Big Spring battle

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Missouri conservationists are proposing wilderness protection for part of the watershed feeding the largest freshwater spring in North America, the Big Spring. The spring gushes 286 million gallons of water into the Current River each day and draws thousands of visitors a year to south central Missouri.

Including one of the finest stands of mature oak-pine forest in Missouri, the 8,000 acres proposed as the Big Spring Wilderness are part of the Mark Twain National Forest, and have been protected from logging for years, but conservationists warn current protections are not sufficient.

The Missouri Wilderness Coalition, an informal network of 18 conservation groups, says the Big Spring area and six other areas of the national forest totalling 49,323 acres need new protections that only Congress can provide, because they are now being targeted for logging and roadbuilding by the U.S. Forest Service.

The new plan strips the seven areas of the "Sensitive Area" status they have had for more than 20 years, opens them to salvage logging and "adopts a much more aggressive policy in favor of various forms of landscape manipulation and vehicular-based management techniques," the coalition writes in its proposal for Congressional designation as wilderness areas.

Once declared wilderness areas, roads could not be built, forests could not be logged and no mechanized or motorized equipment could be used on these lands.

This week the coalition ran into trouble when U.S. Representatives Jo Ann Emerson and Roy Blunt, both Missouri Republicans, announced their joint opposition to the wilderness protection proposal.

Blunt said he is opposed to restrictions against harvesting of timber, and Emerson said she wants greater control of fire and tree disease than she believes wilderness designation would allow.

The two said Monday that they would fight any efforts to designate the seven forest areas as wilderness areas, a designation that can only be granted by an Act of Congress.

Missouri Senators Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, and Kit Bond, a Republican, said they need more information before making a decision to support or oppose the coalition's proposal.

If the hilly backcountry area surrounding the Big Spring does win wilderness designation, hikers and horseback riders would still be able to access the six miles of Missouri's Ozark Trail crosses through the Mark Twain National Forest portion of the area.

The National Park Service portion of this area is being evaluated for possible management as wilderness in the current development of a general management plan for the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.

The six other areas proposed for designation by the Missouri Wilderness Coalition are: Smith Creek Wilderness in Callaway and Boone counties; Lower Rock Creek Wilderness in Madison and Iron counties; North Fork Wilderness in Ozark, Howell and Douglas counties; Spring Creek Wilderness in Douglas and Howell counties; Swan Creek Wilderness in Christian County; and Van East Mountain Wilderness in Madison and Iron counties.

In two of the areas, Lower Rock Creek and Smith Creek, the U.S. Forest Service has already proposed salvage timber sales, the bulldozing of seven miles of new fireline, and the bulldozing of a stretch of existing trail into a de-facto restored road, the coalition says.

The Missouri conservation groups have reached a consensus that the administrative approach for the management of these seven areas must be bolstered by Congressional direction and the provisions of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Now they must persuade Congress to support their consensus.