by Max Brantley
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Mike Masterson today continued his laudable crusade against hog farming over the fractured earth of the Buffalo River watershed and recalled the work of his uncle, former Republican U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt to save the river from a dam.
This led me to musing about the White River Blueway, a feelgood, voluntary and probably more-words-than-substance federal initiative to encourage conservation of soil and water in the White River watershed. Supporters have been put to flight by the black helicopter crowd, with hysterical ranting about non-existent evidence of increased federal regulation.
My question: Could the Buffalo National River have been created today?
Not, you'd have to think, if Jeannie Burlsworth, state Sen. Missy Irvin, the Republicans in the Arkansas congressional delegation (Boozman, Griffin, Womack, Crawford, Cotton) and any of the other conspiracy theorists had anything to say about it.
Not only did the Buffalo legislation save a river, it DID require condemnation of private property and watershed controls. Next thing you know, somebody might say it's a bad idea to risk a flow of pig shit into those lovely waters. So far, the government of Arkansas hasn't tried to get in the way. Jeannie Burlsworth, her Secure Arkansas crank lobby, and Missy Irvin and most other Republican lawmakers should be pleased about this protection of private property rights, if not of a river enjoyed by tens of thousands.
ALSO: Hoyt Purvis, a journalism and international relations professor at the University of Arkansas with experience in Washington, sent me his column on the Buffalo River and it's worth reading for the important history.
The Buffalo: A River Worth Fighting For
By Hoyt Purvis
The establishment of a large-scale industrial hog farm in the Buffalo National River watershed has focused renewed attention on the river and its surroundings.— and should remind the public of what a treasure the Buffalo is.
This hog farm, a “concentrated animal feeding operation” or CAFO, can hold 6,500 swine. It is along the banks of Big Creek, less than six stream miles from where it meets the Buffalo.
The CAFO, which will supply Cargill, Inc., received permits although the permitting process appears to have been flawed, with minimal advance publicity. This project, far larger than other hog farms in the area, would involve 17 separate hog waste application fields and reportedly generate 3.5 million gallons of manure and wastewater annually. However, one of the owners said the idea that the Buffalo might be polluted is “ludicrous, it’s just crazy.”
Despite these assurances, however, there are obvious concerns, given the very special nature of the Buffalo, our first national river. The Buffalo received that designation in 1972. Why it received that status should be apparent to anyone who has ever experienced the Buffalo. How it happened is a rather complicated tale.
Like many others, I had my first exposure to the river as a teen-ager, traveling from eastern Arkansas with Boy Scouts for a canoe trip. I was dazzled by the scenic beauty and the pristine quality of the river. At the time, a portion of the river was a state park with some cabins constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
However, the Corps of Engineers had other ideas and by the early 1960s a battle for the future of the Buffalo was underway. The Corps planned to construct one or more dams on the river and create a reservoir lake. Arkansas has a number of lakes, including Beaver, Norfork, and Bull Shoals, which resulted from impoundments. Some in the region were enthusiastic about damming the Buffalo, believing a lake would bring economic and recreational benefit as had happened elsewhere.
But others saw that plan as threatening the distinctive quality of the Buffalo. A group of conservationists with special appreciation for the Buffalo formed the Ozark Society, led by Dr. Neil Compton of Bentonville, and opposed damming. A significant contribution was publication by the Ozark Society of “The Buffalo River Country,” by Kenneth L. Smith, with illustrations and stories of the wonders of the Buffalo.
In the 10-year battle that followed, many were involved and deserve credit for their roles in saving the Buffalo. There were three key components.
At the core were those in the area, centering around the Ozark Society, who knew the Buffalo well, and were persistently determined to see it protected.
Second were those in the media and some outside Arkansas who took up the cause. Most Arkansas newspapers, with the notable exception of the Marshall Mountain Wave, published in Buffalo country, opposed damming. Cartoonist George Fisher lampooned the Corps and dam supporters.
National magazines featured the Buffalo and several major newspapers favored a national river. Prominent individuals such as artist Thomas Hart Benton and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas joined the effort. After a 1962 canoe trip, Douglas called the Buffalo “a national treasure worth fighting to the death to preserve.”
In Arkansas and in Washington there were, however, some obstacles within the third vital group — elected officials. Gov. Orval Faubus remained neutral for years before he announced in 1965 opposition to damming. However, U.S. Rep. Jim Trimble, representing the district where the Buffalo is located, remained steadfast behind damming. Others in the Arkansas congressional delegation were reluctant to oppose Trimble. But, as early as 1961 Senator J. William Fulbright had favored making the Buffalo part of the National Parks Service, and helped arrange a study of the Buffalo by the NPS.
A turning point came in 1966 when Republican John Paul Hammerschmidt defeated Trimble, and in 1967 Fulbright and Sen. John McClellan introduced the first Buffalo National River legislation, although the bill failed to advance.
In 1968, as a member of Fulbright’s staff, I spent some time on the Buffalo and became more convinced than ever that the legislation was needed. In 1969, David Lambert, a colleague on Fulbright’s staff, and I were assigned to work on the legislative effort. The bill got Senate approval, and by then the NPS strongly supported it. The NPS study said the Buffalo deserved national attention not for a single quality but “an outstanding combination of qualities.” Hammerschmidt introduced a companion bill in the House, but it was not acted upon.
Again in 1971, with a new session of Congress, Fulbright and McClellan introduced a bill, as did Hammerschmidt . All the while, Arkansas supporters kept pushing the issue. This time it passed both Houses and in March 1972, President Nixon signed the legislation into law.
In 40-plus years as a National River it has become a major tourist destination with its spectacular scenery, water activities, hiking, camping, etc. I’ve just returned from a Buffalo visit and can testify once again to its special quality.
In view of this history, well told in a documentary film by Larry Foley, and considering what the Buffalo area has to offer, it is appropriate and unsurprising that many of us who love the Buffalo are distressed by the presence of the hog farm nearby.