State parks are obviously important to an area with a nickname like “The Parkland.” In fact, many of Missouri’s state parks are within a short driving distance of Farmington, such as St. Francois State Park, The Battle of Pilot Knob State Historical Site, Elephant Rocks and Johnson’s Shut-Ins, which is the most visited park in a state where more than 21.2 million people visited state parks last year.

The closest meeting site to the Parkland, regarding the future of Jay Nixon State Park, will be held 6-8 p.m. Dec. 7 at Johnson’s Shut-Ins, 148 Taum Sauk Trail in Lesterville. The other two meetings will take place at Ozark Mountain State Park 6-8 p.m. Dec. 4 at the Dewey Short Visitor Center, 4500 State Highway 165, Branson; and 6-8 p.m. Dec. 5 at the Ava Community Building, 109 Northeast 2nd St. in Ava, nearby Bryant Creek State Park.

Beginning Dec. 4, people will be able to submit comments about each park individually through an online survey they can access by clicking a button on the Missouri State Parks website at https://mostateparks.com.

In response to Missouri State Parks asking for public comment on the three parks, a vocal opponent of Nixon’s purchase of Eleven Point State Park and Jay Nixon State Park, said he believes it’s most important that there be a conversation — with public input — of what to do with the state parks.

“Second, we do need to find out how those funds are going to be allocated if one of the parks, or all three, were to be sold,” said Missouri Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington. “Will they go into a maintenance fund? Because right now we’re not keeping up with the maintenance on the number of state parks we have at this time, let alone, develop these three.

“Should we let them set dormant, or — and I’m not up for selling them for pennies on the dollar — but for a fair price I think we ought to consider the possibility of doing it. Especially since they were done without public input and without using the ASARCO settlement funds properly. We need to have a conversation about what to do with those parks.”

State Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, took a more cautious approach.

“I think we really need to take a serious look at the overall matter,” he said. “Just reacting to the public’s dismay on how this parkland was acquired and possibly selling these properties at a big loss is unacceptable.

“I said on the floor of the House it wasn’t properly acquired and there was no public input — it was obviously a type of land grab by the governor. But just to sell it at any price and take a huge loss – we’ve got to come up with a plan — we don’t want to do that.”

“Just reacting to the public’s dismay on how this parkland was acquired and possibly selling these properties at a big loss is unacceptable.” — State Rep. Kevin Engler

While the Eleven Point State Park in Oregon County is not on the list of three state parks that may be left dormant or even sold, that may not remain so once a lawsuit against Missouri State Parks is settled. The land was purchased with $8 million in ASARCO settlement funds that many feel should have been used for projects in affected areas.

While the Eleven Point State Park in Oregon County is not on the list of three state parks that may be left dormant or even sold, that may not remain so once a lawsuit against Missouri State Parks is settled. The land was purchased with $8 million in ASARCO settlement funds that many feel should have been used for projects in affected areas.

The new Jay Nixon State Park in Reynolds County is one of three state parks that Missouri State Parks is requesting public comment on to determine if they should be completed, left dormant or sold. With the Missouri budget tight, the state is having difficulty funding the state parks that are already in use.

The new Jay Nixon State Park in Reynolds County is one of three state parks that Missouri State Parks is requesting public comment on to determine if they should be completed, left dormant or sold. With the Missouri budget tight, the state is having difficulty funding the state parks that are already in use.

Kevin Jenkins is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3614 or kjenkins@dailyjournalonline.com

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