The Illinois River is unquestionably one of Oklahoma's outstanding natural resources. Visitors to the area are often pleasantly surprised to find rolling hills, hardwood forests made up of oaks and hickories, and clear running streams where smallmouth bass abound. A popular destination for canoeists and fishermen, the scenic Illinois River is a critical watershed for local municipalities and a habitat for several state and federal threatened and endangered species. The river basin is also a vital economic resource for many businesses in the city of Tahlequah and along the scenic State Highway 10 corridor. Each year more than 180,000 persons float the Illinois River by canoe, raft or kayak. An estimated 350,000 enjoy swimming, fishing, camping, hiking, bird-watching, and hunting opportunities. Recreationists spend an average of $55.92 per float trip per person on gas, food, and lodging, and other amenities. This spending results in about $9 million of direct economic impact annually on Cherokee County and the surrounding area.
In 1993, concerned citizens, with direction from the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission (OSRC), National Park Service, and Oklahoma State University, began to develop a plan to manage the river corridor's natural, cultural, and historical values. Plan development and implementation is a citizen-driven initiative that has brought together a large number of people willing to work cooperatively to improve the future of the river. Publication of the management plan will complete the initial stage of this effort; the process of implementing the goals and strategies set forth will be ongoing for years to come.
Results of the citizen input in the management plan showed a clear desired future for the Illinois River basin. The public has said that the basin should be managed to emphasize naturalness and aesthetics in the river environment. This will include opportunities for semi-primitive outdoor recreation in a roaded, rural environment; clear, free-flowing, non-polluted waters providing an appropriate habitat for native fish and other life forms; and a shoreline and adjacent riparian corridor which supports native bird and animal populations, protects the natural, historic, and cultural values present in the corridor, and limits any new development or uses which may be incompatible with these goals. The river and riparian corridor will be managed to attract visitors seeking opportunities for solitude, social interaction, individual and group participation, and learning about the environment. The desired recreational visitor should respect the river's natural environment, the legal rights granted to private property, and the rights of other visitors. Efforts should be made by the OSRC and commercial outfitters to influence visitor behavior through education. Should this be insufficient, rules and regulations designed to protect the environment and other visitor's experiences should be enforced.
Three working teams were organized to address specific issues related to the river corridor, recreation resources and water quality. These teams spent countless hours designing goals and strategies aimed at preserving the river's integrity. They have probed management issues that represent a cross-section of interests. Citizen input was analyzed and issues subdivided into approximately 22 goals and 130 strategies reflective of a wide variety of needs and concerns. Throughout the process, the public was invited and encouraged to become involved. Working teams met regularly, and periodically pooled their collective research in "open house" forums to solicit public feedback. A clearinghouse for ideas was developed to educate and inform the public on the ideas and issues generated in the planning process. The following are the major goals identified by each working team.