We met that Wednesday morning in a conference room on the fifth floor of the Executive Building near the State Capitol. I was there at the invitation of Bill Stovall, a former Speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives, a current lobbyist and a man I consider a friend. If Stovall tells me I need to be somewhere, I think that’s important.
He wanted me to meet with representatives of the Buffalo River Coalition, made up of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, the Ozark Society, the Arkansas Canoe Club and the National Parks Conservation Association.
The Buffalo River Watershed Alliance was formed in early 2013 after learning that the state had approved the C&H hog farm on Big Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo.
What I didn’t tell Stovall before the meeting was that I consider all of these folks Arkansas heroes for their efforts to protect the watershed.
According to the alliance’s website: “The Buffalo River Watershed Alliance was organized by stakeholders living in the river watershed, but its supporters span the state and region. The alliance was formed to help preserve and protect the scenic beauty and pristine water quality of the Buffalo National River by opposing and preventing the construction and operation of industrial confined animal feed facilities ( CAFO) in the watershed.
“Its goals are to educate and advocate for the protection of the Buffalo River and its associated watershed by monitoring and addressing adverse environmental impacts and supporting a moratorium on future hog CAFOs in the watershed.”
By the time these environmentalists found out, the pig farm had already been built in Newton County.
“We held a meeting at the old Buffalo Theater in Jasper and rallied around this issue,” said Gordon Watkins, president of the alliance. “We partnered with an organization known as Earthjustice and filed a legal challenge.”
In 2017, the advocacy group American Rivers listed the Buffalo as one of America’s 10 most endangered rivers due to the threat of pollution from pig farms. There had been several major algal blooms in the watershed at that time. A significant growth in the summer of 2018 included toxic blue-green algae.
In July 2018, a 14.3-mile segment of the Buffalo River and Big Creek was listed as impaired, meaning pathogen levels exceeded state water quality standards. The Buffalo was again placed on the list of most endangered rivers in 2019. Later that year, C&H took a $6.2 million buyout from the state. The land went to the state as a conservation easement.
The battle had lasted six years. One of the attendees at the Little Rock meeting told me, “It was highly political until the end. It was really a dirty business.
Watkins pointed out that 89% of the river’s watershed is outside the boundaries of lands overseen by the National Park Service. Conservation groups also monitor Ozark streams such as Kings River, Upper White River, and War Eagle Creek.
In 2016, Governor Asa Hutchinson unveiled his Beautiful Buffalo River Initiative and announced the creation of a committee made up of the heads of five state agencies. The governor said at the time that he had received more letters, emails and phone calls about the pig farm than any other issue since taking office in January 2015.
The Buffalo River Conservation Committee, which was created by Hutchinson and now reports to the state Department of Agriculture, meets quarterly to address the impact on the watershed of unpaved roads, leaking septic tanks, outdated municipal sewage treatment plants and other factors. The committee awards grants for roads, water supply and sewage treatment infrastructure, algae studies, tree planting and other water quality measures.
March 1 will mark 50 years since President Richard Nixon signed the bill creating Buffalo National River. The legislation gave the Park Service responsibility for nearly 135 miles of the 150-mile-long river that runs through Newton, Searcy, Marion and Baxter counties. The Park Service released a report last year showing that Buffalo National River’s 1.5 million visitors in 2020 spent $66.3 million in communities near the park. These expenditures supported 960 jobs and had a cumulative benefit of $76.1 million.
“Buffalo National River is a one-of-a-kind gem in Arkansas that draws visitors from across the country,” said park superintendent Mark Foust. “During the pandemic, even more people have come out to enjoy the river and the outdoors. It’s great to see our local communities benefit.
“We are working hard with partners in the Buffalo River watershed to conserve the national river and ensure its enjoyment for future generations of visitors, especially at a time of increasing park visitation.”
The spending analysis was conducted by economists from the Park Service and the US Geological Survey. The economic advantage of the river is clear. But the six-year battle over the hog farm has proven that there must be eternal vigilance on the part of the groups that make up the Buffalo River Coalition.
The government can make big mistakes, which was evident when the state licensed the pig farm in the first place. I heard former Gov. Mike Beebe say it was the biggest regret of his eight years in office.
In addition to the economic benefits, there are other reasons why March 1, 1972 should be considered one of the key dates in Arkansas history. As I pointed out in last Sunday’s column, Americans’ impressions of Arkansas over the previous 15 years were based on events in the fall of 1957, when the desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School was the main news of the world.
Over time, the Buffalo has helped Arkansas be seen as a beautiful state in which to enjoy outdoor recreational activities rather than being seen as a violent, backward place. Besides changing the way people thought about Arkansas, it changed the way we thought about ourselves.
Arkansas became the natural state and Arkansans realized the need for conservation efforts. In 1996, voters even amended the state constitution to add a permanent one-eighth-cent sales tax for conservation purposes.
The Park Service is planning a series of what it calls “event weekends” to celebrate the 50th anniversary. History Weekend kicks off Feb. 26 with activities at Buffalo Point, St. Joe’s High School and other locations. A ceremony on the actual anniversary date – Tuesday, March 1 – will be held on the campus of North Arkansas College in Harrison.
Arts in the Park weekend kicks off Thursday, June 9 with a student film festival at the Kenda drive-in theater in Marshall. Two days later there will be a music festival in Tyler Bend which will feature traditional Ozark music. On October 8 and 9, the Park Service will celebrate the area’s natural resources.
Meanwhile, the Ozark Society plans to do a lot of hiking this winter. A one-day float from Tyler Bend to Gilbert is scheduled for April 5. The company will also be running a river trip from Grinder’s Ferry to the mouth of the river June 13-18.
The Ozark Society predates the national river designation, dating back to an organizational meeting on May 24, 1962 on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville.
“The society was originally founded to give organized resistance to the proposed damming of the Buffalo River,” Ellen Compton wrote in a history of the organization. “It was formed at a time of heightened interest in conservation efforts. Residents of northwest Arkansas and Pulaski County had investigated alliances with domestic groups to prevent the damming of the river. Local activists chose to form a separate organization.”
Songwriter and Arkansan native Jimmy Driftwood said it best when he called the Buffalo “Arkansas’ gift to the nation, America’s gift to the world.” .
Rex Nelson is editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.