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On the Mountain Fork River, Environmental Protection Equals Economic Development

Joe Wertz
StateImpact Oklahoma
Eddie Brister, owner of the Beaver's Bend Fly Shop on the southern section of the Mountain Fork River.

This is the final part of StateImpact Oklahoma’s series on the history of Oklahoma’s scenic rivers and the environmental threats they face. Part three is available here.

Eddie Brister knows how the stream warms and cools, and where the current rushes and pools. He knows every pebble in the river, and he can spot a trout without even dipping his waders in the water.

“There’s a rainbow right over there,” says Brister, a fly fishing guide and owner of the Beaver’s Bend Fly Shop. He spots another trout sidling up to a white rock below the dam spillway at Broken Bow Lake. “See how he’s going back and forth? He’s eating things that are coming downstream for him right there.”

The Mountain Fork is the cleanest of the state’s six scenic rivers, officials and conservationists say, and the waterway has escaped much of the region’s pollution and the cross-state politics stemming from Oklahoma’s 2005 lawsuit against Arkansas chicken farms over runoff and phosphorus pollution in the watershed.

Oklahoma and Arkansas in 2013 agreed to a third-party study of the Illinois River watershed, which includes Mountain Fork, but the waterway is so clean that researchers from Baylor University are planning to spend very little effort analysing it, says Ed Fite, executive director of Oklahoma’s Scenic River Commission.

“It’s in that kind of shape,” Fite tells StateImpact. “It’s relatively undeveloped, pristine, left in its natural state. For right now, everything is good on Mountain Fork.”

Two men canoing toward the bank of the lower segment of the Mountain Fork River near Beaver's Bend State Park.

High-Water Mark

Flowing from the Ouachita Mountains, the Mountain Fork meanders into Arkansas and back over the border into Oklahoma. Upstream, near Smithville, Okla., the water is calm, warm and still.

The northernmost portion of the Mountain Fork is the section formally designated a scenic river, a status that affords the waterway extra environmental protections that range from stiffer littering penalties and land development rules, to higher water quality standards.

By the time the Upper Mountain Fork makes it downstream to Beaver’s Bend State Park and Brister’s fly-fishing shop, the river has quickened and cooled. Most importantly, says Brister, the water is still clean.

“If we didn’t have the health of that stream, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you,” says Brister. “People wouldn’t be here fishing because there would be no fish as we know it right now. We are 100 percent dependent upon the quality of water, the quality of the stream, and how those fish live.”

Credit Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma
The upper section of the Mountain Fork River near Smithville, Okla.

River Bank

Brister is a former teacher and football coach who helmed high school and college teams in Texas, including a post as head coach at Texas A&M-Commerce. Friendly customers still call Brister “coach.”

Brister and his wife Roberta had a cabin out here, which became their primary residence after the couple retired. Two years ago, they bought the fly shop. Brister says business is booming. When he started, he was the only guide and logged about 20 fishing trips a year. Today, the Beaver’s Bend Fly Shop employs five guides, and Brister expects he’ll have booked about 100 trips when 2014 ends.

Brister stops to talk with a local steelworker who crafts handmade fly-fishing rods that Brister sells at the shop. The rods are fashioned from imported bamboo, are carried in velvet bags and retail for about $1,000.

“Some people don’t understand the value of this,” Brister says. “There are some people in the local city here that doesn’t understand the value of all of the money that comes in here because of tourism. And the benefits that we get in Broken Bow, Idabel, Hochatown — all of those areas — because of what goes on here at the state park.”

Man and Nature

There’s an open secret in Broken Bow and many water-rich tourism magnets in eastern and southeastern Oklahoma: Many of the environmental features are man-made.

The lower section of the Mountain Fork River, where Brister’s shop sits, wouldn’t exist in its current form if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hadn’t dammed the river in the ‘60s to create Broken Bow Lake.

“That lake and the dam keep the river cool,” Brister says. “If it’s gone, the river heats up and it’s no good for trout.”

The regulations and oversight are so strict, Brister says he wasn’t allowed to remove a tree limb that recently fell into the stream. But he and many other tourists and business owners along the Mountain Fork and Oklahoma six scenic rivers are OK with the extra rules.

“There’s a tremendous amount of people that come enjoy this, and they wouldn’t do it if those efforts weren’t put into it,” Barrister says.

Joe was a founding reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma (2011-2019) covering the intersection of economic policy, energy and environment, and the residents of the state.
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