MASTERSON ONLINE: Alliance versus Forest Service
by Mike Masterson
The Buffalo River Watershed Alliance is legally challenging the 2021 U.S. Forest Service finding that there would be no significant impact from its decision to approve the enormous Robert's Gap project on its property in the headwaters of our 153-mile-long Buffalo National River.
Oh my, that was a mouthful!
In essence, the alliance is saying the Forest Service acted illegally in handling its environmental review responsibilities on the project. As a result, it seeks an injunction to delay or halt the process.
The controversial project involves about 11,000 acres of logging/thinning, 11,000 aces of prescribed burning, 70 miles of road construction for timber trucks, 20 miles of bulldozed fire breaks and 3,000 acres of herbicide application.
Gordon Watkins, who heads the alliance, is supported by Little Rock "super attorney" Hank Bates and the Earthrise Law Center.
Robert's Gap is a 40,000-acre tract of Forest Service property in the Buffalo headwaters immediately upstream from the national river's boundary. In this region adjacent to the upper Buffalo Wilderness Area, the Buffalo, managed by the National Park Service, is designated as a wild and scenic river.
But far more than the Buffalo River is involved in this extensive project, a news release from Watkins' group says; the White, King's and Mulberry rivers, along with War Eagle Creek, all originate in the Robert's Gap area.
The alliance, Bates and Earthrise contend this fragile and majestic ecosystem is deserving of enhanced protections the Forest Service fails to adequately address in its plan.
The alliance says it fully recognizes the Forest Service mandate to improve forest health and reduce natural fuels such as timber that could intensify forest fires.
However, in this case, there also are serious unaddressed concerns,it says, about this project's potential to degrade water quality, diminish old-growth forest, impair wildlife habitat (and the species within these areas) and harm a significant portion of the robust local Arkansas recreation and tourism economy.
Watkins provided an example. "After the Forest Service completed its environmental analysis, and before their decision notice was issued, they discovered an endangered bat maternity colony located within the project area, the first of its kind found in the Ozarks.
"Its significance should have triggered a supplemental environmental analysis. Instead, they simply included a brief addendum to the final decision, as they did with another last-minute decision to collect baseline water samples.
"Both addendums should have been subject to public input and more extensive analysis, as required by law."
The complaint further alleges, "implementation of the project will result in the loss of cedar, oak, and pine trees, destruction of old growth forest as 86 percent of the project contains forest stands of 70 years old or more, wildlife habitat, and potential degradation of water quality.
"The terrestrial features of the area, including the steep slopes with erodible soils atop the highly permeable ground karst structure makes both surface and groundwater susceptible to contamination."
The alliance says its members are surprised the Forest Service has failed to properly respond to requests for the supplemental environmental analysis, or to conduct a complete and proper environmental impact study of water quality in the affected rivers and streams in conformance with the National Environmental Policy Act.
No response to such obviously legitimate concerns about taxpayer-owned property? That's also a surprise to me and little wonder this now has led to a courtroom.
"The alliance took legal action because for the past five years we exhausted all USFS administrative remedies," Watkins told me,"including speaking up at public scoping meetings, submitting public comments and participating in an objection resolution meeting. We finally sent a demand letter to USFS laying out our concerns. It was ignored.
"As part of our due diligence we submitted a FOIA request to USFS to be sure we weren't overlooking anything. At all stages they dismissed most of our concerns, leaving legal action as our only remaining option."
So now the USFS will have to publicly explain its decision not to fully explore the potential environmental results of its project, which also will include impacts to the local economy, farmers, hikers, photographers and wildlife areas important to recreation and tourism in Arkansas.
The object is to hopefully have the Robert's Gap project delayed until all the necessary and prescribed environmental studies are properly completed and the results examined.
Why wouldn't all this have been accomplished upfront? Why does it take a courtroom action to simply do the right thing?
If I were taking my dozers, chainsaws and road graders into a tract of a critically sensitive and sacred region potentially affecting multiple streams and rivers, I'd want every "i" dotted and "t" crossed before firing up the engines and tearing into 40,000 acres. Wouldn't you?
Some sarcastic wag might call that expecting due diligence of the sort one would expect from a state before it, oh, say, wrongheadedly permitted an industrial hog factory to set up shop along a major tributary six miles upstream from the first national river.
It's also rather important, wouldn't you agree, when we consider that in 2021, 1.5 million visitors spent $74.3 million in local gateway regions to the Buffalo, according to Watkins.
The alliance news release can be found at buffaloriveralliance.org/Roberts-Gap-Forest-Plan.
Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at email@example.com.
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