Once upon a time in Arkansas there lived a political cartoonist named George Fisher. Proposals by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for damming (thereby damning) the Buffalo River secured a special place in Fisher's heart for the Corps. He depicted the engineers as mustached little men wearing pith helmets adorned adorned on front with the motto, "Keep Busy."
If he were still with us, the cartoonist would probably use that motto with the U.S. Forest Service, too. Their outrageous approval of a forest management plan for the Robert's Gap Project in the Ozark-St. Francis National Forests has now brought the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance back into another fray to protect the river. This time these citizens have filed a federal lawsuit alleging violations of the National Environmental Policy Act.
Those of us who don't live near the national forests assume the Forest Service knows best how to manage our country's greatest natural resource because we romantically gloss over the motives behind many of their decisions. Most people already have too much to say grace over, so they're rarely inclined to question a "finding of no significant impact" decision by the Forest Service in evaluating plans they wrote. The numbers alone should perk up our skepticism, however.
As outlined clearly in Mike Masterson's detailed column on March 11, "The controversial project involves about 11,000 acres of logging/thinning, 11,000 acres of prescribed burning, 70 miles of road construction for timber trucks, 29 miles of bulldozed fire beaks, and 3,000 acres of herbicide application."
In the old days, the Forest Service touted the "multiple use" management doctrine of recreation, range, timber, watershed, fish and wildlife. The devil is in the details, however, and the devil has often had his thumb on the side of the scales weighing commercial timber. Much of what guides management of public lands now is in response to recreational vehicle and commercial industries' wishes and uses.
Mixed uses of national forests seem to not prioritize ecosystem protection in their vast management plans. Yet, an ecosystem actually is the starting point for healthy forests, water quality and supply, diverse wildlife, etc. You simply cannot build roads, soak vegetation with herbicides, or even burn some areas without significant impact. These practices lead to a scorched, poisoned earth where the little things in the soil and groundcover that make soil work (bacteria, fungi, microorganisms, etc.) are killed. Without a thorough inventory of what lives in and on the land, it is not possible to adequately evaluate the impact of timber practices on the overall forest system.
Some of us comprehend that water runs downhill. Robert's Gap is a 40,000-acre track of land in the headwaters of the Buffalo River and the Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area is adjacent to this tract. Also the White River, King's River, Mulberry River and War Eagle Creek all originate in this area, and what goes into their water is carried to everyone downstream.
What the Forest Service seems to be missing is the key to what makes the chemistry of land and water work. All the parts of ecosystems need to function together. I asked Kent Bonar (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6-S1VCUEus), a naturalist who probably knows more about the plants and critters in the Ozarks than anyone living or dead, which keystone species in these woods he thinks might be a major link to all the others. He thought perhaps it is a little bird, the cedar waxwing, that eats wild cherries, eastern red cedar berries, serviceberries, blackberries, pears, plums, and other soft mast fruits and distributes their seeds across the landscape. The resulting trees and shrubs feed insects and animals up and down the food chain. If a keystone species or its habitat is removed from an ecosystem, the survival of many other species that depend on its influence becomes precarious or is lost.
Converting forests from native species specific to a region to even-aged trees of a single species, generally after old woods have been clear-cut, completely disrupts or destroys original habitats of diverse plants and animals. Such tree plantations make it easier to cut and run a crop to saw mills, but this practice is industrial tree farming, not forestry. Also, animal species that utilize old growth trees, which are usually in the crosshairs of timber harvesters, lose habitat to the sterility of a one species tree crop.
The Buffalo River Watershed Alliance is once again defending the public's precious rivers and watersheds. Lawsuits aren't cheap. Hopefully, we all will fight this fight -- again.