BRENDA BLAGG: Bogged down
Lawmakers put hold on governor’s Buffalo River plan
by Brenda Blagg | Today at 1:00 a.m.
Legislative review and approval of a plan to spend $1 million from the governor's discretionary fund for grants within the Buffalo River watershed didn't happen quite as easily as expected.
State lawmakers on Friday held up Gov. Asa Hutchinson's request.
The governor announced last month he wanted to use money from his "rainy day" fund to match another $1 million in private funds promised from the Nature Conservancy and the Buffalo River Foundation.
The $2 million sum is supposed to go toward funding conservation and water-quality grants within the watershed of the Buffalo, the nation's first national river.
That's supposed to be a good thing, intended to help farmers with best practices to protect the river.
The river, or its protection, has been the subject of long-running debate among preservationists, recreational enthusiasts and those who live and farm nearby.
The state government is in the process now of buying out C&H Hog Farms, which secured the necessary permits during former Gov. Mike Beebe's administration for a concentrated swine feeding operation near the Buffalo.
The farm is at Mount Judea in Newton County. It is adjacent to Big Creek, which flows into the Buffalo just 6.6 miles away.
Hutchinson proposed the $6.2 million buyout earlier this year to resolve the years-long controversy over the hog farm.
The administration is also in the midst of considering a permanent ban on medium or large hog farms, as classified by the federal government, in the Buffalo's watershed.
The state has received comments from more than 400 people on the ban. That's just a hint of how intense this continuing controversy is. Most, but not all, of the comments the state received favor a ban of hog farms in the watershed.
Importantly, the contrary comments came from the Arkansas Farm Bureau and the Arkansas Pork Producers Association, defending the environmental record of pork producers and arguing against any ban.
Their comments are emblematic of concerns from within the agricultural community about how farmers will be impacted by the regulation.
It will be a while yet before the state can respond to all those comments, many of which are quite specific.
Eventually, the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment, which drafted the proposed regulatory change, will have to submit it for legislative review.
In the meantime, lawmakers are honed in on that request to spend those rainy day dollars in the Buffalo's watershed.
State Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, asked the Legislative Council on Friday to withhold those funds from a newly created committee.
The Buffalo River Conservation Committee, named last month by Gov. Hutchinson, also a Republican, is to decide how the grant money will be spent. The panel is made up of the secretaries of the Departments of Agriculture; Health; Energy and Environment; and Parks, Heritage and Tourism (or their designees).
Sen. Irvin was upset the governor's office had not met with elected representatives from the watershed before announcing his plans. The way it happened, she said, was "incredibly disrespectful" of those who represent the impacted area. She also questioned just who might decide how the funds are used.
Others on the Legislative Council backed her up.
The governor suggested the Legislative Council's failure to approve the transfer of rainy day funds could jeopardize the private funds pledged to the grant program. He also said it would delay the availability of the grants to farmers.
Nevertheless, the initiative is at least temporarily stalled because the people most affected want to be represented.
Here's the bottom-line lesson in all of this: The protectors of the Buffalo River got burned years ago when decisions about permitting that huge, potentially polluting hog farm were being made without their knowledge or input.
Those people, many of whom are devout activists now, will never forget it and may never trust regulators again.
No matter how well-intentioned Hutchinson's plan may be to provide grants to help protect the Buffalo's watershed, the process must be totally transparent.
He needs the buy-in of those most affected, including their elected representatives, to calm the deeply rooted controversy that surrounds the Buffalo.
Commentary on 10/23/2019
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