"At some point, they will try again. "
-- author Brian Thompson, on future threats to the Buffalo National River.
It's downright strange how hard it is to protect something that's basic to all life. If the early years to keep the Buffalo River undammed, and more recently, free of hog sewage, have proved anything it's that we humans have a screw loose. Probably ever since we stopped dragging our knuckles on the ground, there have been competing value systems about what resources to save and what to spend, but something as necessary as clean water really shouldn't be a battleground. Yet alas, it is.
"Battle for the Buffalo River," by Bentonville doctor, Neil Compton, was published in 1992. The first chapter, "The Coming of Concrete," set the stage of the decade-long struggle to prevent damming of the river by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That battle went all the way to the halls of Congress and on March 1, 1972, the effort resulted in Arkansas having the first designated National River in U.S. history.
In a second compilation of stories of how people have fought to protect and use this free-flowing river, author Brian Thompson has personally accounted the seven years of suspense it took to "Save the Buffalo River.....Again!!!" That also happens to the title of his book. His first chapter is titled "2012--The Permit," and from there unfolds a story of bureaucratic bumbling, blaming, buck-passing, big business, bank loans and bad behavior.
Most Arkansawyers know the general details of this latest story that began when a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) got a permit and built an industrial-scale farrowing operation holding 2,500 sows and 4,000 piglets. Barns and waste ponds were about 1,500 feet from Big Creek, which empties into the Buffalo River six miles from the hog farm site. That sounds far away until you think about approximately 2.5 million gallons of untreated liquid pig poop each year being applied as manure fertilizer on pastures in the region.
Suspiciously or incompetently, public notice of this planned CAFO had been almost invisible. Not even the National Park Service, charged with overseeing the national river, was notified. Permitting this enterprise on the side of a hill on top of thin soil, and allowing manure to be spread on fields underlain with Swiss cheese-like karst limestone, was not the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality's finest hour. (As it turned out, these would also not be their finest years.) With the discovery of this permit in 2012, the next river battle began.
In 2016 the river attracted 1.78 million visitors, spending $77.6 million in gateway communities to the park, and supported 1200 area jobs. But as the years ticked by and poop kept flowing downhill (imagine that), horrid algae blooms began to slither down 70 miles of Arkansas's crown jewel. The river was in jeopardy.
The science involving water tests, data gathering, soil analysis, ground penetrating radar, aerial photography, etc. had not moved the political needle. People had to do that.
The books I've mentioned are as much about people as about the river and contain all the tension, intrigue, and contrasting characters that any fictional novels might. They record stories of governors who stood firm (Orval Faubus in the damming battle), or ducked when he should have taken action (Mike Beebe), or stayed flummoxed far too long before standing up to the powerful Farm Bureau and leading the state to buying out the hog operation, which was finally closed (Asa Hutchinson).
Also in the cast were the well meaning hog farmers just trying to get ahead in life, the huge corporations with grease for political wheels, the treehuggers ridiculed as outsiders or shunned if they were insiders, the scientists who couldn't agree, good politicians and bad politicians, judges holding court, musicians fiddling for funds, writers writing (Mike Masterson did a masterful job), attorneys appealing, and endless meetings, hearings, letter writing, petitions, court dates, and fundraising events by some 40 grass roots organizations. The Buffalo River Watershed Alliance and the Ozark Society bound the efforts together into a coalition of people using what skills, talents, and time they had. Thompson tried to credit them all.
Gov. Hutchinson proposed a permanent moratorium on medium and large hog CAFO's in the Buffalo watershed, but the legislative council rejected it. Who knows why? Maybe they think pathogens are partisan. With a new governor and hog corporations wanting to locate in these hills and along our waterways, all bets are off about what will happen next.
These extraordinary books are available at: https://www.ozarksociety.net/store. Also, these documentaries are just great: https://www.firstriver.net/ and https://www.uapress.com/product/the-buffalo-flows/