The first of a series of meetings is scheduled Thursday for the public to share their input with a state-hired private consultant that is developing a management plan for the Buffalo River watershed.
Earlier this year Gov. Asa Hutchinson created the “Beautiful Buffalo River Watershed Action Committee” to address environmental and conservation concerns in the 878,000 acre area of north Arkansas. The committee hired FTN Associates to draw up a management plan. Thursday morning in the town of Marshall in Searcy County, FTN will take comments from interested citizens.
Arkansas Natural Resources Commission Executive Director Bruce Holland says the action committee will eventually use FTN’s management plan as a decision-making tool.
“They might determine that feral hogs in that area may be causing a lot of erosion on stream banks. And they might as a result of the plan, when that’s identified and they can see and measure what kind of destruction is going on up there, then maybe that could be an action that could be acted upon by the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee, when we get the final report,” he says.
Holland co-chairs the committee with Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality Director Becky Keogh. The committee is also made up of representatives from the Arkansas Agriculture Department, Arkansas Parks and Tourism Department, and Arkansas Department of Health. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the state Geographic Information Office are also serving as partners.
Holland said about 17,000 people live in the Buffalo River Watershed. Thousands of tourists also enjoy the river every year. Environmental concerns have arisen that waste from nearby C&H Hog Farms, a 6,500 swine feeding operation in Newton County, might be polluting the the national river.
Holland lists off various parties who might be interested in attending the meetings: “People who live in the watershed, who farm in the watershed, who operate guide services, canoe rentals, people who own property such as the Nature Conservancy, county judges, mayors.”
He emphasizes that any policy proposals developed by FTN and the committee would be non-regulatory, or voluntary on the part those they could affect.
“For example the tourists, we know that they’re contributing nutrients to the Buffalo River,” Holland says. “Quite possibly [the management plan] might say there’s a need for, say, a few restrooms along the Buffalo River where it’s floated so much. So if that were to be the case, that might be an action that the action committee can take to look at that with the park service and with [Department of] Parks and Tourism.”
The National Park Service has jurisdiction over about 40 percent of the watershed land, Holland says. He says among Arkansas’s 59 watersheds, only about eight to 10 have management plans. He says management plans typically take 12 to 18 months to develop.
Once FTN completes the management plan, Holland says the committee can adopt its recommendations and use grant money from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to implement voluntary conservation programs in the region. At the September announcement of the creation of the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee, Gov. Hutchinson said the group would have access to $107,000 in grant money.
Republican State Rep. David Branscum of Marshall, who represents some of the area under consideration, says his constituents have been pretty silent on what they think about the upcoming management plan and the watershed committee.
“I’ve not heard anything,” he says. “I think the reason I haven’t heard a lot is because nobody really knows what we’re dealing with here.”
But Branscum thinks the creation of the committee is a “positive development.”
“Since this is kind of a first of its thing...we’ll kind of have to sort of wait and see how it works out,” he says.
The meeting with FTN Associates is set for 9:30am at the Searcy County Civic Center Gym (515 Zack Rd.) in Marshall. A press release from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality says the meeting is likely to last two hours.
Holland says he thinks the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee will begin meeting in January.