Published in Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 7/2/13
Travesty of common sense
By Mike Masterson
Many readers were not around when the battle to save the Buffalo River was in full force during the late 1960s and early ’70s. They wouldn’t know how it took a courageous and sustained bipartisan effort to prevent the federal government from building two dams on the Buffalo.
Being named America’s first national river required exceptional leadership to defeat the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ long-established plan for their dams at a time when others like the Bull Shoals, Beaver and Greers Ferry dams were going up on the White River.
Diverse champions for the river emerged during that period. They included Bentonville physician Dr. Neil Compton, who founded the Ozark Society; George Fisher, the editorial cartoonist for the Arkansas Gazette; and Doug James, founder of the state’s Audubon Society. Before the battle to save the Buffalo had ended, all of those people, along with others like former Democratic Gov. Orval Faubus and, ultimately, Republican President Richard Nixon would stand for preserving and protecting the river.
The most key and influential supporter was the newly elected Republican congressman (the first from Arkansas’ 3rd District since Reconstruction) who quietly put together his own plan for the river, then stuck doggedly with it for five years.
John Paul Hammerschmidt of Harrison was elected to Congress in 1966 after defeating incumbent Democratic Rep. Jim Trimble from Berryville. An odds-on favorite to win a 12th term, Trimble had been in favor of damming the Buffalo. Hammerschmidt, who grew up enjoying the magnificent bluffs and clear waters of the mystical stream, chose not to make the river his campaign issue.
As a freshman congressman, Hammerschmidt examined the Corps of Engineers’ damming plans for the White River and its tributaries, including the Buffalo River. He told reporter David Holsted of the Harrison Daily Times in 2012 that he became convinced the Buffalo should remain a pure, free-flowing Ozarks stream.
The state’s only Republican congressman, Hammerschmidt established links with the National Park Service while seeking support from his Arkansas congressional colleagues. He also forged an alliance with two influential and established congressmen with experience in the nation’s waterways, Republican John Saylor of Pennsylvania and Democrat Wayne Aspinall of Colorado.
In his third of what would become 13 terms, with his bill to make the Buffalo America’s first national river complete, he enlisted Democratic Sen. J.W. Fulbright to carry the legislation to the Senate, which passed the bill as it had been constructed in the House.
“I had a lot of help, and I just had to wait a while,” Hammerschmidt told reporter Joe Mosby in 2012.
The bill had become a point of heated contention back home. With two generations of his family in the lumber business, the Hammerschmidts had forged friendships among those who harvested timber for his company across the Buffalo River watershed. As with his father, Art Hammerschmidt, John Paul had come to know many folks in the hills who turned against him because of his crusade to save the river. It was a difficult period personally for the determined gentleman.
In 1972, President Nixon finally signed the bill. The Buffalo River became the Buffalo National River under management of the National Park Service.
Now 91 years young, Hammerschmidt told me he realizes efforts he and everyone involved put forth were well worth the result. It’s been especially gratifying for him to realize that many of those who’d opposed his efforts 40 years ago now tell him he was right to protect the river.
That leads me to present-day events. I can’t help but contrast the selfless leadership displayed four decades ago with what I see as widespread bipartisan lack of effort today when it has come to assertively protecting the river from possible risk of contamination from this hog factory. The relative silence and avoidance by our elected political public servants shows me just how far we have fallen in relying on them to do the right thing by the people who elected them to protect the public interest.
So I asked him (and yes, he’s still my uncle) for his thoughts on the state Department of Environmental Quality permitting this farm as it did. I’d say he certainly earned standing to offer significant comment.
Warning to fence-sitters-his response is anything but mealymouthed: “I cannot feasibly imagine the travesty of common sense created by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality’s decision to grant the permit for the industrial hog farm in Newton County,” he said. “Even the average citizen from our part of the state knows the porous nature of our hills and valleys with their underground caves and karst geology. To me it is obvious that theADEQ should have run dye tests from the hog farm location to see if indeed the runoff would ultimately flow into Big Creek and from that tributary eventually into our pristine Buffalo River. To me this cannot be allowed to happen.
“I also can’t understand why the guardian of our national treasure, the National Park Service, evidently wasn’t notified or consulted beforehand. I am still hopeful a way will be found to reverse the state agency decision and stop this travesty of justice and misregulation.”