"In 1977 a group of public land managers, trail users, and private landowners met to discuss the concept of a long-distance trail that would traverse the Missouri Ozarks."
That sentence, gleaned from an Ozark Trail brochure, only hints at a greater issue that confronted the various Missouri land managers and trail advocates in the '70s. Quite simply, the state had a trail deficit. In the 1975 State Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, trail inventory lagged demands by 500-900 miles of trail.
Quite a few groups were examining trail issues, including the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the US Forest Service, the US Department of the Interior, the Coalition for the Environment and the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. The concept of a long-distance trail must have been alluring. Not only could it bridge the trail deficit, it fit well with a national trend to build long trails. After examining their land holdings, a vision emerged-- it might be possible to join existing trails and public land corridors to snake a trail from Sullivan, Missouri, to the Eleven Point River, or to Mingo Wildlife Refuge, or both. It might even be possible to build a trail from St. Louis to the Arkansas border.
In October of 1976, representatives from various agencies met to discuss a proposal called the "Ozark Trail Concept." It was billed as an informal discussion, and quickly led to the 1st Ozark Trail draft in February of 1977. Four years later, the first sections of new trail were under construction.
Unlike the National Scenic Trail System, no act of Congress authorized the Ozark Trail. No state agency was mandated to coordinate or complete the trail. In fact, no single entity managed the concept, design or implementation. Instead, it was a cooperative effort of seven governmental agencies, one private landowner and several environmental groups, banded together in what later became the Ozark Trail Council. Meeting bi-annually, this group established a series of connected trail segments over their respective land holdings that together made up the Ozark Trail.
There were benefits and drawbacks of this approach. One obvious benefit is that it didn't take an act of Congress to get started! Another is that the trail would be designed from the start to accommodate day and weekend usage, rather than just the through-hiker. The construction of the trail could also begin simultaneously on several fronts, with each land manager working on their respective portions.
Under this cooperative relationship, the Ozark Trail Council oversaw the construction of some 170+ miles of trail in just under a decade. Along with previously existing trails, the Ozark Trail system contained over 200 miles of trail by 1991.
There was much to celebrate in 1991, but there were a few concerns, too. By this time, the plan for the Ozark Trail had been conceived as stretching eventually from Castlewood State Park in St. Louis County to the state's southern border, with the intention of joining to Arkansas's Ozark Highlands trail to create a 700-mile through-trail. However, huge gaps remained, with much of them on private land. It wouldn't take long to exhaust the supply of public land corridors before land easements and purchases would need to be addressed.
There was a bigger problem, though. Few people knew of the trail, and many sections had little traffic. Maintenance was becoming an issue. Several land managers couldn't justify allocating budget dollars to trail sections that weren't being used. Volunteers were hard to recruit and retain, as trail awareness was low and there was no strong, centralized support organization.
In 1992, the Ozark Trail Council issued a "condition report," written by Ramon D. Gass and Jerry Viau, who had hiked all existing sections of the trail in 1991. While the report was generally positive, it noted that:
- "The Ozark Trail appears to be receiving minimal use."
- "During some of my contacts with the public to obtain scenic trail agreements, I discovered that most did not know about the Ozark Trail. We need to inform the public."
The Ozark Trail continues to grow. Since 1991 two major sections have been added the Wappapello and North Fork, while three other sections were extended: Taum Sauk, Karkaghne, and Courtois. Following the founding of the Ozark Trail Association in 2002, the Middle Fork section was completed in November 2005, allowing for 225 miles of through-trail at the heart of the system. (This section was re-named as the Middle Fork-John Roth Memorial after the untimely death of OTA founder John Roth in 2009). And of the 45 miles of trail added by the OTA, most were constructed by volunteers. We continue to expand and maintain the Ozark Trail.
April 29th, 2006 was proclaimed "Ozark Trail Day" by Missouri's governor and in May of 2008, a portion of the OT was designated a National Recreational Trail. Our volunteers and organization have been honored with awards from the U.S. Forest Service and others and helping to realize John Roth's vision that a vital volunteer organization could take the Ozark Trail to the next level. Stay tuned as the OT continues to grow.