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River Is Battleground Between Conservationists and ATV Users

July 15, 1987

LESTERVILLE, Mo. (AP) _ The Black River is so clear in these parts that Ed Stegner could stand chin-deep in the water and see his toes.

″I suppose it’s about the clearest water in the state,″ said Stegner, head of the Missouri Conservation Federation.

But the river has become a battleground between conservationists and river riders, drivers of three- and four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles, dune buggies and four-wheel-drive trucks with oversized tires and waterproof motors that swarm up and down the river bed.

Stegner and others are worried about the environmental impact, including damage to fish spawning grounds, increased turbidity of the water from mud churned up by the tires, and pollution.

In addition to gasoline fumes, environmentalists say some vehicle owners have dumped oil in the river after water infiltrated their crankcases. Most of the machines have air-intake snorkels that allow them to churn through the water all but submerged.

″I think they’re ruining a perfectly nice river,″ Mike Morrison of St. Louis said while preparing to leave on a float trip last week, about 50 yards downriver from a congregation of river riders.

″They haven’t gotten in our way yet, but it (coexisting on the river) just doesn’t seem to be working out,″ he said. ″It’s a waste of a river.″

About 6,500 of the ATVs descended on the tiny Reynolds County town, surrounded by the Mark Twain National Forest in southeastern Missouri, on Memorial Day weekend.

″You should have seen it,″ said state Conservation agent Mike Christensen of Ironton. ″It was a circus.″

Rain reduced the number of river riders on the Fourth of July. ″We got lucky,″ said Reynolds County conservation agent Chris Capps.

For the time being, the river riders travel with impunity. Aside from being able to write $86.50 tickets for littering, Missouri Conservation Department agents cannot stop them.

The issue is expected to be a top priority of environmentalists when the Missouri Legislature convenes in January. Legislation to restrict the use of recreational vehicles in waterways died in the Senate earlier this summer when the Legislature adjourned. The House had passed the legislation.

The activity is defended by Bob Parks, whose campground business has grown with the ATV boom. He said the practice of racing vehicles in the river has been around for decades, long before the invention of ATVs.

″Thirty years ago, they were doing the same thing with Jeeps,″ he said. ″There’s no pollution with these things. There’s ample room for both groups.″

Jeff Rynders of Alton, Ill., who towed his dune buggie to Lesterville, said environmentalists unfairly portray river riders as unruly, boozed-up youths with no regard for the environment.

″You don’t see big puddles of oil floating down the river from us,″ he said.

″Anyway, canoeists are just as bad. When they turn over, everything falls out. They get what they can and the rest ends up in the river,″ Rynders said.

The river riders have a ally in Reynolds County sheriff Pat Barton, even though his job has been made more difficult by the heavy ATV traffic on the county’s highways and streets.

Barton owns a pair of three-wheel ATVs and said he uses them for fishing.

″It’s just like owning a gun,″ Barton said. ″In the wrong hands, it can be dangerous.″ In the right hands, he contended, it can be a lot of harmless fun.

Lesterville resident Richard E. Stuckmeyer doesn’t share Barton’s view.

″If the ATVs rode only on the gravel on both sides of the river, it might not be so bad,″ Stuckmeyer wrote to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. ″But the riders spend their time in and out of the water, crossing farmland, riding through the forest and up and down the one-lane county roads. They cut fences, destroy property and generally create havoc throughout the countryside.″