Buffalo River efforts touted
Groups honor governor for his work to protect waterway
by Joseph Flaherty
Representatives of four conservation and outdoors groups recognized Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday for his efforts to protect the Buffalo National River.
The Ozark Society, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance and the Arkansas Canoe Club presented the governor with a plaque during the Southeast Tourism Society's conference at the Marriott hotel in Little Rock.
At the beginning of last year, Hutchinson established three key goals aimed at protecting the Buffalo River, a popular 135-mile waterway in northern Arkansas that was incorporated into the National Park System in 1972 when Congress established it as the nation's first national river.
The goals were to buy out a large-scale hog farm that was operating within the river's watershed, to establish a permanent moratorium against large-scale animal-feeding operations within the watershed, and to create a public-private grant program to support improved water management practices for farmers.
"Because of your support and the support of the General Assembly, we accomplished all three," Hutchinson said Tuesday.
Chief among those goals was addressing the drawn-out battle between the owners of C&H Hog Farms and environmentalists who were concerned that the farm posed a threat to the river.
In 2012, Gov. Mike Beebe's administration issued a permit that allowed the farm to be located on Big Creek, about 6.6 miles from where it flows into the Buffalo River, and allowed it to house up to 6,503 hogs.
That led to a lengthy battle between the farm's owners and conservationists, who expressed concern about the possibility of manure -- applied as fertilizer -- running off the property and into the water, or about the possibility of a major storm event overfilling the ponds that held thousands of gallons of hog manure.
Research paid for by the state, conducted by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, has not concluded that C&H negatively affected water quality in Big Creek or the Buffalo River.
The state and the farm's owners agreed to a buyout that led to the farm's closure last month. The $6.2 million deal removed the hogs from the farm and transferred the property to the state as a conservation easement. The Nature Conservancy contributed $1 million to the state's payment to the farm's owners, on top of $3.7 million from the governor's rainy-day fund and $1.5 million from the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.
When the deal was announced last summer, Hutchinson also directed environmental regulators to make permanent a moratorium on large-scale animal-feeding operations within the watershed, which has been in place since 2014.
The proposed ban awaits final approval by legislative committees and the Arkansas Pollution, Control and Ecology Commission, which voted in the fall to extend a public comment period until Jan. 22.
Gordon Watkins of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, a group created specifically to oppose the hog farm's operation, said that while a permanent ban may still face opposition from farming interests in the Legislature, Hutchinson's support is significant.
"The fact that he's throwing his weight behind it should carry the day," Watkins said by telephone Tuesday. "We're hopeful of that."
Alice Andrews, conservation chair for the Ozark Society, also expressed support for a permanent ban on animal operations and for the establishment of the Buffalo River Conservation Committee, which was created by executive order in fall 2019.
"Natural scenic beauty matters," Andrews told Hutchinson before presenting him with the plaque Tuesday. "It's about the quality of life. It is our hope that your example will inspire leaders across the Southeastern region and beyond to protect their precious natural resources for future generations."
Metro on 02/12/2020