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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 protected]

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Fran Alexander is a Fayetteville resident with a longstanding interest in the environment and an opinion on almost anything else. Email her at [email protected] .

Fran Alexander is a Fayetteville resident with a longstanding interest in the environment and an opinion on almost anything else. Email her at [email protected]

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