This 50th anniversary month is a good time to read Brian Thompson's new book "Save the Buffalo River ... Again." The book, whose proceeds are donated to Arkansas conservation initiatives, teaches us that the fight to protect our state's natural attributes never ends. It's the story of how an industrial hog operation was quietly permitted and constructed in the Buffalo River watershed. And it's the story of how a small group of Arkansans came together to change history.
"Ignored and disparaged, they lost every step of the way," Thompson says. "Until they won."
Fayetteville's Thompson has long been involved with the Ozark Society, which led the fight 50 years ago to achieve the national designation and prevent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from placing a dam on the Buffalo. His love of Arkansas comes through in every chapter of this book.
"My father would load our canvas tent in the back of our teal blue Chrysler with the chrome grill and fins that reached past the trunk," he writes. "It was a boat. We would take our summer vacations on the road with the windows rolled down as we didn't have air conditioning. I would sit in back on the floor (less windy) and read comic books. Our destination? America's national parks, as many as we could fit into two weeks. It was fantastic.
"So when the Buffalo National River in my home state of Arkansas was suddenly under threat from a large industrial hog operation, permitted in a seemingly secretive deal unknown to the general public, it got my attention. Why would anyone do that? This story is about that fight. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are controversial, and though I've been critical of the CAFO in this story, this isn't about that. It's a story about advocacy for a special place and some surprisingly nasty Arkansas politics."
The permit for the C&H hog farm on Big Creek was issued in 2012. Conservationists began to learn of it the following year. The battle raged until 2019 when C&H took a $6.2 million buyout from the state.
"Big Creek is lined with pastures, many of which would receive the liquid animal waste in the C&H nutrient management plan," Thompson writes. "These fields are often flooded in the spring. Flooding was not mentioned. Above all, you would certainly think the environmental assessment would have pointed out that Big Creek was a major tributary of the Buffalo National River, the pristine crown jewel of the state of Arkansas. Well, no. Neither the Buffalo National River nor Big Creek were mentioned."
The Buffalo River Watershed Alliance was formed to fight the hog farm. The organization remains active.
"We communicate regularly," Thompson says. "We now have a broad network of contacts. We thoroughly understand permitting, rule-making and adjudication. We know how to talk to folks at the Capitol and how to reach out to the public on short notice. These days, the public isn't hearing much from us, but we're here, paying attention. We're certainly a darned sight savvier. In fact, Arkansas environmental organizations are in the best shape they've been in in decades."
Thompson says the global food corporation Cargill hoped to follow C&H with additional hog operations in the Buffalo River area as well as the Kings River watershed.
"Their desire was to improve their footprint in regard to biosecurity, a direct response to deadly pig virus outbreaks," he writes. "I should point out that the Buffalo isn't just any river. We had a huge amount of public support, not only at the state level but nationally as well. ... You might be under the impression that the support we received was partisan. Nothing could be further from the truth.
"Having spent countless hours communicating with Arkansans on social media, my experience was that support was evenly distributed. Our state's natural wonders are valued by everyone."
Thompson says those from outside Arkansas are surprised at how beautiful the state is.
"It's diverse," he writes. "Just north of the Louisiana border, you have the thick piney woods of the Gulf Coastal Plain. To the east, you have the rich black dirt of the Delta, still with remnants of the Big Woods. The Ouachita region stretches from Oklahoma to Little Rock. ... Just north of that, meandering to the east, is the Arkansas River.
"Last but not least, you have the Ozark Plateau, a broad uplift in the north where the millennia have carved out low mountains, which are actually an ancient, sensitive eroded landscape of really large hills covered with hardwoods. We who live here tend to take this beauty for granted. Oh, we know it's special. We've been told that many times. But when you live on it, work on it, when it's all you really see day in and day out, you sometimes forget just how special it is."
He describes the Ozarks as "a difficult place to carve out a living. The rocky soils do not lend themselves to row cropping. The people come from a hardscrabble lot. It's a legacy of hunting, gardening, raising livestock and getting by any way you can. Folks are resourceful."
Thompson has a final warning for Arkansans: "At some point, they will try again. My hope is that the publication of this account might make that more difficult."
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.