Officials seek partners for possible opening of Bryant Creek State Park
Approximately 50 people attended an informational meeting about Bryant Creek State Park June 11 at the Senior Center in Ava. The crowd included several Ozark Countians who came to learn about the recently acquired but still-closed park’s status and to give feedback on how they hope it will be developed.
The meeting, hosted by officials with the Missouri State Parks Division of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, included an update on work currently going on at the park on N Highway in Douglas County just north of the Ozark County line. Presentations also explained the state’s usual process of developing new parks and provided an overview of the natural features found on the nearly 3,000-acre property.
A primary focus: the forested watershed
The state bought the land for Bryant Creek State Park in late 2016, just before then-Gov. Jay Nixon finished his last term in office. Political controversy followed, bringing the future of the park into question. (For more information, see “June 11 public meeting focuses on Bryant Creek State Park” in the June 5 edition of the Times.)
Amid the controversy, some speculated that the newly acquired land would be sold, but state park staff members insisted that selling the park was never an option. Missouri State Sen. Mike Cunningham, who attended last week’s meeting along with State Rep. Karla Eslinger, said he was “not taking sides” in the matter.
“Bryant Creek State Park was acquired to compensate for groundwater injury by protecting an important water recharge area,” Missouri State Parks Natural Resources Program director Ken McCarty told the audience at last week’s meeting. The money to purchase the park came from a legal settlement with Kerr-McGee, later called Tronox, which operated a wood-treatment plant in Springfield. According to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, creosote, oil and other substances from the facility contaminated nearby groundwater. In addition to funds for cleaning up and monitoring the contaminated site in Springfield, reparation money was earmarked for purchasing and protecting equivalent natural resources. The land that was to become Bryant Creek State Park fit the bill. A draft of the park’s “General Management Plan Preamble,” which was distributed at the meeting, says, “A primary focus of the park is to restore, rehabilitate and preserve the 3000-acre forested watershed for the benefit of surface and groundwater flow into the waters of Bryant Creek.”
Providing an overview of the property’s varied terrain and features, McCarty described the portion north of Highway N as “steep, deep and deeply cut,” with “a lot of variety between ridge tops and deep valley bottoms.” Mature hardwood forest, sandstone ledges and narrow, shady valleys full of lush moss and ferns also can be found in this area, he said.
Bryant Creek runs along the northern border of the park for 1.67 miles. Steep limestone bluffs make up most of the park’s river frontage, including one called Coon Den Bluff on the topographical map. McCarty said a section of bottomland at a bend in the river features “one of the most spectacular canebrakes in state of Missouri.”
The southern portion of the park has a very different feel and composition. The land is more rolling, and the forest is dominated by Missouri’s native shortleaf pine. McCarty said the area was logged in the early 2000s and was also impacted by a “fairly hot” wild fire about four years ago. The fire stimulated pine and tall grass prairie regeneration while suppressing other species. A glade remnant is also present in this part of the park, and McCarty said it’s hoped this unique natural feature can be restored by removing the encroaching cedar trees.
Springs, fens, caves, sinkholes and sinkhole ponds can also be found throughout the park.
Established without staff or operating funding
Missouri State Parks director Ben Ellis told meeting attendees that Missouri is one of only eight states in the nation that does not charge either admission or parking fees for its state parks – a fact that means state parks do not have a general revenue source. About two-thirds of the parks’ budget comes from the Parks and Soils Sales Tax, which, according to Ellis, costs each Missourian about $7.50 a year.
He said no new staff positions or money was included when Bryant Creek State Park was established, and the state parks budget is already fully allocated for operating and maintaining Missouri’s existing parks. So additional revenue will have to be found before any developments can be made to Bryant Creek State Park, he said.
The division will be looking for opportunities to partner with other organizations and entities when it comes to building trails or making other improvements, Ellis said. The Missouri Department of Conservation, citizen groups and private businesses could all be potential partners.
‘We want to get it right’
None of the speakers at last week’s meeting was able to give a clear answer as to when the park might open to the public. Several attendees expressed frustration that the park has taken so long to open, but Ellis emphasized that officials “want to get it right.” He said that the Missouri State Parks division has been around for over 100 years, and all parks have gone through the same multi-phase planning process. As an example, he said Echo Bluff State Park in Shannon County, which came with a $52 million budget, took three years to open while other parks have taken as long as 10 years to open.
State parks staff members have been surveying the Bryant Creek State Park property and marking the park’s boundary with blue signs, he said, and the natural resources team has been documenting the park’s unique assets. Also in the works is a “conceptual development plan” that will eventually be presented to the public for input.
Three additional public meetings will be held to keep people informed and engaged, the first of which will likely be this fall, officials said.
How will the park be developed?
Those who attended the meeting had many questions about how the park would be developed. Ellis said at this point “everything is on the table.” But when asked about the possibility of the park having a Bryant Creek access for floaters, McCarty pointed out that the sheer bluffs and flood-prone bottom land would make that infeasible.
Many expressed concern that the park would be developed in a way that detracts from the land’s peaceful, rugged beauty. In response, Ellis said, “If I had a crystal ball, what I would be looking at is trails. . . . And we have to have a parking lot and restrooms. That can be done in a fairly economical way so that we can get it open.”
He added that “the way people relate to land is to be able to be on it and use it. If they are able to use the land, they will support it and take care of it.”