The Urban Lawyer

The Ozark National Scenic Riverways and the Sagebrush Rebellion in Missouri

by John W. Ragsdale, Jr
Ozark National Scenic Riverway

Ozark National Scenic Riverway

John W. Ragsdale, Jr. is a William P. Borland Professor of Law, University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law; B.A. Middlebury College, 1966; J.D. University of Colorado, 1969; L.L.M. University of Missouri–Kansas City, 1972; S.J.D. Northwestern University, 1985. The author wants to thank Kayla S. Null and Elizabeth Couzens for their help in the preparation of this Article.


During my 45-year association with The Urban Lawyer, as a student, professor and contributor, I have always felt that a core focus of the journal was on community — within the urban centers, in the developing areas and in the hinterlands. The community is, of course, one of social, economic, political and legal concerns, but beyond, it is a living, reciprocating community with the land itself.

This article focuses on the back country — the Ozark National Scenic Riverways (ONSR) and the community around and with the rivers. It begins historically, tracing the origins and courses of stable-state, subsistence agricultural societies in the rugged hills overlooking the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers. It shows that such societies, though autonomous, are vulnerable to outside aggression. War, raiders, industrial timbermen, and modern technology can shatter the environmental balance. Dam builders, government land managers, and tourism can erode internal sovereignty, custom, and self-esteem. These forces befell the Ozark highlands around the ONSR.

Out of the breakdown of land and economy, and after governmental intrusion and jurisdiction disputes by the National Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the Army Corps of Engineers, came the 1964 rebirth — a new national river park called the ONSR. It was a bellwether of the new environmental era, and a new beginning for the back country of southern Missouri.

Through the use of contemporary land control tools such as eminent domain, conservation easements, comprehensive planning, extraterritorial jurisdiction, and government regulated monopoly, the National Park Service has healed many of the wounds to the land — but has left numerous scars within the local community. Indeed, the community around the rivers reflect the deep anti-federal tensions characteristic of long-running Sagebrush Rebellion in the western states. This Article, then, will deal with a variety of problematic issues — economic, environmental, political, and legal that affect — and divide — the nation as a whole, as well as distinct microcosms such as the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.

I. Introduction

A. The Ozarks and the Great Springs

THE OZARKS SNEAK UP ON A TRAVELER. They no longer rear up in Himalayan-sized ramparts as they once did.1 They unfold gradually into an extended sweep of rumpled, green hills. The plateau extends through the southern half of Missouri and the northern part of Arkansas, with the top altitude in Missouri, Mt. Taum Sauk, being a modest 1772 feet above sea level.2 The flanks of the hills are steep and rugged, and the narrow valleys of the Courtois Hills section of Missouri have granite bluffs, swift clear streams,3 and a pattern of entrenched meanders due to the geologic processes of uplift, erosion, and plateauing.4

The source of central Ozark streams is not always the gradual aggregating of surface run-off into rivulets, becoming modest creeks and finnally rivers. Rather, the source or the major component of a number of the central waterways, including the Jacks Fork, the Current, and the Eleven Point, are the great springs which burst forth from the ground as full-blown streams, floatable in almost any season of the year.5

The precipitation in the area averages forty inches a year, and falls on recharge areas of over 550 square miles of Karst topography, which features a flinty surface, limestone, dolomite, and a granite base.6 The surface water seeps downward to the limestone which partially dissolves into fissures, reservoirs, and underground streams.7 These underground repositories can send water forth with stunning flow rates. Big Spring, the major contributor to the Current River, emanates at 470 cubic feet per second, or about 286 million gallons a day.8 Greer Spring adds 222 million gallons a day to the Eleven Point, and Alley Springs on the Jacks Fork produces 81 million gallons.9 The Current River, the central drainage of the Courtois Hills, begins at Montauk Springs and its discharge is up to 79 million gallons.10 The elevation at Montauk is 1000 feet above sea level and the river will drop about 750 feet over the next 150 miles to a junction with the Black and Eleven Point Rivers.11

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