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Agency That Protects Oklahoma’s Scenic Rivers Takes Another Big Budget Cut

James Gaylor plays in a tributary of the Illinois River near Tahlequah, Okla.
Logan Layden
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
James Gaylor plays in a tributary of the Illinois River near Tahlequah, Okla.

When Governor Mary Fallin signed the $7.1 billion budget earlier this week, the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission took a big cut. It’s a small state agency with a big job: overseeing hundreds of miles of river and roads in northeast Oklahoma with dwindling resources.

This weekend, kayakers, floaters and fishermen will flock to the Illinois River area by the thousands. On the morning of June 2, though, most of the activity is centered at Peavine Hollow, where a natural ramp of river stones that usually allows easy access to the river has been washed away.

Archie Peyton Jr., owner of Peyton’s Place, uses a small bulldozer to push rocks into the water in an attempt to rebuild the bank before the busy weekend. He’s one of the many float operators whose business depends on the handful of state-owned and operated public access points like Peavine Hollow.

“This access point is important for a lot of camps, not just mine,” he says. “There’s probably four major camps and two or three small camps that this supports, or helps support.”

Peyton needs Peavine Hollow. But the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission can’t afford to fix it. That’s why he’s doing it himself, on his own dime. It’s just one example of the impact of budget cuts over the last few years.

And it just got a lot worse, says Ed Fite, the commission’s administrator for more than 30 years.

“We cannot provide all the services that we have been accustomed to providing,” he says. “We are operating on a model from the ’80s and funding from the ’80s levels. We’re down to four full-time employees. I would have never thought that I would see that when I went to work in 1983.”

The Scenic Rivers Commission will see nearly a quarter of their funding from last year disappear on July 1, down to about $270,000. One important water quality monitoring program is on the chopping block, Fite says. The river commission shares the cost of the program with the federal government.

 

The Illinois River, still murky from all the rain in 2015.
Credit Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
The Illinois River, still murky from all the recent rain.

“If we’re unable to find the money by July first, and we’re not able to pay our end of the bargain, then not only do we shutter that program for this year until next year, we lose the ability to have the $120,000 in the next budget cycle, because that money will be reallocated by the feds to other gauges and other programs,” Fite says.

That program helps gauge water depth during storm events and monitor water quality in an area where growing industry and tourism put pressure on the natural ecology.

“We’re trying to hit a magic balance. You’ve got to have just the right mix of nutrients for the aquatic community,” Fite says. “If we get the water so clean that there’s no nutrients there at all, we disrupt the food chain.”

So maybe the river commission decides that program is too important to cut, and instead cuts back on law enforcement, which Fite says is a real possibility.

Rangers with the agency clean up graffiti, pick up trash, break up drunken fights, do search and rescue, and find the bodies of drowning victims. There have been two in just the last couple of weeks. It’s a lot to handle for the agency’s one full time ranger, Bill James.

“We’ve had sexual assaults. We’ve had rapes in the three years I’ve been here. Numerous fight calls. I mean, those are just regular every weekend,” James says.

The Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission knew cuts were coming, and pushed for legislation that would’ve given the agency more control over the fees it charges to commercial float operators and wants to charge at campsites.

“And if we could just get the authority from the legislature, we could pay our own way,” Fite says.

The bill failed, but the budget cuts didn’t.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership among Oklahoma’s public radio stations and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Logan Layden is a reporter and managing editor for StateImpact Oklahoma. Logan spent six years as a reporter with StateImpact from 2011 to 2017.
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