FRAN ALEXANDER: Not out of the blue
Saving of Buffalo River — again — took committed advocates
by Fran Alexander
"I could not not do something."
-- Ginny Masullo,
Buffalo River activist
Over years of observing the process of participation in our political system by citizens wanting either to change or to create something entirely new for their community, state or nation, I've seen a consistent thread. Real grass-roots work takes sacrifice and selflessness. Oh, I know NIMBY accusations are thrown at folks, who are told they are selfishly defending their immediate turf, but "not in my back yard" falls apart as an intimidation tactic if people can make a case that their grievances affect the whole.
John Donne's "no man is an island; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main," is at the core of why activism of any kind succeeds, because the first order of business in any effort is to find others who feel as you do. You cannot remain an island in a complex society if you're trying to change things. Yet, oftentimes in the beginning of some issues, things can feel quite lonely until others begin to show up to talk and develop goals and actions.
The fight to save the Buffalo River -- again -- is a textbook case of grass-roots struggle. The closure of the hog farm in the river's watershed is now just in its beginning phase. Multiple stages of legal and financial hoops must be jumped through before anyone can breathe easy that the river will no longer be victim to spreading of thousands of gallons of hog manure on fields, which continues until the facility's final closure months from now.
Protection for this watershed did not just happen in a vacuum or isolation. It took over six years of work by people whose names you don't know and whose faces you would not recognize. After learning the state, with little public notice, had permitted this hog farm to be built, people began to come together from small towns and rural areas near the river and eventually from across Arkansas and other states.
They brought different perspectives, strategies, talents, professions and passions to focus on the goal of protecting this river from pollution. One person with a science background told me her first action was researching water all the way from the U.S. Clean Water Act down to the components in hog manure, and reading every law, permit and research document she could find. Others did the physical work of water testing in the watershed, including in caves. Some people concentrated on how the state's permitting process worked, or didn't, and others sought legal avenues.
To hire lawyers meant fundraising, and for six years organizations held silent auctions, dinners, educational programs, and numerous letter-writing events. They personally lobbied legislators, had a farmers market table for five years, applied for grants, sought national organizations' help, printed bumper stickers and handouts, spoke to civic groups and analyzed other factory farm battles.
And then there was the music. Donna and Kelly Mulhollan of Still On the Hill traveled the state singing only of the beauty and history of the river and giving away their "Still A River" CDs at about 20 free concerts. Close to 10 large concerts and numerous small ones were donated by musicians and organized, publicized and run by volunteers. Photographers, artists, crafts artisans and others donated their works to raise money. Journalist Mike Masterson kept updating the Buffalo's status in the press, reminding readers that this natural wonder, the state's crown jewel, was being killed.
Participating organizations were the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, the Arkansas Canoe Club, the Ozark Society, the Ozark River Stewards, Friends of the North Fork and White Rivers, the White River Waterkeeper, the National Parks Conservation Association, Earth Justice and the Nature Conservancy.
Unpaid volunteers traveled across the state at their own expense for hundreds of hours of meetings and fundraisers and to Little Rock for hearings and to meet with legislators. People put their lives on hold, one leader devoting 20 to 30 hours a week to the effort, while others risked their jobs and some even received threats. Activism is not for the weak of heart or faint of spirit. It is passion driven. And to win, resolve must not drop.
We should all thank Gov. Asa Hutchinson for finally correcting a wrong decision by a state agency during Gov. Mike Beebe's term. And the governor should in turn thank those people of Arkansas, who took six years out of their lives to save this river -- again.
Commentary on 08/27/2019