Save the Buffalo River again and again
BY Lindsey Millar
ON April 12, 2022
Is there any part of Arkansas more widely beloved than the Buffalo River? The case for “The Natural State” being a fitting motto for Arkansas begins (and could almost end) with the crystal clear river, meandering through towering bluffs of the Boston Mountains in what feels like near pristine wilderness. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that an annual pilgrimage to the river is a minimum requirement for Arkansas citizenship.
For those of us who weren’t around in the 1960s and 1970s, when environmental activist Neil Compton and other conservationists faced down powerful forces who wanted to see the river dammed for hydroelectric power, there aren’t any hints of that terrible counterfactual on the river: For long stretches of the Buffalo, it feels as if what it is always was.
March 1 marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Buffalo River as the United States’ first National River, and throughout the year Buffalo River National Park Service and the Ozark Society, formed 60 years ago by Compton and others to preserve the Buffalo, and other groups will hold events to celebrate the milestone year. June 9-12, the park service will celebrate the artistic inspiration the river provides with a student film festival at the Kenda Drive-In in Marshall, a folk storytelling event at the Buffalo Point Campground Amphitheater and a free music festival at Tyler Bend. Oct. 8-9 the park will host a photo geocaching scavenger hunt, a “yoga in the park” event at Steel Creek and Buffalo Point and a “moon party” at Tyler Bend with telescopes to enjoy stargazing in the park, one of the rare spots formally designated as a Dark Sky Place by the International Dark-Sky Association. In other words, because the Buffalo River is largely free from light pollution, it’s an ideal spot for stargazing.
Other celebrations will look back on the herculean effort involved in the establishment of the National River, something David Peterson, president of the Ozark Society, doesn’t believe would be possible today. “It was a sort of miracle built on dogged persistence and grassroots people,” he said.
But the work of conservation never ends. For those intimately acquainted with the Buffalo — or anyone who follows the news — that motto should be top of mind after the hog farm debacle. The story has many twists and turns, but here’s the short version: In 2012, the state foolishly awarded a permit to a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, for an industrial hog farm in Newton County, located near Big Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo. The permit allowed for up to 6,500 hogs; the C&H Hog Farm normally operated with a little less than half that. Still, that number of swine produced mountains of fecal waste, which had to spread across fields. Groups like the Buffalo Watershed Alliance raised the alarm, warning that the pig poop was likely to seep through the porous karst topography of the area into the watershed. In 2018, there were some 70 miles of algae blooms along the river. Algae forms naturally, but it’s stimulated by phosphorus, which excreta is full of. Though they were never able to make a direct link, the Buffalo Watershed Alliance and others suspected the CAFO as the culprit.
After long legal battles and years of activism, the state stepped in to correct its error, buying out the hog farm for $6.2 million and temporarily banning similar operations, but an effort to make the moratorium permanent was derailed by the Arkansas legislature, despite endorsement from Governor Hutchinson.
Gordon Watkins, president of the Buffalo Watershed Alliance and a Newton County resident, believes that even without the ironclad protection a permanent ban would’ve provided, the likelihood of a similar operation returning to the watershed in the near to midterm is low. But the relatively small footprint of the park in the watershed requires constant vigilance.
“Buffalo River National Park is a thin blue ribbon that only takes in 11% of the watershed,” Watkins said. “The other 89% is outside of the park’s control and sphere of influence. All of those tributaries, what’s done in them, has a direct impact on the Buffalo. It’s important to encourage private landowners to adopt practices that will help preserve the Buffalo so it’s clean and pristine. That’s what attracts visitors.” And money. A 2020 study from the park service found that visitors to the park spent an estimated $66 million in the region.
Thankfully, state government and lawmakers are more engaged than ever, according to Watkins. The Buffalo River Conservation Committee, formed by Hutchinson a few months after the announcement of the hog farm buyout and seeded with $2 million for conservation and water quality grants, includes representatives from the state Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy and Environment, the Department of Health and the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. It’s helping with crucial but boring work: providing money to pave dirt roads that spill sediment into the watershed, to upgrade outdated area wastewater treatment plants and septic tanks, and to help ranchers keep cattle out of streams.
Perhaps the most pernicious threat to the river today is a tricky one — it’s me and you and thousands of others who love the river. According to official park service records, 1.5 million people visited the park in 2021, just shy of the record 1.78 million in 2016. But those numbers, based on traffic counters throughout the 95,000-acre park, which includes 100 miles of road and 135 miles of waterway, likely represent an underestimate. “Crowdedness is a real problem,” the Ozark Society’s Peterson said. “There are too many people on the river.” Peterson hopes the National Park Service will address the issue through a permit system, though with so many access points and visitors who bring their own boats to float, that could prove logistically difficult.
The park service is in the beginning stages of a comprehensive river use and management plan, according to Cassie Branstetter, public information officer for Buffalo National River Park. It will update a plan that’s 40 years old and, it’s hoped, guide the park for the next 50 years. Branstetter said the process is in the early stages and will likely take several years, and include ample time for public comment, before completion. So don’t look for any official discussion of use restrictions anytime soon.
Ross Noland, a Little Rock lawyer and the executive director of the Buffalo River Foundation, grew up floating the river. His dad, retired engineer Stewart Noland, was one of the founding members of the Arkansas Canoe Club and among the group that made the first descent of the Hailstone, the wild, rapid-filled upper stretch of the Buffalo, from Dixon Ford to Boxley. Ross was on the river as young as 2 or 3, and he’s made regular pilgrimages with his elementary school-age children for years.
His favorite stretch of the park is floating from Ponca to Kyle’s Landing. “But so is everyone else’s,” he said. “That’s because it’s the most beautiful stretch of the river.” But he won’t do it on a Saturday in June because of the crowds. He, Peterson and Watkins all encourage visitors to consider spreading out and trying less trafficked stretches. Hemmed-In Hollow Falls, with its spectacular 200-foot waterfall — the tallest between the Appalachians and the Rockies — is deservingly the most popular hiking destination in the park. Less heralded is the Railroad Trail in Gilbert, a moderate hike on an old railbed that follows the river, Branstetter offered. The 37-mile Buffalo River Trail is one of Arkansas’s premier backpacking paths, but often when you take it in small bites, you won’t see another soul for miles, Branstetter said.
Noland and the Buffalo River Foundation work to help prevent the outside world from creeping into the park. As a nonprofit land trust, the foundation primarily works with landowners to create conservation easements, interests in land that govern use and development, and very occasionally purchase property near the river. The foundation is a cooperative conservation organization. “We can’t make anyone do anything,” Noland said. “There’s a history of distrust stemming from the way the park was formed. We’re careful not to contribute to that. We want to work with people who want to work with us.”
One of the Buffalo River Foundation’s primary objectives is to conserve what Noland calls “the scenic integrity” of the river. “Fifty years ago, there were hardly any structures visible from the river aside from visible sites like Buffalo Point or Tyler Bend. In recent years, people who probably love the river have found places along the river to build. You see it at Rush. You see it at Love-Hensley near Snowball.” The foundation aims to establish easements on as much property near the river to prevent development that undercuts the sense of wilderness the Buffalo River is known for.
To get involved in efforts to conserve the Buffalo, donate to the Buffalo River Foundation (buffaloriverfoundation.org) or the Buffalo Watershed Alliance (buffaloriveralliance.org) and join the Ozark Society, which has seven local chapters, and sponsors regular hikes and float trips (ozarksociety.net), and publishes essential outdoors books, including Ken Smith’s “The Buffalo River Country” and “Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of Arkansas.”