Buffalo River Watershed Alliance
$1M transfer for Buffalo National River watershed clears panel
by Michael R. Wickline
A committee of lawmakers Tuesday skipped making a recommendation to the Legislative Council on a request by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to transfer $1 million to the state Department of Agriculture to support grants and projects within the Buffalo National River watershed.
At the behest of Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, the council's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee forwarded the Republican governor's request to the Legislative Council without suggesting that the council approve or reject the transfer of so-called rainy-day funds.
This way, there will be more lawmakers on hand for further discussion during Friday's council meeting because the Legislative Council has more members, Rice said before the committee approved his motion in a voice vote.
In a letter dated Oct. 1 to the Legislative Council's co-chairmen, Hutchinson said these rainy-day funds "will be used to support grants and projects within the Buffalo River Watershed, including but not limited to the following -- voluntary best management practices for farmers and land owners, improvements to wastewater and septic systems for cities and counties within the watershed, and reduction of sediment runoff from unpaved roads within the watershed."
The newly formed Buffalo River Conservation Committee and its subcommittees will identify projects and distribute funds with the aim of improving water quality and promoting conservation practices, the governor wrote in his letter to the co-chairmen, Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, and Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage.
The Nature Conservancy and the Buffalo River Foundation also have collectively pledged $1 million toward the Buffalo River Conservation Committee.
Hutchinson's creation of the conservation committee last month is the latest endeavor from his office regarding the Buffalo River, which has been the subject of heated political debate in recent years on how best to protect it.
During Tuesday's meeting, Rice referred to the governor's letter and said that because of what happened in the C&H Hog Farms case, "we have got a lot of young ag people that are concerned about their future that they may become litigants in their livelihood simply doing what they know as the best practices."
In the C&H Hog Farms case, "this Legislature agreed to, and I supported, a buyout of a private business that had no violations, that technically had not done anything wrong," he said. Doing that has "raised concerns with a lot of people."
Rice asked state Budget Administrator Jake Bleed to elaborate on the funding request.
"This is an opportunity, we hope, for folks in the watershed to take advantage of the funding, which has been requested today to get ahead of some potential issues that might cause a water-quality problem later on down the road," Bleed said.
The intent of this program "is not to create litigation, obviously," he said. "It is not to create regulations. It is not to impose anything on anybody."
But Rice told Bleed, "You understand the reason for concerns throughout this process. It's not just one thing. It's the culmination of many things. I don't blame people being concerned about their future."
On June 21, the Legislative Council granted conditional authority to Bledsoe and Wardlaw to approve Hutchinson's request to use up to $6.2 million in state rainy-day funds to obtain a conservation easement to shut down the hog farm, which is in the Buffalo National River watershed.
But the council asked the co-chairmen to first be satisfied that the state has a first-lien position on the easement, meaning the state would be superior to any lien holder regarding the use of the land.
Hutchinson's assurances to Bledsoe and Wardlaw that his office is checking for any liens on the hog farm prompted the two to sign off on that funding request a few weeks later.
C&H Hog Farms will be paid at the closing of escrow when all its swine have been removed, and funds will be concurrently exchanged for a conservative easement, also held in escrow, said Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism spokeswoman Melissa Whitfield after Tuesday's meeting.
C&H Hog Farms will be paid $6.2 million, plus interest and less escrow expenses, probably no earlier than January 2020, she said. The funds include $3.7 million from the rainy-day fund, $1.5 million from the department and $1 million from the Nature Conservancy, Whitfield said.
During Tuesday's meeting, Rice also raised concerns about the state buying land from the Nature Conservancy. He cited two such purchases in Garland County -- one in recent months and one in 2018.
He said he questioned state forestry officials recently about a $1.4 million purchase of 420 acres from the Nature Conservancy in the Hot Springs area and "was told [the purchase is] totally different and it doesn't have anything to do with" the Buffalo River Watershed situation.
"The timing of it was a concern to me," he said.
The Forestry Division bought 360.83 acres within the Hot Springs Recharge Area in Garland County from the Nature Conservancy in May 2018 for $822,000, Department of Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward said. That purchase used funds from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, he said.
Ward said the department's Forestry Division is purchasing 408.44 acres within the same area in Garland County from the Nature Conservancy using funds from a U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Legacy grant.
The expected price is $1,459,180, he said.
Both items are associated with preserving the Hot Springs Recharge Area, he said.
"All properties acquired in the Hot Springs Recharge Area are voluntary purchases with willing buyers and willing sellers," Ward said in a written statement. "No funds used within the Hot Springs Recharge Area have been used within the Buffalo River Watershed."
Metro on 10/16/2019
Hog farm proposal garners support
But commenters note ban’s limits
by Emily Walkenhorst |
Hundreds of comments have poured in supporting a proposed permanent ban on federally classified medium or large hog farms in the Buffalo National River's watershed.
But a handful of comments expressed concerns that, during the process of state regulators editing existing rules to incorporate the ban, significant changes were made to aspects of state rules that had nothing to do with hog farms.
People had several weeks to submit comments on the proposed ban, with the comment period ending Sept. 23. By law, the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment, which proposed the ban, must read and respond to each comment before altering and/or passing along the proposal for legislative review.
Just more than 400 people submitted comments, with nearly all in favor of a ban.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reviewed the comments after obtaining them through a public-records request. Unlike in previous rule-making proposals, the department has not posted the comments online.
Many comments hit on the same themes: calling the C&H Hog Farms permit a mistake, arguing that the karst topography of the region is unsuitable for sizable hog farms, and/or supporting broader restrictions in the watershed. The suggested restrictions include prohibiting small hog farms, barring other types of concentrated animal-feeding operations, and preventing the transport of hog manure and spread of hog manure on land within the Buffalo River's watershed.
Most comments came from Arkansas, largely from the Northwest.
Only two comments opposed any ban. The Arkansas Farm Bureau contended that state regulators have "no scientific evidence showing animal agriculture is causing an environmental impact." The Farm Bureau said the department was letting "emotion" rather than "sound science" drive the regulation changes.
The Arkansas Pork Producers Association said the proposed regulation changes were a "slippery slope" to further action in the state's other watersheds for "extraordinary resource" waters. The proposal is precautionary, the comment states, adding that "Our state's pork producers have an excellent environmental record."
Several comments questioned why the proposed ban would be limited to hog farms while other animal farms can cause pollution concerns, as well. Poultry farming in Northwest Arkansas has long been blamed for excess nutrients in the Illinois River in Oklahoma.
Some comments questioned whether the proposal, as written, would actually prevent hog farms as large as C&H from being constructed in the watershed.
The White River Waterkeeper organization argued that hog farms exceeding the sizes of "medium" or "large" may still be allowed under the language of the proposal, which refers to farms meeting the definition of a concentrated animal-feeding operation.
Further, the comment states, the change to Regulation 5 refers to "confined animal feeding operations," and the change to Regulation 6 refers to "concentrated animal feeding operations." Those are two distinct technical terms meaning different things. The White River Waterkeeper asked whether that would unintentionally allow some farms to obtain permits despite the ban.
Farms are federally classified as small, medium or large. Medium hog farms are defined as having 750 or more swine of more than 55 pounds, or 3,000 or more swine of 55 pounds or less.
Hog farms often have combinations of the two weight classes of pigs. The proposed ban does not explain how to calculate whether a hog farm meets the size threshold if combining the two weight classes of pigs, the White River Waterkeeper contended.
The draft rules could be interpreted as allowing one less hog than the maximum for both weight classes -- 749 bigger hogs and 2,999 smaller hogs, Ross Noland, an attorney and the executive director of the Buffalo River Foundation, wrote in his comment. "This would comprise a major facility with more swine waste present than that which C&H produced."
Medium and large hog farms have been banned since 2014 but only on a temporary basis, pending the conclusion of the Big Creek Research and Extension Team's research on the effect of C&H Hog Farms on Big Creek and the Buffalo National River.
C&H is a large-scale hog farm that sits within the Buffalo National River's watershed. It has been the subject of yearslong environmental concerns and will close in the coming months after reaching a $6.2 million buyout agreement with the state in June.
After signing the buyout agreement with C&H owners, Gov. Asa Hutchinson asked state environmental regulators to petition to make the temporary ban permanent.
The final research report is expected in the coming weeks.
Not all comments were about the proposed ban on medium and large hog farms.
The proposal places the entirety of two regulations up for amendment. Those are Regulation 5, which governs liquid animal waste management systems that are not allowed to discharge waste, and Regulation 6, which governs federal wastewater permits that allow for discharge.
The department altered numerous provisions within Regulation 6. Some were superficial changes from "Regulation" to "Rule" or "Six" to "6," but some, commenters argued, appeared to change permit application requirements and review processes for facilities that aren't animal farms.
The Beaver Water District opposed several changes, including one that deletes the requirement to disinfect facilities "when necessary" to meet state water-quality standards and another that deletes the requirement to remove nutrients from domestic wastewater effluent "where appropriate." Another change, the group's letter to the department states, would remove many of the permitting requirements for stormwater discharges associated with small construction sites.
The American Fisheries Society and the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance both raised questions about a change allowing higher fecal coliform concentrations in wastewater discharges to extraordinary resource waters and to natural and scenic waterways.
Previously, no concentrations of 200 colonies per 100 milliliters of water were allowed in those waters. The department has proposed changing the limit to a "geometric mean" -- a type of average -- of 200 colonies per 100 milliliters of water, meaning a sample could exceed that concentration as long as the geometric mean remained below 200.
"Whether by averages or geometric means, the application of any mathematical formula should not be allowed to obscure dangerous peak readings when public health is of concern," the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance's comment reads. "Parents allow their children to swim in ERWs on the assumption that this designation means the water is safe for human contact."
The White River Waterkeeper noted that the change is an attempt to be consistent with a separate rule, Regulation 2. But, the organization wrote in its comment, the department has not explained whether the new or the previous language was originally intended. The previous language also listed a limit of an arithmetic mean of 200 colonies per 100 milliliters of water for other water bodies. Geometric means are always lower than arithmetic means, the White River Waterkeeper wrote.
The department issued an executive summary with its proposed changes but didn't mention any reasons for why it altered those specific elements of the regulation. For regulation chapters not accompanied with an explanation, the department's summary states that officials made clarifications, minor corrections and changes to make the regulation consistent with other statutes.
The department did not respond to a request from the Democrat-Gazette for comment on the changes.
A Section on 10/14/2019
BRENDA BLAGG: Unhogging the Buffalo
Governor sets farm-ridding plan in motion
The new Buffalo River Conservation Committee should soon be functional.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson recently announced creation of the panel, pledging $1 million from the governor's discretionary fund to match another $1 million promised from private, nonprofit organizations.
The panel will eventually be using the money to fund conservation and water quality grants within the Buffalo River watershed.
This is the latest step in a Hutchinson administration effort to preserve and protect the Buffalo, the nation's first national river.
The free-flowing river winds through rugged wilderness and beneath soaring bluffs in the Ozarks. It has been a treasured destination for generations.
Then came the hog farm controversy and the threat of pollution to the Buffalo and its tributaries.
Gov. Mike Beebe's administration granted C&H Hog Farms a permit for a large-scale concentrated swine feeding operation at Mount Judea in Newton County. The farm was allowed to have 2,500 sows and up to 4,000 piglets at the site adjacent to Big Creek, which flows into the Buffalo just 6.6 miles away from the feeding operation.
Beebe, reflecting on the matter as he was about to leave office in 2014, acknowledged regret about his administration's role in the controversy.
C&H started the feeding operation in 2013, after complying with then-existing state law to get the permit.
The Beebe administration did manage later to stop future concentrated animal feeding operations temporarily and set up monitoring systems to track water quality in the Buffalo.
But the controversy continued.
This year, it was Hutchinson's administration that found a way to end C&H's operation. The state negotiated a $6.2 million buyout. The money has come mostly from the state government, with something less than $1 million contributed by The Nature Conservancy.
The buyout was announced in June. The farm owners have since been getting the money to pay the balance on their multimillion-dollar loan and to compensate them for other closure-related costs. They're in the process of selling the hogs now. A site cleanup will follow.
Just this week, an engineering firm submitted a draft closure plan to the state regulators who hired them.
The Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment will take comments on the plan through Tuesday. The department will then decide whether to alter or finalize the plan.
Under the buyout agreement, C&H Hog Farms must be fully closed by early February.
On the administrative front, Hutchinson also named a Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee in 2016.
The group drafted a watershed management plan that this new Buffalo River Conservation Committee will use to choose projects to fund with the $2 million Hutchinson said it will have to spend.
The state money is contingent upon legislative review and approval, but that should be readily forthcoming.
The private money will come from the Nature Conservancy and the similarly private, nonprofit Buffalo River Foundation.
The new panel will be chaired by Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward. State secretaries (or their designees) from the Departments of Health; Energy and Environment; and Parks, Heritage and Tourism will fill out the panel.
The effect is to put key people inside state government on the front line, looking out for the best interests of the Buffalo and rewarding those actively safeguarding this treasure for future generations.
Commentary on 10/09/2019
Firm submits closure plans for Arkansas hog farm
State to review proposal to remove watershed waste
by Emily Walkenhorst
An engineering firm has submitted a draft closure plan for C&H Hog Farms to state environmental regulators.
The plan would prevent farm owners from placing any remaining hog manure on the ground in the Buffalo National River's watershed. C&H opponents have expressed concern for years about the use of manure as fertilizer in the watershed.
The land there is already "oversaturated" with manure and phosphorus from it, said Gordon Watkins, president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance. In high enough amounts, phosphorus can cause algae growth in surface waters.
Watkins said his group plans to submit comments on the closure plan but broadly feels comfortable with it.
"We'd like to see some efforts to continue monitoring around the storage ponds as well as Big Creek itself, to see if phosphorus could continue to leach out into Big Creek" or to spot evidence of ponds seeping," Watkins said.
C&H abuts on Big Creek about 6.6 miles from where the creek flows into the Buffalo. Owners did not respond to a request for comment, but research has not explicitly found that C&H has caused the algae increasingly found in the Buffalo River or to other pollution in waters near C&H.
The Big Creek Research and Extension Team at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture has been studying C&H, neighboring Big Creek and the Buffalo River for several years. That study ended in June, and the team is expected to release its final report soon.
[DOCUMENT: Read closure plan for hog farm » arkansasonline.com/107hogfarm]
C&H Hog Farms, which was permitted to house 6,503 swine, took a $6.2 million buyout from the state this summer after years of concerns were raised about such a large farm's potential impact on the river, which is the country's first "national" river. The farm must close by early February. Farmers have begun removing the pigs.
Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment spokesman Jacob Harper said in an email to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the next steps are washing down the facilities and closing the manure storage ponds.
The department hired Harbor Environmental to write the closure plan, which was completed Sept. 27. It consists of four pages and diagrams of how the manure holding ponds will be deconstructed.
Interested people have until 4:30 p.m. Oct. 15 to submit comments on the plan. After that, the department will decide whether the alter and/or finalize it.
The plan calls for removing at least six inches of the manure pond liners, in addition to the manure. That follows department policy.
In other states, including Oklahoma, regulators specifically prohibit removal of the pond lining, Watkins said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Association recommends maintaining pond liners when removing sludge.
Watkins cited a white paper done by researchers at five different universities and published by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The researchers caution against trying to remove the liner because of the risk of seepage into the ground. Liners should only be removed if they are damaged, they wrote.
After the manure is removed, the plan calls for demolishing the ponds by filling and grading them. Workers will then plant vegetation on the land to minimize erosion.
Metro on 10/07/2019
Harrison Daily Times
State Rep. Keith Slape has questions about watershed conservation grants
By JAMES L. WHITE email@example.com
State Rep. Keith Slape of Jasper said he is waiting for more information on a plan to offer conservation grants to property owners in the Buffalo National River watershed before he gets completely on board.
In September, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed an executive order establishing the Buffalo River Conservation Committee, or BRCC, and said $2 million in state and private funding would be made available for conservation and water quality grants within the watershed.
Half of that money would come from the governor’s discretionary, or “rainy day,” funds and the other half from two private entities, the Nature Conservancy and the Buffalo River Foundation. The plan would require legislative approval.
Slape said he had been talking to officials in the governor’s office, explaining that many of the people in his district are skeptical when they hear someone is from the government and they want to help.
He said the plan as it has been explained to him so far is for grants to help with controlling erosion on property in the watershed and similar measures. The state wants to appoint local officials without outside influence to help administer the plan with local control.
However, Slape said the rules for how the plan would actually work are being developed and will have to go through the Arkansas Legislative Council. He was asked if he saw any potential hiccups in the legislative approval process.
“Anytime the government’s involved in anything I see hiccups,” Slape said.
For instance, many rural quorum courts in 2005 adopted land use plans to prevent the government from seizing property or telling owners how they could use their property.
Slape said one of the questions legislators will want to know is if those land use plans have been studied to make sure there are no conflicts with any regulations that might come along with grant money.
Once he sees the actual plan, he said, his background as sheriff will help in investigating all the intricacies of potential requirements.
Slape said state Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward will be conducting meetings with property owners in the near future.
“They’re going to let me know when the meetings are set up,” he said. “I want it to be a very public meeting so people can see what’s going on.
“Plus, there’s going to be some serious questions asked at the ALC when it comes to rainy-day money. Is this something that the state’s going to come in and have conservatory deeds and easements?
“They assured me it would not be, but once I get to read the plans of how they’re going to do this, then I’ll know more about it,” Slape concluded.
Buffalo National River Discovery Center in old junior high?
By JAMES L. WHITE firstname.lastname@example.org
The old Harrison School junior high has been vacant for about two years now. Many people wonder what might become of it, but a group met last week to look at the possibility of using part of it for a Buffalo National River Discovery Center.
Dave Fitton, long-time Harrison resident and a former city council member, called the group together. That group included:
-Jack Stewart and Ellen Corley with the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance were present, although they were representing themselves as Newton County residents only.
-Layne Ragsdale, a former Harrison Regional Chamber of Commerce president and a member of the CORE downtown revitalization group that had years ago explored the possibility of a BNR center in Harrison.
-Tina Cole and Patty Methvin with the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District.
-Harrison School Superintendent Dr. Stewart Pratt.
-Current chamber president/CEO Bob Largent.
-BNR Superintendent Mark Foust.
-Arkansas Game and Fish Commission chairman Ken Reeves.
-North Arkansas College president Dr. Randy Esters.
-Harrison Mayor Jerry Jackson.
-Dave Morton with Equity Bank.
Fitton explained that the general idea behind the afternoon’s meeting was to discuss a way to not only promote the river as a destination for tourism, but to leverage that asset for Harrison and all other gateway communities in the area, especially Jasper, Marshall and Yellville. Other such communities include Big Flat, Pindall, St. Joe and Western Grove.
Although the river does not flow through Boone County, the concept is to take advantage of the traffic flow through Harrison to educate visitors and even local school students about the different aspects of the river.
A comparison was made between Harrison and Manhattan, Kansas, in that the latter town houses a discovery center dedicated to the Flint Hills even though the city isn’t technically in the Flint Hills. It does, however, have significant traffic and people learn about the Flint Hills and might visit the area.
Fitton displayed the floor plan of the old junior high and ways the building could be modified to accommodate a discovery center. It has almost 80,000 square feet in the main part of the school to the south of College Avenue.
The cost of the plan was questioned, including purchase of the building.
The property was recently appraised, but there had been no offers to buy it at the appraised price. The school district has been authorized to sell it for the highest possible price.
There was no indication what that price might be, but Fitton estimated it would require $2.5 million in start-up capital.
The group discussed possible grants and other financing sources from both public and private entities. Members also discussed the fact that community support will be key to making the proposal a reality.
Fitton told the Daily Times that there could be a public meeting scheduled in the future for more public input.
REX NELSON: Creating a natural state
by Rex Nelson
In a place that likes to refer to itself as the Natural State, I can think of no more important project right now than the quail restoration efforts that I outline in a story on the cover of today's Perspective section. That's because this program will benefit other types of birds that are in decline, along with pollinators such as honeybees and monarch butterflies.
Such initiatives are crucial to the future of American agriculture. And agriculture still represents the largest segment of the Arkansas economy.
The value of honeybee pollination to U.S. agriculture is estimated at $18.9 billion annually. About 75 percent of flowering plants rely on pollinators for reproduction. Ideal pollinator habitat must have native flowers with a variety of colors, shapes and heights that bloom throughout the growing season.
How do we get back there as a state?
"We just have to get people used to these controlled burns," wildlife biologist Austin Klais told me. "We also need to help them come to the realization that you can manage your land for wildlife and still make money off it."
As Michael Widner wrote in this newspaper two weeks ago: "While landscape changes after the Civil War helped quail numbers greatly, mechanized agriculture introduced about the era of World War II resulted in profound changes to land ownership patterns, field size and vegetation control using herbicides. Pasture grasses, land fertilization, commercial timber production methods and many other facets of forestry and farming were introduced. These changes parallel the decline in quail numbers because modern agricultural and forestry practices have destroyed most quail habitats."
If Arkansas is to be the Natural State--increasing the quality of life for current Arkansans while attracting new residents--three additional efforts must take place to complement the quail habitat restoration initiative:
• The first is a concerted push to make the Keep Arkansas Beautiful program the strongest entity of its type in the country. The Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission is a division of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism and is one of the state agencies that shares proceeds from Amendment 75 to the Arkansas Constitution.
The one percent that Keep Arkansas Beautiful receives from that one-eighth-of-a-cent sales tax provides an annual budget of almost $700,000. Keep Arkansas Beautiful is the certified state affiliate of Keep America Beautiful Inc.
Keep Arkansas Beautiful recruits people to join the Keep America Beautiful network as members of certified local affiliates. There are affiliates at Bryant, Camden, El Dorado, Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Little Rock, North Little Rock, Ozark, Sherwood, Van Buren, West Memphis and Pine Bluff. The number of affiliates needs to at least triple in the next year.
It's time for people across Arkansas to step up in this place of great natural beauty that's unfortunately where residents litter roadsides on a regular basis and use illegal dumps. I love my native state, but as someone who has been in all 75 counties the past two years, I can say this with certainty: We're a trashy place. Let's clean up Arkansas and give the hardworking folks at Keep Arkansas Beautiful some help.
• The second effort is a significant expansion of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission's Stream Team program. There are more than 90,000 miles of rivers, creeks and bayous in Arkansas. The state has lost thousands of miles of free-flowing streams to dams, industrial pollution and agricultural pollution. The quality of many smallmouth bass streams is declining at an alarming rate.
There has been an increased focus on stream quality in Arkansas in recent months due to the battle over the C&H Hog Farms in the Buffalo River watershed. During the administration of Gov. Mike Beebe, the state allowed C&H to house more than 6,500 swine on land along Big Creek, which flows into the Buffalo.
In June, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that state funds would be combined with funds from The Nature Conservancy for a $6.2 million buyout of C&H. Funds were transferred in August, and the farm's owners have started to sell their hogs.
"We still want to have a long-term effort to make sure the Buffalo River is pristine for generations to come," Hutchinson said.
Along those lines, it was announced last week that The Nature Conservancy and the Buffalo River Foundation have pledged $1 million for the newly formed Buffalo River Conservation Committee to give out for conservation projects. Hutchinson will add $1 million from his discretionary fund, pending legislative approval.
The current momentum must be seized. It's time to recruit additional Stream Team members who will adopt hundreds of streams across the state. These members are allowed to plan projects along streams with landowner approval and technical assistance from program sponsors.
Projects can include litter reduction, water quality monitoring, erosion control such as stream-side tree plantings, and more. Volunteers already have repaired hundreds of miles of eroding stream banks in the state, but that number should be in the thousands.
• The third thing that's needed is a massive expansion of projects that are replacing marginal farmland in the Arkansas Delta with hardwood trees. Two years ago, I accompanied Kyle Peterson, who at the time headed the Bentonville-based Walton Family Foundation, on a tour of Delta initiatives funded by the foundation. One program returns farmland to bottomland hardwood forests in conjunction with Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy and other organizations.
In the quarter-century since Congress created the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program, more than 700,000 acres have been protected in Delta regions of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. These programs allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service to compensate farmers for removing cropland from production and returning land to a natural state.
For decades, Delta farmers cleared and drained bottomland forests when soybean prices were high. Much of that land was marginal at best for row-crop agriculture.
In the words of James Cummins of Wildlife Mississippi: "You had millions of acres of bottomland hardwoods being pushed up. There were bulldozers running around the clock. They weren't even harvesting the timber because people were frantically trying to clear the land and plant it with soybeans. A lot of this low-lying land wasn't meant for farming."
The Walton Family Foundation has played a direct role in helping restore 75,000 acres. It would be wonderful to see that number quadrupled. From bike trails to education initiatives, the foundation has had a positive impact on Arkansas. But if Walton family members really want to see Arkansas thrive decades from now, the biggest bang for the buck will come from hardwood restoration.
One of the largest expanses of forested wetlands in the world was once the 24 million acres of hardwoods along the lower Mississippi River. Fewer than five million forested acres survive in the area once known as the Big Woods. The most extensive remaining tract of the Big Woods is the White River National Wildlife Refuge and the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge of Arkansas.
We're talking about planting trees on marginal cropland from the standpoint of farmers making a profit. It's past time to pick up the pace of Big Woods restoration.
NWA EDITORIAL: The money flows
Governor, nonprofits collaborate on Buffalo’s future
by NWA Democrat-Gazette
The astonishing thing, perhaps is that it took until 2019 for an Arkansas governor get around to creating a panel specifically interested in not just protecting the Buffalo National River, but actually devoting money to its future well-being.
Let's be clear (which is also the way we prefer our waterways, by the way) about one thing from the get-go: Arkansas has a lot of creeks, streams and rivers worth seeing and protecting. And, with a way of life that relies heavily on agriculture as an economic powerhouse, the state also faces serious challenges to ensure those activities thrive without doing damage to its natural beauty and diverse ecosystem.
What’s the point?
A state committee created by Gov. Asa Hutchinson can be a valuable collaborative effort in the protection and preservation of the nation’s first national river.
In recent years, many Arkansans have re-awakened to the necessity of protecting beloved waterways. The chief reason for that revival of concern is the controversial state-permitted operation of a large-scale commercial hog farm too close to the jewel of natural resource tourism, the Buffalo National River. C&H Hog Farms was permitted in 2013 to house more than 6,500 swine.
Ask whether that hog farm's operation was doing harm to the Buffalo and its tributaries and you'll get an argument from some folks. But earlier this year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson recognized a unique opportunity to rescue the 135-mile river from even the potential of degradation. Working with the Nature Conservancy -- an organization Arkansas is fortunate to have operating within its borders -- Hutchinson negotiated a $6.2 million buyout of C&H.
That deal recognized the need to compensate the family that invested in the hog farm. The owners, according to Hutchinson, have started the process of removing the hogs. As part of the deal, the land on which the hog farm operated will be given to the state as a conservation easement, limiting its future use.
State regulators are now going through a process to make permanent a ban on new medium- and large-scale hog farms in the Buffalo River watershed. Hutchinson has said he supports the ban around the Buffalo, which Congress in 1972 named as the United States' first national river. The river itself is under the management of the National Park Service, but its watershed is far, far bigger than what that agency controls.
While Hutchinson and any Arkansas governor who has any sense will and must support farmers and the state's agricultural economy, it also cannot and must not go unnoticed that tourism is also a massive economic driver. Just this week, state tourism officials released the numbers for 2018: More than 32 million visitors spent around $7.37 billion dollars, directly supporting nearly 68,000 jobs within the travel industry.
As far as the Buffalo National River, it accounts for well more than 1 million visitors a year. Many of those who don't live in Arkansas undoubtedly become ambassadors for the state in the aftermath of their journey. How could they not? A visit to the river, with its majestic bluffs, massive boulders and beautiful waters, can be described as anything from great outdoor fun to an almost spiritual experience.
Now comes news that Gov. Hutchinson is upping the ante on the Buffalo River. Early this week, he created the Buffalo River Conservation Committee. Now, establishing a committee isn't necessarily progress. After all, the first committee he created in 2016, the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee, is required to hold quarterly meetings but has only met once in 2019. But the new committee will get $1 million from the governor's discretionary fund, pending legislative approval, and has already received pledges totalling $1 million from the Nature Conservancy and the Buffalo River Foundation.
The combined effort will help allocate money toward conservation projects in the Buffalo River's watershed. The conservation committee will use a state and federally approved watershed management plan as its guide.
"We still want to have a long-term effort to make sure the Buffalo River is pristine for generations to come," he said.
Buffalo River project panel formsGovernor-made group to choose conservation endeavors
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, using executive powers, created a new state committee Monday that is to select conservation projects within the watershed of the Buffalo National River.
Private funds and a planned contribution from Hutchinson's discretionary funds will go toward the projects. The Nature Conservancy and the Buffalo River Foundation have collectively pledged $1 million toward the new Buffalo River Conservation Committee.
Buffalo River Foundation Executive Director Ross Noland said the funding from each nonprofit organization has not been determined. The groups will together fund conservation projects worth a total of $1 million, and their contributions would be figured once projects are approved, Noland said.
Hutchinson also intends to use $1 million from his discretionary fund toward the committee, pending legislative approval.
The new endeavor is the latest from the governor's office regarding the Buffalo River, which has been the subject of heated political debate in recent years on how best to protect it. The major issue has been the existence of C&H Hog Farms, which was permitted in 2013 under Gov. Mike Beebe's administration to house 6,503 swine on land that abuts Big Creek, 6.6 miles from where it runs into the Buffalo River.
Hutchinson announced a $6.2 million buyout of C&H in June, with most of the funds coming from the state and some money coming from The Nature Conservancy.
After being paid in August, the farm's owners have started to sell the hogs, Hutchinson said.
The announcement was met positively.
"Protecting this watershed is vital for the ability of Arkansans to enjoy this beautiful free-flowing resource," U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., said in a statement issued Monday.
The new Buffalo River Conservation Committee will provide grants for conservation projects using the river's state and federally approved watershed management plan as a guide.
Committee members include the secretaries or designees of the departments of agriculture; energy and environment; parks, heritage and tourism; and health.
The Nature Conservancy, the Buffalo River Foundation and the committee will ideally find ways to combine their unique missions on conservation projects, Noland said.
"That's when you make a difference," he said.
The Buffalo River Foundation is a private land trust and works on conservation easements and targeted land acquisitions. Easements limit the use of land. Its money would be limited to that mission, Noland said.
He said the foundation is glad to see emphasis from state government placed on protecting the Buffalo.
"The Nature Conservancy and many of our supporters appreciate Gov. Hutchinson's commitment to the Buffalo River," Scott Simon, director of The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas, said in a statement. "We are interested in being part of a collaborative effort that involves many stakeholders and landowners working together for the Buffalo."
The Buffalo River Conservation Committee is the second committee associated with the Buffalo River that Hutchinson has created as governor, with the first being the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee in 2016.
That committee is required to hold quarterly meetings but has met only once in 2019.
The Department of Energy and Environment said the action committee met in June and remains active.
Metro on 09/24/2019
Print Headline: Buffalo River project panel forms
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
September 23, 2019
Governor Hutchinson Announces Buffalo River
$2 million in state and private funds going to conservation
LITTLE ROCK –– Governor Asa Hutchinson signed Executive Order 19-14 today establishing the Buffalo River Conservation Committee (BRCC) and announced that $2 million in state and private funds will be allocated for conservation and water quality grants within the Buffalo River Watershed.
In 2016, at the direction of Governor Hutchinson, the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee (BBRAC) was organized to establish an Arkansas-led approach to identify and address potential issues of concern in the Buffalo River Watershed through the development of a non-regulatory, watershed-based management plan.
BRCC is the next step in the process, and members of the committee will utilize the watershed management plan to prioritize and fund projects in the most critical areas of the watershed.
“We want the protection and enhancement of water quality in the Buffalo River Watershed to continue as a state-led effort,” said Governor Hutchinson. “Now that the watershed management plan is in place, it is the right time to engage with stakeholders and landowners to start implementing projects that make a difference. The Buffalo National River is an irreplaceable resource, both for Arkansas and the nation. Protecting its quality and enhancing its value as a driver of economic development will require a unique cooperative effort. The Buffalo River Conservation Committee comprises the state departments with the most engagement in the watershed, and I am confident in their ability to connect with other engaged leaders to coordinate this effort.”
The State of Arkansas, pending legislative approval, will provide $1 million from the Governor’s discretionary funds to the grant programs, which will be aided by an additional $1 million from the Nature Conservancy and the Buffalo River Foundation.
The committee will be composed of the following Cabinet Secretaries or their designates:
BRCC shall establish subcommittees to lead various aspects of implementing the watershed management plan.
For the purpose of establishing subcommittees, the BRCC shall engage and include key stakeholders representing local landowners, conservation organizations, environmental and technical experts, representatives of the tourism industry, local county and municipal officials and federal partners as identified by the Committee.
All members of the BRCC shall work in cooperation with one another to identify opportunities to leverage their Department’s unique expertise, relationships, focus areas, and funding mechanisms in support of the vitality of the watershed.
There shall be an annual review of the Buffalo River Watershed Management Plan, with recommendations for updates of the plan and a report on successes during the year as identified by BRCC to be submitted to the Governor’s Office.
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