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Rural Missouri Magazine

Three decades of the OT
The Ozark Trail continues its slow progress across the Missouri Ozarks

by Jeff Joiner

Dave and Gwen Fuehring of Maryland Heights, work to extend the Ozark Trail through the Mark Twain National Forest. The hiking trail stretches 350 miles through Missouri's Ozarks.

His face streaked with sweat and smudged with dirt, and his hand bleeding from a blister, Patrick O’Brien leans on the handle of a mean-looking tool called a McCloud and surveys his efforts with a look of weary satisfaction.

“You come out here and pick up these tools and dig in the dirt and you realize how hard it is,” says O’Brien, a volunteer spending a fall Saturday building a new section of the Ozark Trail in Iron County. “I got a stretch done that’s 30 feet long and it look an hour of backbreaking labor. But when you’re done and you look at it, it feels great.”

O’Brien and a small group of fellow volunteers are approaching a milestone for the 26-year-old Ozark Trail. The group, all members of the recently organized Ozark Trail Association, is constructing a 25-mile section of the trail in the Mark Twain National Forest. When completed it will be possible to hike more than 200 miles on uninterrupted trail from the Courtois River in Crawford County to just beyond the Eleven Point River, east of West Plains, in Oregon County.

And if all sections of the trail are completed as envisioned, someday it will be possible to walk from St. Louis to Fort Smith, Ark., all on hiking trails.

As ambitious as that sounds, the Ozark Trail has inched forward year by year since its creation in 1977 on the way to fulfilling that long-range plan. On its way the trail crosses some of the most beautiful areas of the Missouri Ozarks, including parts of the St. Francis Mountains, the Current and Eleven Point rivers, Wappapello Lake and thousands of acres of rugged timber land.

“When this trail is complete, and even now, we show off the best of what this state has to offer,” says Jessica Terrell, state trail coordinator for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the agency which harmonizes the management of the Ozark Trail among three federal and two state agencies and a number of private organizations.

Hikers on the Ozark Trail can walk past Klepzig Mill on a shut-in on Rocky Creek in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. This section of the trail follows the course of the Current River for a while before heading cross country to the Eleven Point River.

Currently the Ozark Trail is divided into two sections. The main trail begins west of Potosi and travels south through mostly national forest and the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, ending near West Plains in Ozark County.

A second section passes through Johnson’s Shut-Ins and Taum Sauk Mountain state parks before ending near Highway 21 south of Ironton. After a gap, the trail picks up for a short distance and ends again near Annapolis. A lengthy section begins in Sam A. Baker State Park and follows the St. Francis River south to Wappapello Lake and on to a trailhead north of Poplar Bluff. Another short section passes north of Ellsinore. All combined, both parts of the trail cover more than 350 miles.

The Ozark Trail is open to hiking and backpacking and, on a majority of the trail, to horseback riders and mountain bikes. Some areas of the trail are closed to horses and bikes and information about individual sections of the trail is available from the state or federal agency that manages it.

The concept of a hiking trail crossing the Missouri Ozarks was born in the mid-1970s when state and federal agencies and Leo Drey, the state’s largest landowner, got together to look at ways to create recreation opportunities on the thousands of acres of public and private land in Missouri. From that initial meeting in 1976 the Ozark Trail Council was created, composed of the U.S. Department of Interior, Forest Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Missouri departments of Natural Resources and Conservation as well as Drey’s Pioneer Forest.

John Roth, who coordinates trail construction for the volunteer group, the Ozark Trail Association, shows a group of new volunteers how to build trail.

The council, now 27 years old, is made up of all owners of land crossed by the trail, as well as other organizations with a stake in the trail like the Sierra Club, Missouri Conservation Federation and now the Ozark Trail Association, which provides volunteer labor to build trail. The council has succeeded in getting numerous government entities and private organizations with varying agendas to agree to pursue this ambitious idea of the Ozark Trail.

“The council is not about making policy for any of these agencies, it’s about getting together to work out issues,” says DNR’s Debbie Schnack, Ozark Trail coordinator from its start until last year. “In the beginning we were just exploring the concept, ‘Is the Ozark Trail something we think would be a good idea? Who will support it? Who will use it?’ We decided it was a good idea and it became a reality.”

That reality has been made possible primarily through the sweat and labor of volunteers who have built and maintained much of the trail throughout its history. Though there have been organizations of volunteers over the years, the latest, the Ozark Trail Association, boasts 125 members after less than a year in existence. Association organizer and board member John Roth says the group attracts a lot of interest and even drew 45 volunteers for a trail work day in September.

“These government agencies had their budgets cut so badly in the early ’90s that a lot of their trail work was curtailed,” says Roth, a St. Louis native who now calls a farm in Crawford County home.

Roth, who retired after selling a computer consulting business, works nearly full time coordinating volunteer work on the trail. “Volunteers have stepped up and the trail association is basically the group that provides slave labor to the government agencies that own the land.”

Ozark Trail markers guide users across hundreds of miles of Missouri.

For Jeff Goetter, the association’s volunteer coordinator and a frequent hiker, working is part of the responsibility of using the Ozark Trail. “It’s giving something back. If you use the trail, you need to give something back.”

Roth says it will take three years to finish the 25-mile section currently being built in Iron County. But beyond this piece of the trail, the Ozark Trail now faces a different challenge, one that has been put off for nearly three decades.

With nearly every section on public lands completed, trail planners must now seek easements from private landowners if the trail’s grand concept of connecting with a Ozark Highland’s Trail in the Boston Mountains of northern Arkansas is to be realized.

“In the past 25 years we’ve covered all the easy parts and now we’re getting to the parts where we’ll have to go landowner by landowner,” says Terrell, DNR’s trail coordinator.

When looking at a map of the Ozark Trail it’s easy to see why the vast majority of the trail crosses the large green areas designating the Mark Twain National Forest. The trail also crosses areas of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways in Shannon County and through some Missouri state parks and state forest and conservation areas. Now the hard work begins.

“The next phase will be the effort to acquire private right of way,” says Kris Swanson with the Mark Twain National Forest headquarters in Rolla. “The problem is there really is no one agency that can commit a realty person, someone with those skills in right-of-way acquisitions. It’s difficult to make that a priority with limited staff and other priorities.”

A group of hikers from St. Louis walk a newly constucted section of the Ozark Trail in Iron County before picking up tools and helping with the work.

It may indeed take another decade, or two, to see the entire scope of the trail become reality, but there is little doubt that one day it will happen because of the irresistible lure of a path, a dotted line on a topographic map, that will take you places you can’t visit by car.

“There’s just something about a long trail like the Appalachian Trail that you can hike on for days, or weeks or even months,” says Roth. “That’s what’s so neat about the Ozark Trail. Just imagine being able to walk from near St. Louis to Arkansas.”

For information about the Ozark Trail, including maps of the trail and details about volunteering, visit the Web site of the Ozark Trail Association at www.ozarktrail.com or write the association at P.O. Box 1431, Steelville, MO 65565. Information is also available from each federal and state agency that manages the trail on property it owns.

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