Monday, June 27, 2005

Fite works to balance river preservation with recreation - 27 June 2005


Ed Fite supervises 100 miles of river in three counties, as well as ten river rangers who provide assistance to the thousands of summer visitors to the Illinois River, east of Tahlequah.

Due to budget cuts, the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission has seen diminished funds from which to keep the river clean and safe.

With the enormous number of guests, Fite likens the weekend crowd to a "medium-size community," the banks and waters of this riparian waterway easily become clogged with garbage.

"We have gotten used to folks being critical of us just because they don't always see a ranger or there is a little trash. We can pick up an area and think its going to be clean when we come back in an hour and the next bunch comes through and they just throw their cans and their trash all over the ground," said Fite. "They have no consideration for others, and then were back picking it up again."

The confluence of holiday celebration and rowdy river-goers this Fourth of July holiday will undoubtedly lead to trash cans overflowing with the byproducts of a good time.

The OSRC is a step ahead though, allowing anyone to float the river without charge Friday, July 8 to help clean river.

The OSRC has three River Cleanups this year, one that was after Memorial Day, the cleanup next week and an event after Labor Day in September.

"We are trying to place the River Cleanups after the major holidays to clean up after all the tourists who come through," said Meredith Lee, education outreach coordinator for the commission.

Check-in for July's cleanup is that morning at nine, but volunteers are encouraged to sign up in advance.

"Give me a call and pre-register for it," said Lee.

Trash is not the only problem Fite and the OSRC has had to worry about lately.

Reports of above-the-limit phosphorous levels and squabbles with the entities that produce them, mainly poultry farms, have caused an intervention from Oklahoma's attorney general.

The state is also looking into a study released by the Cherokee Nation last year, which found on average, their testing suggested that the bacteria levels of the lower 111inois River exceeded the standards set forth by applicable law.

"In December of 2003, we entered into an agreement with Arkansas for all of the communities that discharge treated wastewater into the [l11inois River] basin to build better wastewater plants that will achieve a certain standard," said Fite.

Some Tahlequah resident have also taken a disliking to the way river management is handled.

Murv Jacob, a downtown artist, has heard many complaints from local- residents and has a few as well.

"People need a place to go swimming, like they always have," said Jacob. "We used to be able to go to the river any time. Now they're making it hard:'

His frustrations come from the sudden removal of camping and access privileges of the more popular places along the river.

The owners of "Boy Scout hole," the Welling Bridge area and the Sequoyah Club have limited the public usage or sites that have been open for years.

But last year the Army Corps, of Engineers, the landowners, realized there was no profit in keeping the favorite sites open due to vandalism and litter problems. In fact, said Fite, the three locations would be absolutely off limits if his organization had not stuck a deal with the Corps.

"A number of people have been upset at me particularly and the agency that I work for because those areas are being closed. I'm sorry that folks haven't realized that if it weren't for myself and the OSRC, those areas would be closed."

File said although he is used to criticism from Tahlequah natives, he was ruffled by comments made from a former NSU instructor and current publisher of "The Current."

"I saw an article by Tom Barlow, who thinks we have possibly too much of a presence along the river. I'm sorry Mr. Barlow hasn't been a resident of the river for as long as I have and seen the management issues we have been challenged with," said Fite.

"If he had to walk a mile in the moccasins of my staff, I think he would have a different appreciation for what we are trying to do."

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