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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

Print Headline: Unhogging the Buffalo

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