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The park is a major economic engine for four counties that also are among the poorest in the state. Figures published in 2013 by the National Park Service, based on 2011 activity, estimated that the riverways drew 1.4 million visitors.

Black said he has two basic jobs. “I have got to protect the people from the park, and I have to protect the park from the people.”

The preferred alternative is an attempt to do that, Black said. It calls for closing 65 miles of unauthorized horse trails and the creation of 25 miles of additional trails but no stream crossings. Motorboats would be banned on some sections, but regulations would be rewritten to make current practices legal where motorboats are allowed.

To reduce crowding, some river access points would be closed and an equal number of new ones, with better spacing, would be opened. To create jobs, the plan calls for new shuttle contractors for people with nonmotorized boats and guided overnight camping trips.

Each plan offers variation, but all, except the no-action proposal, include new restrictions and more enforcement.

Some things sound simple but are hard to enforce, such as a ban on cliff-jumping. When everyone is having a good time, it is hard to see the harm, park ranger Austin Konkel said. When someone suffers a compound leg fracture, he said, the good time is over.

Other rules, such as closing unauthorized horse trails, are so difficult that the no-action plan doesn’t contemplate attempting it. One solitary camper, Duane Swacker, a teacher from Warren County who spent his spring break in the park, said horses are one of his main complaints.

“There are plenty of trails, but no, they have to go to follow the rivers,” he said. “They will come through and brush up against your tent. Wherever they want to go, they go.”

Alley Spring gushes forth an endless stream of water, averaging 81 million gallons each day with minor variations. The big red mill at the water’s edge, built in 1894 to embrace and harness that flow, is a reminder that making a living in the Ozarks has long been a seasonal endeavor.

Populations crashed beginning in the 1930s, and today Shannon and Dent counties have fewer people than 100 years ago. One measure of the park’s success is that there are more people in all four counties today than in 1960, the last census before the park was created. The peak season is June, July and August, when the bulk of the visitors, who spent an estimated $65.3 million, create the crowding the park service wants to spread out.

“One thing we need more of is winter visitors,” Black said.

There is a different rhythm in the park in winter and early spring. The upper Current is quiet, and an otter can find the solitude needed to sun himself on a log. The only people nearby are a pair of anglers, fly-fishing for trout in the cold water.

Joe Ready and Justin Steffi said they will drive between two and 12 hours from their home in Edmond, Okla., for good fishing waters. They were trying the Current River for the first time on the recommendation of a friend.

They know very little about the ongoing controversies, they said. The possibility that the regulations might change is of little concern, they said. “Pretty much anywhere you go you have to share the water with other recreational opportunities,” Steffi said. “It is just one of those things.”


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