IU McKinney Students Confront Controversy over United States' First Designated Wild and Scenic River


IU McKinney third year J.D. students Hannah Belleau, Richard (RJ) Proie, and Samantha Spencer spent part of their spring semester conducting an Advanced Field Research project that addresses a growing legal controversy over the management of the nation’s first designated Wild and Scenic Rivers.  In 1964, Congress set aside 134 miles of the Current River and Jacks Fork River in the Ozark Mountains of Southern Missouri, creating the “Ozark National Scenic Riverways” to conserve “unique scenic and other natural values,” and preserve free-flowing streams, springs, caves, and wildlife.

Jacks Fork RiverLast October, the National Park Service, charged with managing the Ozark Riverways, published a new draft Management Plan and Wilderness Study for the Riverways, and the proposal sparked controversy.  The plan is designed to limit the impact of recreational activities that increasingly threaten the quality of the water and the integrity of the natural values in the Riverways.  It would advance a number of measures designed to reduce impact, including measures that would limit the number of river crossings used by trail riders on horseback and off-road vehicles, and restrict access for motorized vehicles that drive onto gravel bars and into the rivers when the water is low.  It would also ban motorboats on the Jacks Fork (In the photo here) and some stretches of the Current. 

Professor Dannenmaier and ENR studentsLocal residents who engage in these forms of high-impact recreational activities protested that the new plan will limit their traditional use of the rivers.  Others object to any continuing national management of what they see as a local resource.  Environmental and river advocates countered that the new restrictions are needed to protect a resource that has been increasingly threatened.  Some argue that the Park Service plan doesn’t go far enough.

(Ozark Riverways AFR Team from left are Professor Eric Dannenmaier, Samantha Spencer, Hannah Belleau, and RJ Proie.)

 American Rivers named the Current and Jacks Fork among “America’s Most Endangered Rivers” in 2011, citing unrestricted high-impact motorized use, erosion, and threats to water quality.  No steps had been taken to address the threats until last fall’s Park Service proposal.  The local dispute over the best use of a scenic national park has been reminiscent of the fights to limit snowmobiles in Yosemite and motorized rafts in the Grand Canyon.  Groups organized on both sides, and the controversy left the Park Service’s proposed plan squarely in the middle.

RJ ProieThe IU McKinney students had just studied wild and scenic river issues as part of Professor Eric Dannenmaier’s Natural Resources Law course last fall, and were offered an opportunity to participate in public hearings and file comments on the Ozark Riverways plan through a specially-focused Advanced Field Research (AFR) course that Professor Dannenmaier designed in response to the public hearing plan.   AFR courses allow students to work outside the classroom with faculty to conduct topical and individually-designed factual investigations, interviews, and legal research on a legal or public policy problem for academic credit. RJ Proie explained “I was interested in this AFR because I wanted to take the opportunity to put theory into practice. Meeting the officials, talking to witnesses, and participating in the hearings – plus hiking along the river and seeing the landscape really put things into perspective.” (Proie, at the far right looking upward, contemplates his next question at a hearing.)

Belleau, Proie, and Spencer are among over 50 students pursuing the Graduate Certificate in Environmental and Natural Resources Law at McKinney and they used the Ozark Riverways AFR as an opportunity to apply their classroom experience with a field project on an evolving controversy concerning an historic stretch of river.  The three traveled to the Ozarks in January with Professor Dannenmaier to get a better sense of the landscape, to meet and talk with local residents about the controversy, and to join public hearings.  They also met with National Park Service officials and representatives of state and national legislators whose offices have been following the issue.

When they returned to Indiana, they each researched, prepared, and filed their own public comment on the proposed plan.  “All three students offered a unique and valuable perspective on the Park Service proposal,” said Professor Dannenmaier.  “Their fieldwork grounded in the classroom gave them credibility and allowed them to identify and frame really excellent arguments.  This is exactly the kind of advocacy they will do in practice, and the project moved them a big step closer to that day.  Aside from the educational component, it doesn’t hurt that they all got to address an issue that they care about and engage decision-makers and constituents who are working to resolve an important national controversy.  Oh, and I think they also enjoyed the road trip and the opportunity to do some hiking in one of the most beautiful landscapes in the country.”

ENR Students Spencer and BelleauBelleau explained that “the opportunity to gain hands-on experience really put everything into perspective.”  Samantha Spencer added “I loved participating directly in the administrative process and filing comments as part of the public record.  And the rivers are beautiful; I understand why Congress created the park and why so much effort is going into its protection.”

(Belleau and Spencer join dialogue with Park Service officer and local resident in Van Buren, Missouri.)

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