Horses cause water quality issue for national park

The current of the clear, shallow waters of the Jacks Fork River pushed canoers and kayakers along on a sunny, warm Sunday morning. Groups of friends stopped on the gravel bars along the river to fish and picnic. But another type of recreation is threatening the quality of this experience — horseback riding.

Riding horses along trails is a popular but largely unregulated activity in the Ozarks, including in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways which includes Jacks Fork River. The waste of horses unsurprisingly affects water quality significantly, regardless of if the horses do their business directly in the water. Yet people keep riding.

“This is a long-term problem. Horses are an issue of heritage in the Ozarks,” Steve Mahfood, adviser for Nature Conservancy, said. “There is a rugged individualism here. There is an attitude that this entire park is not a national park.”

When the water reaches a certain bacterial level, action is required. Bacterial levels are only one measure of water quality though, and waters below this bacterial level could still be unsafe for swimmers.

The National Park Service is planning to release a new general management plan in October, and the horseback riding issue is expected to be addressed in the new plan.

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