Buffalo River Watershed Alliance
Washington Post letter to the editor by BRWA co-founder Jack Stewart.
FRAN ALEXANDER: Call of the wilderness
Management must include protectinos for special forest area
by Fran Alexander | September 8, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.
Seeing the forest for the trees
Arkansas has a crown jewel, a unique place of quality that has no parallel. Oh sure, there are rivers elsewhere as there are forests and caves and cliffs and mountains, which are scattered hither and yon across the country. But “scattered” is the key word here. Once, much of our nation was covered in forests, rivers ran clean, prairie grasses fed herds of buffalo, wildlife had habitat, the air was fresh and you couldn’t hear a motor no matter how hard you tried.
Once, wilderness was more than a bit of mental imagination, instead filled with the actual reality of danger, adventure and discovery. Our country still has its natural wonder, but most of the grand landscapes are no longer contiguous. They are sliced and diced into parks, national forests, scenic rivers, etc., separated by cities and towns, farms and ranches, highways and byways.
Arkansas got lucky in the natural beauty lottery because within our borders is the first national river. By receiving that honor in 1972, the Buffalo National River was saved from a federal dam or dams to be built along its 135 mile length. Because Dr. Neil Compton and members of the Ozark Society and others worked for years for its protection, today it is one of very few undammed and free-flowing rivers in the lower 48 states.
Fast-forwarding across decades of change and heavy use of the river and its watershed brings us to the next huge battle to save the Buffalo, the existence of a hog CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) on a tributary of the river. Again Arkansas citizens had to come to the rescue, this time to save it from pollution, and after seven years and incalculable volunteer time, energy and money, the river is a lot safer, although still not as secure as it should be. Who’s minding its watershed?
The U.S. Forest Service develops forest management plans, and its Robert’s Gap project comprises almost 40,000 acres in the Ozark National Forest. The headwaters of the Buffalo, White and Kings Rivers start in this project area so water quality protection here is crucial. Part of this area includes the public land that touches the Buffalo River and almost surrounds the federally designated Upper Buffalo Wilderness, which accounts for only 6% of this forest’s total acreage.
Bordering the Upper Buffalo Wilderness are 3,000 acres with the potential of having that designation as well, if the land can sustain its wild characteristics. To that goal, both the Ozark Society and the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance are requesting that the Forest Service not build new roads nor do any of their planned timbering on these tracts so as not to destroy their chance for inclusion someday. In addition, the rugged and steep Edgemon Creek area and the Eagle Gap special interest area should be removed from timbering plans to protect their unique beauty and botanical richness.
Prescribed burning, herbicide use, timber thinning, road and trail changes and old growth “regeneration” (cutting) are just a few of the management issues. All of these can be harmful near wilderness, detrimental to water and air quality and can trigger soil erosion. Although some of these consequences heal in time, some do not. Herein lies the age-old tug-of-war between managing forests as a crop for timber production vs. practicing forestry encompassing the entire ecosystem.
Many who’ve long fought to protect the public’s forests oppose herbicide applications to target unwanted vegetation on thousands of acres. Chemicals like glyphosate (Roundup) are being banned in some countries because they might have carcinogenic effects. We need to apply this precautionary principle to any and all chemical use in our environment, not be lured into its clutches, succumbing to its charms of cheapness and convenience. Toxins pollute water, affect wells and can come in contact with farm animals, wildlife, and humans.
The Buffalo River Watershed Alliance is recommending that this entire timber management project in this ecologically sensitive forest should be subject to an environmental impact statement before work is done.
The Forest Service public comment deadline on the Robert’s Gap project is today, Sept. 8, so if you’d like to comment on how your national forest is managed, do it now. Tomorrow is too late.
You may email me for copies of the comments from two organizations. This link has the Forest Service information about plans and alternatives: https://www.fs.usda.gov/nfs/11558/www/nepa/108859_FSPLT3_5331371.pdf
And this email address is where you may submit comments no later than today (put “Robert’s Gap” in the subject line): email@example.com
Fran Alexander is a Fayetteville resident with a longstanding interest in the environment and an opinion on almost anything else. Email her at fran@deane-alexander. com .
Revisions to rule on pollution in limbo
At issue is U.S.’permit program
by Joseph Flaherty
The Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment has no proposed timeline for revising a regulation needed for the state to maintain control of a Clean Water Act pollution permitting program.
When Arkansas lawmakers in June rejected a proposal from the Energy and Environment Department to permanently ban medium and large hog farms from the Buffalo River watershed, they also inadvertently rejected proposed revisions to a state regulation related to the federal water permitting program known as the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.
The program regulates point sources of pollution into waters of the U.S. An entity wishing to discharge pollutants must obtain a permit under the program, either from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or a state with EPA-delegated authority to issue permits, such as Arkansas.
Now, the state Division of Environmental Quality will likely have to pursue the rule-making process again and bring the revised regulation back before the Legislature in order to stay in compliance with the federal permitting program, but it's unclear when that time-consuming process will take place, according to a Department of Energy and Environment spokesman.
"The Department is still evaluating the best path forward for adoption of the NPDES program revisions and permanency of the moratorium," Energy and Environment Department spokesman Jacob Harper wrote in an email to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Department Secretary Becky Keogh, who also serves as director of the Arkansas Division of Environmental Quality, previously told the Democrat-Gazette in July that officials are reviewing "the best path forward" for the proposed permanent moratorium, as well as for their obligations under the law.
The permanent moratorium on medium and large hog farms in the watershed had the support of Gov. Asa Hutchinson and conservation groups, but it faced opposition from the Arkansas Farm Bureau.
The state regulation governing the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program in Arkansas is known as Regulation 6 under the current legal framework. If the Energy and Environment Department's proposed revisions are approved sometime in the future, then the name will change from Regulation 6 to Rule 6.
The revisions to the state regulation, which the Legislature rejected earlier this summer, had incorporated changes in line with updated federal regulations.
With regard to potential consequences for failing to update the water permitting regulation in the state, Harper wrote, "While there is a range of potential consequences for failing to comply with NPDES requirements, the most severe would be the revocation of the delegated program to the State."
"At this time, the EPA has not raised the issue," he added.
It's unknown when the delegated authority to administer the permits would revert from Arkansas back to the federal government if changes are not made.
When asked about a deadline to make revisions, Harper wrote, "There is no known deadline."
"Both the Department of Energy and Environment and DEQ maintain a good working relationship with our federal partners," he continued. "We are committed to doing what is necessary to maintain and properly administer all [of] our state-delegated programs."
In an emailed statement Friday, an EPA spokesman from the agency's Region 6 in Dallas, which oversees Arkansas and other nearby states, said the Arkansas Division of Environmental Quality "is responsible for ensuring compliance with State and Federal requirements.”
"EPA defers to ADEQ concerning inquiries regarding the state's NPDES program and compliance," the EPA's Joseph Hubbard wrote. "EPA believes states are best suited to run their NPDES programs."
He did not respond to questions about whether the EPA has communicated with the Energy and Environment Department or other state authorities on the issue, and he did not mention the point in time when the EPA might consider revoking Arkansas' delegated authority to issue permits.
It's "highly unlikely" that the EPA would rush to take over the permitting authority in Arkansas, according to Walter Wright, a Little Rock environmental lawyer with the firm Mitchell, Williams, Selig, Gates and Woodyard.
Under this administration, "the feds, I assume, would give the state of Arkansas every break possible because the last thing they want to do is assume delegation of ... a state NPDES permitting program," Wright said in an interview Thursday. "They don't have the staffing or funding to take over that function."
Even if the EPA had those resources, he said, the federal government would be making "fairly sensitive calls" about certain discretionary matters related to pollutant discharges.
From an industry-efficiency standpoint, holders of permits support the state delegation of the program, not only because of local control but also because they can discuss issues with regulators who know the area, Wright said.
As of last year, all the states surrounding Arkansas had fully authorized programs, according to an EPA map listing the system status of the states.
Wright said he did not know of an exact timeline for when Arkansas would have to make the regulatory revisions to stay in compliance with the EPA, or risk losing the delegated permitting authority.
He suggested the state would be highly motivated to make the changes and said legislators who took issue with the Buffalo River permanent hog farm moratorium would "have absolutely no problem" with the updated rule.
"The state's always got the argument, 'Hey, do you want to deal with us or do you want to deal with the feds?'" Wright said.
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (Edited News Release/KY3) -
Noted conservationist and Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris announced the purchase of the former Dogpatch USA theme park property in Newton County, Ark.
Morris says in a statement to KY3, plans for the property remain in the early stages of exploration. He says any possible future development will be an extension of Morris’ signature experiences help families connect to nature and each other.
“We are very excited to have the opportunity to restore, preserve and share this crown jewel of Arkansas and the Ozarks so everyone can further enjoy the wonderful region we call home,” said Morris. “We’re going to take our time to restore the site, dream big and imagine the possibilities to help more families get back to nature through this historic and cherished place.”
The site is located near the legendary Buffalo National River, which flows through 135 miles of breathtaking natural scenery. One of the few remaining un-damned rivers in the lower 48 states, the Buffalo is the first river to receive special designation from the National Park Service. Dogpatch USA opened in 1967 as a theme park featuring a trout farm, horseback rides, and various amusement rides and attractions. During the height of its popularity in the late 60s, the destination attracted 300,000 annual visitors, but attendance gradually declined before closing in 1993. While there have been numerous owners, the site has been vacant for the past several years with many of the remaining structures in a dilapidated state.
The property’s next chapter will be an ode to the heritage of the Ozarks and the abundant wildlife and natural beauty found here. One top priority is restoration of the large natural spring and bringing back to life the renowned trout hatchery and many future fishing opportunities.
Hog farm strategies weighed
Agency studying ‘best path’ on ban
by Joseph Flaherty | July 15, 2020 at 3:26 a.m.
State environmental regulators are still weighing how to proceed with a proposed permanent ban on medium and large hog farms in the Buffalo River watershed, one month after the proposal was handed a resounding defeat in the Arkansas Legislature.
In an interview on Tuesday, Beck Keogh, secretary of the Energy and Environment Department, said that at this point, the department is evaluating "how that proposal can continue."
According to Keogh, officials are exploring options to determine what is required of the agency, as well as "the best path forward" regarding the permanent moratorium.
Last month, lawmakers on the Administration Rules Subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council expressed reservations about the potential chilling effects a permanent ban on industrial-scale hog farming in the prized northern Arkansas watershed might have on agriculture throughout the state, and they voted to effectively kill the proposal.
The full Legislative Council, which serves as the General Assembly's oversight body when it is out of session, affirmed the decision two days later on June 19.
The effort by state regulators to permanently ban hog farms in the Buffalo River watershed had the support of conservationists as well as Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican. But the Arkansas Farm Bureau had consistently opposed the measure.
C&H Hog Farms , a large confined animal-feeding operation on a tributary of the Buffalo River, closed in January as a result of a deal with the state. The closure followed years of controversy, as environmentalists raised concerns that hog waste stored on the property would foul water quality.
The proposed ban would have forever barred certain categories of medium and large hog farms from the watershed: those with 750 or more swine weighing 55 pounds or more, or with 3,000 or more swine weighing less than 55 pounds.
Keogh said the position held by regulators is that a temporary moratorium on hog farms remains in place and will stay in place until rules are modified to eliminate it.
A five-year ban on medium and large hog farms near the Buffalo River was previously approved by the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission in 2015. The temporary ban required environmental regulators to either make the ban permanent or abandon it after five years.
Keogh said her understanding is that as the director of the Division of Environmental Quality, she is required to take action on the hog farm measure five years after the effective date of the temporary ban, which would mean addressing the issue by September.
"That is the date we're looking at closely to make sure that we're in compliance with that rule-making," Keogh said.
Speaking to legislators last month as they considered the permanent ban, Keogh implied that if lawmakers rejected the measure, her agency would bring the proposal back using the rule-making process, if that was required.
On Tuesday, Keogh said there is still an open question as to what is required under the current regulations.
At the moment, she said, officials are still evaluating whether the agency must bring back the proposed permanent moratorium again in the fall, or if the Environmental Quality Department's efforts have already satisfied the requirement included in the 2015 temporary ban.
Asked why the agency does not know the next step at this time considering the proposed ban failed in the Legislature weeks ago, Keogh said she has asked her officials to evaluate it. She also emphasized that officials want to ensure the rule-making will be consistent with the law while respecting the General Assembly's role.
"We hope to have an answer very soon," she said, adding that she could not give a specific date when officials will know more.
"I think we can be assured that in this period of time, we still have a moratorium in place," Keogh said.
Keogh said officials involved with studying the issue include Shane Khoury, the Energy and Environment Department's chief counsel, as well as Pollution Control and Ecology Commission Administrative Law Judge Charles Moulton.
Complicating the Legislature's rejection of the permanent hog farm ban is the fact that by rejecting revisions to Rules Five and Six, which together made up the proposed permanent ban, the Legislature also rejected revisions to Rule Six related to a federal pollutant discharge permitting program.
Those rule changes included revisions needed to bring Arkansas in compliance with updated federal regulations governing pollutant discharge under the Clean Water Act, rules known as the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.
At some point, Arkansas will have to approve these revisions to put the state in conformity with requirements from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that allow the delegation of regulatory enforcement to the state, Keogh said.
For regulated entities that discharge pollution into water, permitting authority being held by the federal government versus the state is an important distinction, Keogh said.
She explained, "It's always been their preference, as well as the Legislature's preference, that Arkansas retain that delegation and implement the program at the local level," rather than have the EPA implement the program in lieu of state regulators, Keogh said.
Keogh said officials with the state agency's Office of Water Quality are monitoring the situation closely and are in communication with the EPA.
Despite the support of conservationists and the governor, lawmakers' recent rejection of the permanent hog farm ban appears to have sent the measure into a kind of limbo, at least until the Energy and Environment Department finalizes its strategy.
In an emailed statement provided by a spokeswoman on Tuesday, Khoury told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, "While the moratorium remains in place, we continue to evaluate what's required of additional rule-making regarding the moratorium and adoption of federal requirements in Rule 6."
After legislators on the Administrative Rules Subcommittee rejected the proposal, Hutchinson in a statement said the measure "is designed to protect for generations to come one of our most important national resources."
"The rule presented by the Pollution, Control & Ecology Commission was adopted after public comment and multiple hearings and reviews," Hutchinson said at the time. "It is my hope that the General Assembly will reconsider its initial decision and approve the rule."
OPINION: Guest writer
Stand for the river Factory farms and the Buffalo
by ROBERT MOORE SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
Arkansas finds itself faced with a neat conundrum: Whether to take up arms (figuratively) against a ruthless and ruinous tyranny, or to do nothing and allow one of our most precious treasures to remain vulnerable to the grasping, voracious, insatiable hunger of the giant corporation.
Our Legislature has voted to not make permanent the protection of the Buffalo National River watershed from the incursion of factory hog farms and their like, possibly leading to irreversible pollution and degradation of a local and national treasure.
One needs to place this consideration within its larger context, which is the unchecked power of corporations to damage and destroy the natural world in the name of profit and with the specious argument that what they do is "for the good of the people."
I begin by quoting Mr. Wendell Berry, acclaimed poet and essayist whose writings about the natural world have placed before us a moral code which arises from a balanced, bonded, deeply respectful and nuanced relationship with the earth. In "The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry," he speaks of the factory hog farm and its relationship with the natural world: "Like a strip mine, a hog factory exists in utter indifference to the landscape. Its purpose, as an animal factory, is to exclude from consideration both the nature of the place where it is and the nature of hogs. That it is a factory means that it could be in any place, and that the hog is a 'unit of production.' ... [T]he explicit purpose of the hog factory is to violate nature. ... But when you exclude compassion from agriculture, what have you done? Have you not removed something ultimately of the greatest practical worth?"
The factory hog farm which placed the Buffalo River in grave danger--and which is still endangered because of the Legislature's refusal to make permanent a ban on such agriculture within the Buffalo River drainage basin--was permitted by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality without geological, biological, or environmental study, without public debate, and without any consideration of its possible effects upon the Buffalo River; even the most cursory examination of the landscape in which this hog farm was placed would have revealed that it was to be built upon a geological karst formation, which is porous limestone perforated with holes, caves, and fissures which allow a free runoff and underground channeling of field waste into the surface and underground water table. Such runoff can and does travel for miles downstream, and eventually into the Buffalo River.
After little more than a year, it was already revealed that the enormous amount of hog feces sprayed across local fields, housed in large catchment basins, and aerated into the atmosphere had already impacted the river. Algae blooms of the kind which this waste produces were seen in the streams that feed the Buffalo River and in the river itself.
But Mr. Berry raises a much larger question here as well. It is a moral question about the presence of compassion in both the agriculture industry and in the regulatory bodies which provide regulations checking the influence and effect of large factory farms upon the natural environment.
Ultimately it is about the voters of Arkansas and the presence of compassion in them when it comes to protecting the Earth, and in our case, one of our most sacred and precious treasures: the Buffalo River.
Are we so blinded and hardened by our superficial political and ideological prejudices that we will allow our Legislature to continue to endanger and refuse to protect the long-term beauty and sanctity of its natural treasures? It appears that our political representatives have sold their souls to the highest bidder, whether the payment is in money or power or position. There is no lie bald-faced enough to make us believe this decision was made "for the good of the people."
Finally, I quote again Mr. Berry: "The hog factory attempts to be a totally rational, which is to say a totally economic, enterprise. It strips away from animal life and human work every purpose, every benefit too, that is not economic ... to be replaced by a totalitarian economy with its neat, logical concepts of world-as-factory and life-as-commodity."
A compassionate heart, a compassionate electorate, a body of voters whose love of nature and of the Buffalo River is great enough will not, must not, cannot allow others to rationalize about the "good-for-the-people" uses of such a farm, but will repudiate any such use of public land for the sole purpose of corporate profit.
My heart is in the river, and I am making a stand for her.
Dr. Robert Moore is emeritus professor of English at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.
MASTERSON ONLINE: Acting against our river
Proposal to ban hog farms near Buffalo River tossed out
Vote affirms panel rejection
by Michael R. Wickline
The Arkansas Legislative Council on Friday ditched proposed state rules that would permanently ban medium and large-scale hog farms from the Buffalo River watershed.
In a voice vote with no discussion and a few lawmakers audibly dissenting, the council accepted the recommendation of its Administration Rules Subcommittee not to approve revisions to Rules Five and Six proposed by the state Division of Environmental Quality.
C&H Hog Farms closed in January after the state, under Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, negotiated a multimillion-dollar buyout deal to get a conservation easement to limit the uses of the land where that large hog farm was.
In 2012, the hog farm obtained a permit under the administration of then-Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, to house up to 6,503 hogs on Big Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo River. Conservationists, fearing underground contamination from hog waste, fought for years to close C&H Hog Farms.
The proposed moratorium has been backed by Hutchinson, who said he was directing Becky Keogh, secretary of the Department of Energy and Environment, and environmental regulators to make the moratorium permanent when he announced the buyout deal.
Hutchinson said Friday in a written statement, "The rules banning medium and large hog farms in the Buffalo River watershed have been adopted by the [Pollution Control and Ecology Commission], which is the commission charged by the General Assembly with the responsibility of adopting rules to protect both our farm land and our natural heritage.
"The Commission worked hard on this rule and heard from thousands of Arkansans before it unanimously passed the rules that are limited to the Buffalo River area."
"It is disappointing that the General Assembly failed to approve these rules. We are looking at what action to take next to assure that the Buffalo River is protected and healthy for the next generation," he said.
The second-term governor was asked by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette why he thought the rules were rejected, if it shows the sway of the Farm Bureau and if it shows it will be harder for him to get proposals through the Legislature. His spokeswoman, Katie Beck, said, "That question can only be answered by the members" of the Arkansas Legislative Council.
Asked if the Legislative Council's decision reflects that the Arkansas Farm Bureau has more sway than conservationists with lawmakers, Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, said in an interview, "I don't think Farm Bureau played the role that I think some did.
"I got an email or two and I answered one back. I butt heads with the Farm Bureau all the time and we just happened to be on the same wavelength on this one. ... I think there is close to a zero chance of there ever being a medium or large hog farm up there.
"There is a much larger chance that this would have a detrimental impact to other places across the state," Rice said. He also said that while he heard that Buffalo River interests "didn't have any intention to push it into other areas, there are others that do," he said.
Keogh told lawmakers Wednesday that the proposed permanent ban would maintain protections for the Buffalo River and allow current farming opportunities.
Asked about the Farm Bureau's influence in the council rejecting the proposed rules, a council co-chairman, Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, said Friday, "To me, it was just a practical matter because ... the state is a watershed.
"We got emails the week before saying that North Fork [River] and White River would like to be added into the moratorium, so before it was ever approved, we were already seeing additional watersheds wanting to add it," he said.
"The reason for [rejecting the rules] is with our chicken industry, and hog industry around the state and turkeys and all the CAFOs [concentrated animal feeding operations] that we have, the last thing we want to do to shut our state down to those industries, so that ... behind the legislative intent of not doing a moratorium," Wardlaw said.
But Rep. David Whitaker, D-Fayetteville, said, "There seems to be a kind of a push-and-pull struggle between the governor's office and the Senate these days.
"I think this whole thing occurs against that backdrop," he said.
Whitaker said he voted against rejecting the proposed rules because he has been a strong proponent of the moratorium since day one.
"We can raise hogs all across Arkansas, but we only have one Buffalo River," he said.
In 2014, the Pollution Control and Ecology Commission placed a temporary ban on new medium and large-scale hog farms within the Buffalo River watershed after an outcry from environmentalists because of C&H.
The temporarily moratorium was repeatedly extended, including the five-year extension granted in 2015.
Steve Eddington, a spokesman or the Arkansas Farm Bureau, said Friday, "We appreciate members of the General Assembly understanding that the moratorium on farming in a particular watershed sets an alarming precedent that tramples on landowner rights.
"We have said all along that there's a way to balance environmental issues and agricultural stewardship without additional governmental regulations," he said.
Panel rejects banning hog farms on BuffaloLawmakers cite fears of future effects
A panel of Arkansas lawmakers on Wednesday rejected proposed rules that would permanently ban medium- and large-scale hog farms from the Buffalo River watershed, dealing a setback to conservationists who have pushed for the measure.
Members of the Legislative Council's Administrative Rules Subcommittee voted not to approve the proposed revisions to Rules Five and Six presented to lawmakers by the Arkansas Division of Environmental Quality.
Lawmakers expressed concerns that the moratorium would create what Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, called "a chilling effect" on agriculture in Arkansas, and raised the idea that similar measures could be enacted to encompass other watersheds within the state.
"It's not that we don't want the clean water. It's just the outcome of this is going to be detrimental to the next generation," Rice said. "And they're already under such a strain right now, you're going to have some young farmers throw up their hands and go do something else."
From his perspective, Rice said, there is concern among members of the public about a lack of due process with regard to the permanent moratorium.
In her opening remarks before lawmakers, made by videoconference, Becky Keogh, the Department of Energy and Environment secretary, stressed that the proposed permanent ban maintains protections for the Buffalo River and allows current farming opportunities to continue.
Conservationists in Arkansas fought for years to close C&H Hog Farms, an operation near the Buffalo River, over fears of possible water contamination there. The hog farm was finally shuttered in January.
C&H Hog Farms first obtained a permit under the administration of former Gov. Mike Beebe to house up to 6,503 hogs on Big Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo River.
Environmental advocates said the farming operation posed a threat to water quality in the Buffalo River watershed because of hog feces applied to fields as manure and additional hog waste held in lagoons.
A popular tourist destination and natural heritage site for Arkansas, 135 miles of the Buffalo River became a national park when Congress designated the waterway as the nation's first "national river" in 1972.
In 2014, the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission placed a temporary ban on new medium- and large-scale hog farms within the watershed after an outcry from environmentalists because of C&H Hog Farms. The temporary moratorium was extended repeatedly, including a five-year extension granted in 2015.
C&H Hog Farms closed in January after the state under Gov. Asa Hutchinson negotiated a multimillion-dollar buyout deal last year to obtain the hog farm's land as a conservation easement.
The proposed permanent moratorium had the backing of Hutchinson, who said he was directing Keogh and environmental regulators to make the moratorium permanent when he announced the buyout deal with C&H Hog Farms last summer.
"The permanent moratorium for large and medium sized confined animal feeding operations in the Buffalo River Watershed is designed to protect for generations to come one of our most important national resources, " Hutchinson said Wednesday in an emailed statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
"The rule presented by the Pollution, Control & Ecology Commission was adopted after public comment and multiple hearings and reviews," the statement continued. "It is my hope that the General Assembly will reconsider its initial decision and approve the rule."
During Wednesday's meeting, Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, highlighted what she described as a lack of infrastructure at the Buffalo River, such as poorly maintained, unpaved roads for the booming tourism. She said the state is "reaping the consequences."
Although Irvin acknowledged the hog farm's permit never should never have been granted, she said there is other work to be done to fix the situation at the Buffalo National River.
"This is not the problem," she said.
"If I believed in my heart that this was the mitigating factor, then I would absolutely vote for this, but I don't believe that because I've experienced it, I've lived it, I know it, and I see what's happening," she continued.
In some ways, the decision on whether to make the moratorium permanent is about the future of the watershed instead of any existing hog farm. There are no medium- or large-scale hog farms with permits to operate in the watershed at the moment, a fact Shane Khoury, chief counsel for the Department of Energy and Environment, explained to legislators.
The moratorium would prohibit confined animal-feeding operations with 750 or more swine weighing 55 pounds or more, or operations with 3,000 or more swine weighing less than 55 pounds.
Environmental advocates with the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance and the Ozark Society had pushed for the permanent ban.
"I have to say, I was really disappointed that that committee can't see how the Buffalo River is unique in this state," said Gordon Watkins, president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, in an interview Wednesday afternoon after the meeting.
Lawmakers want to argue the "slippery slope," Watkins said. "'What river is going to be next? Pretty soon it's going to be every river in the state.' And that's just not the case."
The Arkansas Farm Bureau has consistently opposed the permanent moratorium, often with objections similar to what legislators expressed Wednesday and with an eye on the potential broad impact on agriculture around the state.
"Although a lot of the conversation was on C&H Hog [Farms], it really wasn't about C&H, it was about this moratorium in the watershed," Jeff Pitchford, director of state affairs for the Farm Bureau, said in an interview Wednesday after lawmakers voted.
"Our concern from our members and farmers across the state is, 'Well then, which watershed is next?'" Pitchford said.
When asked about the extent of the Farm Bureau's outreach to legislators urging them to vote no, Pitchford said members reached out, but noted that subcommittee members seemed to have made up their minds.
Lawmakers "agreed with our viewpoint, and really some common sense on what this would mean for agriculture across the state," Pitchford said. "The need for a moratorium in the Buffalo River is just not there, and I think you saw that with today's committee meeting."
In a sign that lawmakers were uncomfortable with the permanent ban on hog farms, members of the House and Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor committees declined to review the measures comprising the ban during meetings last week. The Pollution Control and Ecology Commission had approved the permanent ban during a May 28 meeting.
While Wednesday's decision is a blow to conservationists, there are limited avenues whereby the permanent ban could gain legislative approval.
According to Marty Garrity, director of the Bureau of Legislative Research, the Legislative Council could vote to overturn the recommendation of the subcommittee. The full Legislative Council is scheduled to meet Friday, and lawmakers could adopt recommendations from the Rules Subcommittee, including the recommendation to deny the permanent ban.
Another question is whether lawmakers will be confronted with a decision on the same proposed hog-farm moratorium again in the near future.
During Wednesday's meeting, officials from the Department of Energy and Environment acknowledged that if the permanent moratorium is not approved, the moratorium may have to go through the rule-making process again in the fall because of the parameters of the temporary five-year ban.
When the Pollution Control and Ecology Commission in 2015 enacted the five-year moratorium, at the end of that period, the director of the Environmental Quality Department was required to either move to make the moratorium permanent or lift it by September 2020.
Keogh said Wednesday that her intent was to leave the moratorium in place, not delete it.
"We don't enjoy the opportunity to bring it back in September," Keogh told lawmakers. "If it's required, I will do that."
In a nod to lawmakers' concerns, Keogh said she understands rule-making can have unintended consequences.
Nevertheless, regulators are trying "to strike that balance and keep it very targeted to Arkansas as a result of this particularly exceptional watershed and river that we are fortunate to have in Arkansas, but also obligated to protect," Keogh said.
Watkins said advocates want the moratorium memorialized in regulations so that as years go by and administrations change, the Buffalo River will continue to be protected.
"They thought in 1972 that the Buffalo River was protected and that it was a done deal, and we turned around and all of a sudden we got a hog farm in the backyard," Watkins said.
Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Buffalo River Watershed Alliance is a non profit 501(c)(3) organization
Copyright @ 2019