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01 Nov 2019 4:37 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Harrison Daily Times

Conservation Committee addresses public distrust


JASPER — In spite of hurried planning, about 60 or so people attended a joint meeting of the Arkansas Senate and House committees on Public Health, Welfare and Labor on Wednesday night at the Carroll Electric Building in Jasper.

It was the second meeting of the day in which committee chairmen conducted public hearings concerning 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 projects in the watershed. A similar hearing was held earlier in the day at Marshall in Searcy County.

The governor announced in September he wanted to use money from his "rainy day" fund to match another $1 million promised from the Nature Conservancy and the Buffalo River Foundation for the plan. During a Legislative Council meeting last Friday, Oct. 25, state Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) asked the council to withhold those funds. 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.

Irvin apologized for the short notice about the meeting. She said a lot of legislators did not have enough information and wanted to meet with staff in the executive branch and to hold hearings to get input and concerns from residents of the watershed.

Next week is an off week for legislators and then the following week is when the subcommittee reconvenes, she explained. Then the request goes to the Legislative Council, again. She said she had only a three-week window and had to hurry to schedule hearings.

"We need your input," she said, saying this is just the beginning of conversations. Irvin was joined by her counterpart, state Rep. Jack Ladyman (R-Corning). The primary reason for the meeting was to hear what they had to say, he told the crowd.

To provide background and an overview of the executive order were BRCC members Wes Ward, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture; Nathaniel Smith, MD, MPH, director of the Arkansas Department of Health and state health officer; and Stacy Hurst, secretary of the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. Not present was Becky Keogh, secretary of the department of Energy and the Environment. Taking her place on the panel Wednesday night was Dr. Richard McMullen, science director, Arkansas Department of Health.

Ward said the governor has respect for the Buffalo River and that is stated in his executive order establishing the BRCC. The governor, in 2016, created the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee (BBRAC) charged with developing a voluntary watershed management plan. It was finalized in 2018. This year there has been a realignment of agencies and departments of state governments. The BRCC now replaces the BBRAC. The agencies represented on the BRCC will help local stakeholders form subcommittees to determine what projects are approved.

This is non-regulatory, Ward emphasized. It's not an effort by the state to come in and place restrictions or requirements on anyone in the watershed. The executive summary of the plan talks about maintaining and enhancing, not correcting, or fixing, he said. Copies of the executive order were distributed for the audience to review.

State Rep. Keith Slape (R-Jasper) was invited by Irvin to address the panel first.

Slape said distrust of the government goes back decades when the Buffalo National River was created. Many residents along the river were removed, sometimes by force, from their family farms. He said hard feelings still exist. He said what he wanted to know is what is the "end game" of the BRCC?

Ward said there is not a certain level or metric that the management plan sets out to achieve. There is the understanding that some projects in the watershed would be able to use assistance. Those projects could be improving a variety of farm management practices, replacing septic tanks or wastewater treatment facilities, controlling feral hogs, or a broad range of things that the committee can be partnered with to provide resources to complete.

State Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville) said the process appears to be locally driven. She asked if local members of the BRCC subcommittees will be given stronger voices when projects are being considered for funding.

Ward answered in the affirmative. The committee will look heavily to its subcommittees. The subcommittees will include locally elected officials such as county judges, mayors and legislators who are accountable to the public. They will also be expected to bring aboard other local leaders from both the public and private sectors.

There is a commitment from the committee to look heavily to the subcommittees, but for transparency, once the subcommittees establish their priorities there would be public hearings where they would be talked through with the BRCC, Ward said.

One thing Ward said he wanted to make clear is that the BRCC has no intent to use the governor's funds to purchase land or put agriculture operations out of business.

Buffalo River Watershed Alliance is a non profit 501(c)(3) organization

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