Newton County Times
Watershed could be ‘a bushel of a mess’
JASPER — A joint meeting of the Arkansas Senate and House committees on Public Health, Welfare and Labor, Wednesday night at the Carroll Electric Building in Jasper. Committee chairmen conducted a public hearing over Gov. Asa Hutchinson's executive order creating the Buffalo River Conservation Committee (BRCC) that would oversee conservation projects in the watershed area, and his request for $1 million for the purpose of leveraging opportunities to receive federal grants for funding conservagtion projects in the watershed.
Wes Ward, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture, and one of four state agency BRCC members, gave a short explanation about the governor's funding request. When the BRCC executive order was issued it included placing $1 million towards the committee's efforts. It was also made known that the Nature Conservancy and the Buffalo River Foundation pledged $1 million to go to those efforts, as well. Essentially there are $2 million to accomplish projects identified by BRCC subcommittees.
Neither the BRCC, nor the cabinet agencies, have control over donations made by any entity that wants to become a participating partner. There may be some agreement between the donor, the BRCC and its subcommittees on which projects those funds could be used. If a list of priorities is identified, but only so much state funding is available, outside entities could take the list and try to accomplish them on their own, Ward said.
"We need your input,"said state Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View), saying this is just the beginning of conversations. Irvin was joined by her counterpart state Rep. Jack Ladyman (R-Corning). The primary reason for us coming here is to hear what you have to say, he told the crowd.
With all the information provided, Irvin opened the floor for public comment. The first was a question by Pam Stewart. "My driveway erosion can run into a tributary to the Buffalo River. Would I possibly qualify for a grant to correct the drainage?"
Anything is on the table, Ward answered. The magnitude of the problem would be considered for prioritization. A project that would benefit significantly more people might be prioritized higher, he said.
Irvin suggested that this could be considered an infrastructure issue and this particular problem might be included into a more broader project. Similarly, agriculture and tourism are to be considered for projects designed not only to protect the river, but also landowners and their ability to earn a living.
Kelly Woods said he, his wife and family operate a cow-calf and hay operation in Newton County. He said he opposes the governor spending $1 million for promoting conservation practices that are already available. He said he consults conservation professionals to determine what practices are best for his farm.
"We make the decision on what we would like to do on our property, not the government," Woods said. He added that there is a fear that what starts out to be voluntary can become mandatory.
If the governor has a million dollars laying around to spend in the Buffalo River watershed there are better uses for it than focusing on a supposed environmental catastrophe that might or might not happen in the future. Woods thinks some programs, once initiated, could reduce or even eliminate farming activities in the watershed. "This is the perception we have," Woods said.
To take his point further, Woods mentioned several needs that exist in the watershed.
There are volunteer fire departments that are understaffed, under-equipped and undertrained. Wouldn't this money be better spent to help those people perform their volunteer duty? When was the last time a tourist fell off a bluff or had a wreck and they called out a snail darter to help? He said there are law enforcement officers working in the watershed who rely on welfare assistance and food stamps to make ends meet. "Hang your heads." Rural school districts within the watershed could use that money to better educate the children who live there. They could get the same modern technology larger schools outside the watershed already have, he said. Or the money could be used to help school districts meet their high transportation costs. When was the last time an Indiana bat was hired to teach your kids English or math, or drive your children over mountainous, curvy roads in the fog or on snowy days?
Dustin Cowell said local people get the feeling they are being attacked for destroying the watershed. We feel that is misplaced and unfair. The river was beautiful in the past and it continues to be today. What's the difference between then and now? There are fewer hogs on creeks and streams and probably fewer cattle today. Tourism has grown considerably, however.
Cowell said point 7 in the governor's executive order points to the use of sound science in determining water quality. "We've heard that before," he said, referring to the buy out of C&H Hog Farms at Mt. Judea. The farm was permitted and was operating under the rules of the permit, but found itself under constant attack by conservation groups that believed the farm to be a danger to the river because it is located next to Big Creek a tributary to the Buffalo.
The governor made it known that the operators of the farm had done nothing wrong and scientific testing and monitoring of the river could not prove otherwise. Yet that did not prevent the farm from being shut down through the voluntary buy out agreement.
"To me the precedent has been set that you don't have to do anything wrong for the government to step in," Cowell said. What protections would be in place to keep that from happening to others?
He said tourism's effect on the river should also be studied.
Andy McCutcheon, president of the Searcy County Cattlemen's Association, said he spoke to the panel in Marshall earlier in the day. He said he had two questions to pose at this time. What will happen to the BRCC if the $1 million isn't appropriated to it? Who will conduct future water quality testing? The testing previously has been controversial as it was conducted by conflicting interests, he pointed out.
There needs to be an understanding that the Buffalo River watershed is separate from the Buffalo National River. This isn't federal land. This is private land. The Nature Conservancy doesn't hand out money without some kind of agenda or strings attached. The Nature Conservancy is prominently named in the Buffalo River Watershed Management Plan as a reference and as a lead agency in implementing proposed projects.
Members of the Searcy County Cattlemen's Association utilize the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and others offered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service under the United States Department of Agriculture, McCutcheon said, but if the Nature Conservancy plays a role in these programs a lot of farmers will turn away from them.
The population of people and livestock residing in the watershed is far less than the number of tourist who recreationally use the river annually, he said. "I'm not against conservation and I don't know a farmer who is. We all are connected to the Buffalo River, some of us deeper than others. I have had family members be baptized in it and I have had family members die in it," he said. But until overuse of the river is acknowledged and it is regulated water quality issues on the river won't be resolved.
Beth Ardapple, of Cave Creek near Mt. Judea, said the BRCC could help prevent future conflicts if there is good local representation on it and its subcommittees. It could also explore and support economic development. "We want jobs. We want our farmers. We want successful businesses. And we need them to fit in well with the Buffalo River because it's going to become more popular and more of an economic development engine over time."
Ward responded to McCutcheon's questions. He said the BRCC would continue to follow the governor's directive even without the additional $1 million. Existing programs would continue, but would not have the additional resources to help implement projects at a more urgent pace.
Water quality testing is a concern, Ward acknowledged. That would be something for subcommittees to consider.
Ward noted that McCutcheon and Cowell would be perfect subcommittee members.
Jessie Green, of White River Waterkeeper, said one thing that hasn't been mentioned is that the $1 million could be used towards wastewater treatment plant upgrades. Jasper could use this money as well as Marble Falls and Marshall. Sending the money to municipalities would provide relief to their ratepayers.
Ed Manor, of Jasper, said in reviewing local history that the river was deeper and cleaner when the local people had stewardship over it. When the National Park Service came it said pretty much what officials were saying tonight, night that the plan is voluntary. The first thing the park service did was put up restrictions. "I can't believe that this voluntary committee is going to protect the property rights of the people who are paying your salaries, he said. "All we ask is that we be left alone."
Finally, 18-year-old Shianna Brasel, of Jasper, took the microphone crediting the beauty of the lands surrounding the river to farmers like her father who manage the fields and forests. Without farming the watershed area would turn into another New York City or worse, "a bushel of a mess."