Eureka Springs Independent
Forest Service plan raises hackles of Buffalo River advocates
By Becky Gillette
- December 13, 2023
The non-profit Buffalo River Watershed Alliance (BRWA) has raised objections to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Robert’s Gap Project to manage a 40,000-acre tract of land including the headwaters of the Buffalo National River, White River, Kings River, Mulberry River and War Eagle Creek—five of Arkansas’ more iconic rivers.
“Clearly this is a special place deserving of enhanced protection,” BRWA President Gordon Watkins said. “It is a unique area with quite a lot of Forest Service land. BRWA has serious concerns about this proposal, and we have submitted comments, and we then submitted objections when our concerns were not adequately addressed by USFS. Others submitted objections as well.”
In 2017 the USFS introduced a far-reaching proposal to manage the Robert’s Gap tract, which includes one of the state’s more visited and photographed areas, Hawksbill Crag. The Forest Service plans call for thinning and harvesting about 11,000 acres, prescribed burning on 11,000 acres of land, 70 miles of road construction for timber removal, 20 miles of dozer lines for firebreaks and 3,000 acres of herbicide treatment.
Watkins said BRWA and others started participating in public comments in 2018. But he said the Forest Service largely ignored the concerns.
“A final decision was made to proceed with the project despite numerous comments against the project,” Watkins said. “Between the time between when USFS closed the comment period and issued final decisions, a maternal colony of Indiana bats, which are endangered, was found in the Robert’s Gap area. The Indiana bats have been here forever, and we know they hibernate in caves in the Robert’s Gap area. The thought was that when the bats were ready to have young, they would migrate mostly into Missouri.
“The discovery of this maternal colony was a big deal – the first of its kind in the Ozarks. Rather than put a pause on this project, in their final decision they made a comment they would have a quarter mile set back from the tree where these particular bats were roosting. We thought that was a significant enough finding that the USFS should have taken a step back and taken additional comments on how to do a thorough job of protection. We are asking for a Supplement Assessment or even better, an Environmental Impact Study.”
Watkins said they oppose herbicides being used. They are not opposed to logging or prescribed burning in general, but the way it is being done and the scale.
“Burning has certain benefits but burning thousands of acres at a whack is excessive,” Watkins said. “Smaller burns would have less impact on the local ecology and the people who live in the area. We live 15 to 20 miles as the crow flies, but we got smoke in Little Buffalo Valley from the prescribed fires at Robert’s Gap. People who have asthma have had to take shelter or go somewhere else.”
Watkins said BRWA also prefers single tree selection for logging rather than group selections; single tree selections would create a more diverse forest.
One of the bigger concerns is building more than 70 miles of roads and firebreak on a 40,000-acre track. Fire lines are dozed to protect property owners. After logging is completed, the roads are closed to traffic, but Watkins said they are still a permanent scar on the landscape. It is easy to walk through Ozark forests and see old logging roads a hundred years old still there.
“Roads divert the flow of water, and the runoff from the dirt roads creates erosion and turbidity in the rivers,” Watkins said. “The biggest problem is the stormwater runoff from the practices impact water quality of the Buffalo and these other rivers, as well.”
Some timber removal is to take out dead trees to reduce fuel for wildfires, some is salvage logging, and some is commercial logging. There are also planned wildlife openings. Watkins said the purpose of those is to open the canopy to create a more diverse ecosystem and improve conditions for animal species.
“That is a notable goal, but we have problems with the way they choose to go about it,” Watkins said. “We think it is a little over the top.”
According to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, rivers all over the state are under stress from improper streambank management including people building homes and cutting trees down to the river’s edge for a view, runoff from dirt roads, and climate change that is creating heavier rainfalls in shorter periods of time. Rivers are filling with gravel and getting wider and shallower, losing many of the deeper pools that are good habitat for game fish.
“I live right on the banks of the Little Buffalo,” Watkins said. “I’ve seen those changes here where the river is wider and shallower. The same is true on the Big Buffalo. Logging, road building and maintenance of unpaved roads are the biggest causes of sedimentation of the river. These plans for logging and road building on a 40,000-acre track immediately upriver from Buffalo River are definitely going to hurt water quality, in our opinion.”
Whitaker Point, the official name for Hawksbill Crag, lies within Robert’s Gap. There is a big project underway to pave part of Cave Mountain Road, the access road to Hawksbill Crag from the Buffalo River. At the peak of the tourism season, hundreds of vehicles are using that narrow, steep county road.
“It has caused such a problem with gravel erosion and runoff into the Buffalo River,” Watkins said. “The cooperative project between the state and counties to pave about 1.5 miles going up the mountain is designed to reduce sedimentation. Then the Forest Service is planning on creating more sedimentation problems just up the road on 40,000 acres.”
On February 21, BRWA, represented by the Earthrise Law Center, and Carney, Bates and Pulliam Law Firm, on behalf of the BRWA, filed a Complaint for Vacatur of Illegal Agency Decision, Declaratory and Injunctive Relief challenging the U. S. Forest Service’s October 27, 2021, Decision Notice and Finding of No Significant Impact resulting in approval of the 40,000-acre Robert’s Gap Project. Watkins said progress continues on the lawsuit. If all stays on schedule, briefings and filings should be completed in January.
“To the best of our knowledge, USFS has not yet begun logging or road building activities, although some prescribed burning as well as water sampling has taken place,” Watkin said. “We ask our supporters who visit the area to please let us know if any USFS activity is observed.”
For more information, do an internet search for USFS Robert’s Gap. For more information about BRWA’s take on the project, go to buffaloriveralliance.org/Roberts-Gap-Forest-Plan.