NWA EDITORIAL: The money flows
Governor, nonprofits collaborate on Buffalo’s future
by NWA Democrat-Gazette
The astonishing thing, perhaps is that it took until 2019 for an Arkansas governor get around to creating a panel specifically interested in not just protecting the Buffalo National River, but actually devoting money to its future well-being.
Let's be clear (which is also the way we prefer our waterways, by the way) about one thing from the get-go: Arkansas has a lot of creeks, streams and rivers worth seeing and protecting. And, with a way of life that relies heavily on agriculture as an economic powerhouse, the state also faces serious challenges to ensure those activities thrive without doing damage to its natural beauty and diverse ecosystem.
What’s the point?
A state committee created by Gov. Asa Hutchinson can be a valuable collaborative effort in the protection and preservation of the nation’s first national river.
In recent years, many Arkansans have re-awakened to the necessity of protecting beloved waterways. The chief reason for that revival of concern is the controversial state-permitted operation of a large-scale commercial hog farm too close to the jewel of natural resource tourism, the Buffalo National River. C&H Hog Farms was permitted in 2013 to house more than 6,500 swine.
Ask whether that hog farm's operation was doing harm to the Buffalo and its tributaries and you'll get an argument from some folks. But earlier this year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson recognized a unique opportunity to rescue the 135-mile river from even the potential of degradation. Working with the Nature Conservancy -- an organization Arkansas is fortunate to have operating within its borders -- Hutchinson negotiated a $6.2 million buyout of C&H.
That deal recognized the need to compensate the family that invested in the hog farm. The owners, according to Hutchinson, have started the process of removing the hogs. As part of the deal, the land on which the hog farm operated will be given to the state as a conservation easement, limiting its future use.
State regulators are now going through a process to make permanent a ban on new medium- and large-scale hog farms in the Buffalo River watershed. Hutchinson has said he supports the ban around the Buffalo, which Congress in 1972 named as the United States' first national river. The river itself is under the management of the National Park Service, but its watershed is far, far bigger than what that agency controls.
While Hutchinson and any Arkansas governor who has any sense will and must support farmers and the state's agricultural economy, it also cannot and must not go unnoticed that tourism is also a massive economic driver. Just this week, state tourism officials released the numbers for 2018: More than 32 million visitors spent around $7.37 billion dollars, directly supporting nearly 68,000 jobs within the travel industry.
As far as the Buffalo National River, it accounts for well more than 1 million visitors a year. Many of those who don't live in Arkansas undoubtedly become ambassadors for the state in the aftermath of their journey. How could they not? A visit to the river, with its majestic bluffs, massive boulders and beautiful waters, can be described as anything from great outdoor fun to an almost spiritual experience.
Now comes news that Gov. Hutchinson is upping the ante on the Buffalo River. Early this week, he created the Buffalo River Conservation Committee. Now, establishing a committee isn't necessarily progress. After all, the first committee he created in 2016, the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee, is required to hold quarterly meetings but has only met once in 2019. But the new committee will get $1 million from the governor's discretionary fund, pending legislative approval, and has already received pledges totalling $1 million from the Nature Conservancy and the Buffalo River Foundation.
The combined effort will help allocate money toward conservation projects in the Buffalo River's watershed. The conservation committee will use a state and federally approved watershed management plan as its guide.
"We still want to have a long-term effort to make sure the Buffalo River is pristine for generations to come," he said.