REX NELSON: Save the Buffalo

Posted: August 26, 2018 at 1:56 a.m.

Another school year has begun in Arkansas and surrounding states. Tourism in the Ozarks has slowed. I'm alone as I stand on the banks of the Buffalo River at Tyler Bend on a Wednesday afternoon. It's unseasonably cool for an August day, and storm clouds can be seen to the west.

I stay here for almost 30 minutes, watching the water flow gently to the east and thinking about what this stream, which was designated by Congress in 1972 as the nation's first national river, has come to mean to Arkansans.

In Arkansas--which refers to itself as the Natural State--the Buffalo, more than any other natural feature, now symbolizes who we are. It has, through all the battles to keep it pure, become a part of our very soul.

Here's how the National Park Service describes it in its literature: "It nestles in the Arkansas Ozark Plateau, which is bounded on the north, east and south by the Missouri, Mississippi and Arkansas rivers. Earliest maps called this the Buffaloe Fork of the White River, no doubt for the now extinct woodland bison. Originating high in the Boston Mountains, the Buffalo drops steadily to its confluence with the White, 151 miles to the east. The gradient is steeper and the water faster on the upper river, but the river levels out and slows down over its course. Long, quiet pools between rapids disguise its vertical fall.

"Side trips to hollows flanking the river dramatize this land's wildness and isolation. Some of the many prehistoric and historic cultural sites are 8,000 years old. There are village sites on river terraces, seasonal bluff shelters of prehistoric hunters and gatherers, and farmsteads of the Mississippian people who raised corn on floodplains or of ancestral Osage Indians who hunted along the Buffalo in historic times. Remains of early settlers' cabins abound. In Boxley Valley, you can see traditional farming. Other places--like Parker-Hickman Farmstead in Erbie, the 1920s Collier Homestead at Tyler Bend, and Rush Mining District and Civilian Conservation Corps structures at Buffalo Point--illustrate conspicuous events or the threads of Buffalo River history."

Before walking to the river, I had spent time at Tyler Bend Visitors' Center, refreshing my memories of the battle to save the Buffalo. It was just me and the park ranger at the desk in those 30 minutes prior to the 4:30 p.m. closing time. I looked at the bumper stickers on display--"Dam the Buffalo" and "Save the Buffalo."

I would read about those political battles in the Arkansas Gazette on a seemingly daily basis as a boy. On one side was the Buffalo River Improvement Association, led by James Tudor of Marshall. Its members felt that a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment on the river would bring economic development to a poor part of Arkansas. On the other side was the Ozark Society, which held its organizational meeting on the University of Arkansas campus at Fayetteville on May 24, 1962. Earlier that month, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas had taken a canoe trip down the river that attracted media attention. Neil Compton, a Bentonville physician, was elected the first Ozark Society president.

The congressman for Arkansas' 3rd District, James Trimble, sided with the Buffalo River Improvement Association. Public opinion turned through the years, and popular Gov. Orval Faubus announced in December 1965 that he opposed damming the Buffalo. In 1966, Republican John Paul Hammerschmidt defeated Trimble, a Democrat. Hammerschmidt came out in favor of a national park along the river. The state's two Democratic U.S. senators, J. William Fulbright and John L. McClellan, introduced park legislation in 1967. President Richard M. Nixon signed the legislation creating the Buffalo National River on March 1, 1972.

Now, 46 years later, the Buffalo is again imperiled. A tipping point came last month when the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality listed about 14 miles of the Buffalo as impaired. That listing was based on water samples that showed high E. coli levels in the river and about 15 miles of its Big Creek tributary. The flash point in recent years has been C&H Hog Farms, a facility where more than 6,500 hogs are raised along Big Creek, about six miles from where the creek runs into the Buffalo. The farm was established almost six years ago near Mount Judea in Newton County. I have friends on both sides of this issue. Some believe that waste runoff from the hog farm has polluted Big Creek and the Buffalo. Others believe the farm has been unfairly singled out by environmentalists.

In April 2017, the American Rivers advocacy group ranked the Buffalo as one of the country's 10 most endangered streams. Since the hog farm was established, there have been several significant algal bloom events in the river, including toxic blue-green algae this summer. I attended an event a couple of years ago at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute atop Petit Jean Mountain during which former Gov. Mike Beebe was asked to name his biggest regret during his eight years as governor. Without a second's hesitation, he replied: "I wish we had never approved that damn hog farm."

I believe in scientific studies. I also know something about the Arkansas psyche and what makes us tick as a people. Yes, the Buffalo defines us. It's time for Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the 135 members of the Arkansas Legislature to declare that it's unacceptable for parts of the Buffalo River to be impaired. Perhaps it's also time for the state to take the extraordinary step of admitting it made a mistake and then using surplus funds to purchase the hog farm, allowing the owners to recoup their investment.

Democrats and Republicans must come together, just as they did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the Natural State, history will not judge kindly those who fail to act at this moment of crisis.

It was Arkansas native Jimmy Driftwood who sang of the Buffalo as "Arkansas' gift to the nation, America's gift to the world." Once more, the time has come to save the Buffalo.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 08/26/2018