Strengthening Forest Ties

By Kathleen Logan Smith

For people who love the outdoors, Missouri’s Ozarks boasts some enviable assets with the Mark Twain National Forest at the center. The National Forest lands appeal to hikers, cyclists, off-highway riders, hunters, photographers, ecologists, and horseback riders. Balancing the interests that these diverse groups have in being in the National Forest with the needs of visitors, neighbors, and wildlife can be tricky. And the National Forest Service cannot manage it alone. Last week, representatives from various groups met to explore how their common love for the land of the Ozarks can build cooperation that preserves the Ozarks while promoting the area to more people.

The groups attending the meeting last Tuesday discussed a common mission statement and working together. One participant, Kathie Brennan, President of the Ozark Trail Association (OTA), shared details about the Ozark Trail, a hiking, biking, riding trail that reaches from the Arkansas border to the Meramec River west of St. Louis. The Ozark Trail links the Mark Twain National Forest with spring-fed rivers, state parks, historic sites, and natural areas. It now exceeds 350 miles. The Ozark Trail itself began as a vision in the 1970’s. Construction began in 1981.

The Ozark Trail Association was celebrating a successful 140-person trail build event that had occurred two weeks ago at Round Spring on the Current River.

The 15-year old nonprofit organization started with the desire of one guy – John Roth – to repair and expand the sadly overgrown and underused Ozark Trail he encountered on a hike at the dawn of the 21st century. Brennan tells the story that John popped into the Potosi office of the National Forest Service lamenting the trail’s condition at which time he was invited to help correct the situation. And he did.

John formed the Ozark Trail Association the following year. Through its programs, the organization mobilizes thousands of volunteers. OTA builds sustainable trails; restores and maintains trails; trains crews and crew leaders for trail building, and partners with others who use the trail. People from across the country come to help with OTA trail events. And plenty of Missourians pitch in too: 98% of the Ozark Trail is “adopted” by volunteers who monitor and maintain sections of the trail. 

Because of OTA’s advocacy and enthusiasm, Missouri now boasts a designated “National Recreational Trail” and hundreds of miles of multi-use trail for hikers, mountain bikers, and even horses and ATVs. The longest section runs from Onodaga State Park to the Eleven Point River – over 200 miles. The Ozark Trail is recognized as one of the nation’s best “back country” trails. 364 miles of the Ozark Trail are in the Mark Twain National Forest – but not one point is in a town, which makes resupplying a challenge for hikers.

“It is very rugged and very remote,” Brennan said.

Some sections of the Ozark Trail are busier than others. Last weekend, the Ozark Trail 100, a 101-mile endurance ultramarathon was held on a section of the trail from south of Steelville to Bass River Resorts. Nearby, the Berryman trail section west of Potosi often hosts nationally recognized mountain biking events.

Brennan said the next steps for the Ozark Trail Association are earning the “Premiere Trail” designation from the U.S. Forest Service, creating a designated water trail section on the Meramec River, and strengthening partnerships to keep the trail maintained.

Brennan’s introduction to the Ozark Trail Association was presented to a group of stakeholders who have affection for and interest in the Mark Twain National Forest and who have been meeting for about a year now to explore collaborations. The group focuses on a variety of concerns from ecological protection, biking, hiking, horseback riding, tourism, and off-highway vehicle use.

“We can’t do what we do – and you can’t do what you do [to the Forest Service] – without partners. We have to work together,” Brennan told the group.

“Anything we’d like to do must embrace this model of shared stewardship,” said Cory Roegner, Forest Recreation Program Manager with the US Forest Service Mark Twain National Forest.

The participating groups affirmed their commitment to the Ozarks public lands and to collaborating and working with the Forest Service. It expects to meet again in Ava in February, 2020.

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There were 39 in attendance for the meeting. Communities represented included: Watershed Committee of the Ozarks, Mark Twain Forest Watchers, Sierra Club, Mo. Forest Products Association, Ozark Trail Association, Mo. Department of Natural Resources, Back Country Horsemen of Missouri, FEMA, LAD-Pioneer Forest, MoMoto Trail Riders, Brushy Creek Lodge, Mo. Department of Conservation, Foxtrotters Association, Shell Knob Chamber, Ava Chamber, Mo. Bicycle Federation, and Forest Service employees.