The road to a popular boat access area in southern Franklin County has reopened to motor vehicle traffic after being closed last week.
The closure of St. Mary’s Road, which connects Highway AH and the Chouteau Claim Access Conservation Area, prompted a number of calls to the Missouri Department of Conservation and to the Franklin County Commission, which owns the road, as a sign on the gate blocking the road noted that the area was private property.
Among those calling was Gary Erhart, a decades-long canoer and kayaker, who has been using the Chouteau Claim Access Conservation Area for several years.
“It is the first time I have ever called a government official about anything,” said Erhart, who added that he typically floats on the river from Round Rock to the Chouteau Claim Access two or three times a year.
Conservation officials have met with the county commission, which has agreed to launch a public comment period as part of an ongoing discussion about the future of the road. The commission is currently accepting public comment ahead of a scheduled January 2021 vote on the possible road closure. Those wishing to make public comment should call 636-583-7323. Attempts by The Missourian to reach commission members were not successful.
Jeff Watson is also among those calling to vocalize support for the road reopening.
“Whenever I saw that the road was closed, I was not happy,” Watson said. “I am not some kind of an activist, but I knew I needed to speak up.”
Watson, who frequents the area two or three times a week while on evening drives with his wife to look at wildlife, said he has seen hundreds of people use the conservation area over the course of a year.
Missouri Department of Conservation officials said it’s not clear who built the gate and placed the sign, but they hold that it is not legal to block the public’s access to state-owned property.
“The Missouri Department of Conservation was not aware of the road closure or that closing the road was ever discussed,” said Missouri Department of Conservation Agent Ben Pursley. The road is the only access point to the 15-acre conservation area, which opened in 1979 and is a popular spot for recreational boaters, float trip participants, largemouth bass fishermen and picnickers.
“Depending on the day, there may be between 30 to 50 cars parked in the parking lot,” said Pursley, who has worked as the county’s conservation agent for 15 years. The conservation department does not track usage of the state’s conservation areas.
This particular conservation area, which is one of 10 small river access points in the St. Louis region, is especially popular among recreational boaters and rafters because it is located at the confluence of the Bourbeuse and Meramec rivers. The Chouteau Claim Access is part of the land originally deeded in 1851 to Charles Chouteau, the son of famed scout Auguste Chouteau, who helped found and develop the city of St. Louis.
Jake Heller, another user of the conservation area, said when he reached out to the county commission to express his views he was told by one of the commissioners that the state was selling the Chouteau Claim Conservation Area along with more than a dozen other locations across the state – a point that MDC St. Louis Regional Director Julianne Stone emphatically denied in her interview with The Missourian.
“At this time, there have been no conversations, and there will not be any conversations about closing the Chouteau Claim Conservation Area until this matter regarding St. Mary’s Road is resolved,” Stone said. In 2016, the conservation area was identified along with 10 other river access points in the St. Louis region for improvements, including continued efforts to protect stream bank integrity and a plan to combat vandalism.
Heller touted the location of the conservation area as the best and most “doable day float trip” in the Franklin County area.
“If you take that area away, then that four- or five-hour float trip from Round Rock becomes essentially a 10- to 12-hour float trip,” Heller said, adding that he worries there would be a negative economic impact if the conservation area closed because the road was permanently closed.
Pursley agreed with Heller.
Pursley said, “Not only do people get to enjoy the scenery along the river, but the conservation area generates money for the county. The people who come to float on the Meramec and Bourbeuse rivers buy food, gasoline, supplies in town and then some of them also stay overnight in hotels.”
“I think if it is closed that it is a real shame and real loss,” Erhart said.
Pursley said he has received numerous phone calls from area residents who are hopeful that the road will remain open following the January vote. During the public comment period, St. Mary’s Road will remain open according to an agreement brokered between the Missouri Department of Conservation and the commission.
“We appreciate that the Franklin County Commission has agreed to reopen St. Mary’s Road for public use until the official decision is made by the county,” said MDC Deputy Director Aaron Jeffries.