BUFFALO NATIONAL RIVER — On May 24, 1962, conservationists meeting on the campus of the University of Arkansas chose a doctor named Neil Compton as president of their fledgling organization. The group called itself the Ozark Society, and one week later, Compton typed a letter to U.S. Sen. William Fulbright, an Arkansas Democrat, signaling the group’s intention to fight for the preservation of the Buffalo River.
“It is throughout its entire length spectacular and beautiful,” Compton wrote.
The genesis for that letter — and the vote to organize the Ozark Society — stemmed from a hearing four months earlier in the community of Marshall before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Proponents of a dam organized as the Buffalo River Improvement Association had hijacked that hearing, Compton told Fulbright, manipulating it to favor their plan for two dams, one near the mouth and the other near Gilbert, and silencing “those of us who wish to save this stream.”
I was but 5 weeks old. I wouldn’t discover the Buffalo for another couple of decades, after it had been protected as a national park and declared America’s first national river in 1972. I put in for my first trip at Mount Hersey, just downstream of Big Creek on the upper river. I floated for the afternoon, camped on a gravel bar across from a bluff and spent the night listening to whippoorwills. The river — spectacular and beautiful — did not disappoint.
Looking back, I see now that even with that first trip to the Buffalo I began buying into an illusion that comes with a declaration of protection, be it a national park or wilderness designation, and that is the belief that because a place had been saved once, that it has been saved forever. In fact, the opposite is true. Opponents of protected places, be they dam builders, industrial agriculture or development, only have to win their fight once and the place is lost forever; supporters of protected places have to win every time a challenge arises.
In 2012, 50 years after Compton wrote that letter, a new front opened in the battle for the Buffalo, 6 miles up that same Big Creek, where a permit was granted by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality for a large farm of 6,500 hogs, producing 2 million gallons annually of untreated waste.
From the start, opponents of that permit as well as many of the hog farm’s neighbors shared a sentiment that Compton would have recognized: They suspected the process had been hijacked, in this case by a cozy relationship between regulators appointed by politicians and their allies in corporate agriculture, leading to a “done deal,” while those who opposed the hog operation were kept in the dark to silence them.
While there have been modifications to the permit since, the river’s defenders haven’t had much of a chance to weigh in on the permit itself. Until now. The hog farm last year had to apply for a new permit to keep operating, and that opened a 30-day public comment period that ends March 17, and it includes a public hearing on Tuesday in Jasper, Arkansas, in the school auditorium.
For me, more trips followed that first float, with friends, with family, then with kids, sometimes all of the above, sometimes alone. Floating the Buffalo today, with its towering river birches and sycamores, guided by herons, patrolled by bald eagles, it has the feel of a place protected.
It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially when poking about the bluffs and waterfalls on the upper river, canoeing past elk at Steel Creek, or getting an escort from river otters one evening while float camping along the lower river.
But that’s just the illusion. The reality is that this is a shoestring park, just a thin corridor of green space along much of the river. In fact, only 11 percent of the watershed of America’s first national river is protected. Outside that 11 percent, there are few guarantees.
“I think people would assume that the first national river ever created would be afforded a little higher protection.”
That’s what Gordon Watkins, president of Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, told me last week. His is one of the groups that is now leading the fight to protect the river from the hog farm, along with the Ozark Society and others.
Different administrations have prohibited large industrial farms in the watershed, he noted, but administrations change. Today, if the permit is granted, the farrowing operation on Big Creek will house nearly 2,700 sows and hundreds of piglets at any given time, with two waste ponds holding 2.3 million gallons of hog manure that opponents worry might one day seep into the ground and then the river, or overflow and contaminate both the creek and the Buffalo.
Of even greater concern is what Watkins characterized as the “insidious creeping contamination” that could result when liquid waste from the hog farm is applied on dozens of nearby fields, all in the watershed of Big Creek. The owners of the farm say they have taken appropriate precautions and that regulatory safeguards exist, but many others don’t want to take that risk.
Watkins is a farmer who lives along the Little Buffalo, the Buffalo’s biggest tributary and who also rents cabins to some of the 1.4 million visitors to the park each year.
“It is going to continue to fall on citizens to hold their feet to the fire,” he said, referring to those responsible for issuing operating permits and their elected leaders.
If history offers any lesson, it might be this: Attempts 55 years ago to sneak through a proposal ultimately backfired. They became the catalyst for conservation action — and not just for the Ozark Society. The Arkansas Chapter of the Nature Conservancy was organized in 1961 in response to proposals to dam the Buffalo; it recently bought more than 1,400 acres along Big Creek that it plans to protect. The latest fight for the Buffalo could be the catalyst for another generation of conservationists.
In 1992, after Bill Clinton was elected president, I spent part of a week in Northwest Arkansas asking people what we might expect of the new president. One of the people I interviewed was Compton, then living in Bentonville, Arkansas. It had been 30 years since that letter, 20 years since the Buffalo became America’s first national river.
Clinton had received the endorsement of major environmental organizations, and I was curious to see what Compton thought as an icon in the conservation community. He was direct, and beneath it, there seemed to be a frustration. He noted that there were 600 miles of streams in Northwest Arkansas that were unsafe for swimming because they were heavily contaminated with poultry and livestock runoff from industrial agriculture, much of it taking place while Clinton served as Arkansas attorney general and later governor.
Compton said Clinton’s heart wasn’t in the environment but rather “in politics,” and therein was the problem. It was unwise to trust something so “spectacular and beautiful” but also so vulnerable and assailable to the political/regulatory machinery that is increasingly being captured by big-moneyed corporate interests.
And just as he signaled to Fulbright that the war was on, he signaled to his supporters as well that the war was not over, even though they won the battle in 1972.
In his book, “The Battle for the Buffalo,” Compton wrote that its fate was still subject to whims of lawmakers.
“For that reason, it must be constantly monitored by level-headed conservationists and defended from exploitation ...”
“The challenge goes on,” Compton is also quoted as saying. “I challenge you to step forward to protect and care for the wild places you love best.”
Andy Ostmeyer is metro editor at the Globe. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
• The Buffalo River Watershed Alliance will hold a 45th birthday party and benefit concert for the Buffalo National River on Sunday, March 12, at George’s Majestic Lounge, 519 W. Dixon St., in Fayetteville, Ark.
New Orleans musician Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes and the Louisiana Sunspots, a six-piece band, will be performing at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m. There is a $15 entry fee at the door. Net proceeds and other donations go to assist the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance.
Sunpie, who is originally from Arkansas, served as a Buffalo National River naturalist for four years and as a ranger for the National Park Service for 30 years while also pursuing his musical career. He recently completed a 58-city tour spanning 34 countries, playing in the bands of both Paul Simon and Sting in their “Paul Simon and Sting Together” tour. He also has performed for more than 20 years at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and shared the stage at festivals with such artists as Willie Nelson, BB King, Dr. John, The Neville Brothers, Willie Dixon and Phish.
• National Park Radio, a modern folk group from Harrison, Ark., will perform at 5 p.m. Saturday, April 22, at the Steel Creek Campground near Ponca on the Buffalo National River.
Bring lawn chairs and blankets. Food vendors will be on site. Buffalo National River Partners is sponsoring the event, which is part of an Earth Day celebration that also will include a cleanup float at 10 a.m. Sunday, April 23, from Pruitt to Hasty.
For more information or to register, visit Buffalo National River’s calendar of events at www.nps.gov/buff.