Our Arkansas neighbors learned an expensive lesson, and we hope Missouri was paying attention.
Now they are forging a better vision that we think might also offer us a way forward.
About seven years ago, Arkansas regulators quietly permitted a hog concentrated animal feeding operation on a major tributary of the upper Buffalo River in Arkansas — a river that has been protected for nearly a half century. Not even the National Park Service, which is responsible for managing America's first national river, was aware of what had happened until after the deal was done.
The result sparked outcry and pushback from all corners, and not just from the state of Arkansas but around the country as well, and this summer Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced an agreement to close down the hog farm, but at a high price. The state would pay $4.7 million while The Nature Conservancy kicked in $1.5 million to help out, in effect paying the hog farm's owners $6.2 million to shut down what the state should never have permitted in the first place.
That was the expensive lesson.
This fall, Arkansas officials also announced that $2 million in state and private funds (half from the state, the rest to come from that old Ozarks' ally, The Nature Conservancy and from the Buffalo River Foundation) will be allocated for conservation and water quality grants within the Buffalo's watershed. Last week, lawmakers gave final approval to transfer the state's share of the money to the fund, with it to be used to encourage best management practices for farmers and landowners in the watershed, for local wastewater system improvements and to reduce sediment runoff from unpaved roads near the river.
The governor, by the way, also has proposed making permanent a ban on medium- and large-scale hog farms in the Buffalo River watershed.
That is the better vision — a partnership to protect the river — perhaps with a new round of conservation efforts and a cooperative approach, with the state not getting in the way but rather leading the way.
“We want the protection and enhancement of water quality in the Buffalo River Watershed to continue as a state-led effort,” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in September. “Now that the watershed management plan is in place, it is the right time to engage with stakeholders and landowners to start implementing projects that make a difference. The Buffalo National River is an irreplaceable resource, both for Arkansas and the nation."
A 2018 National Park Service visitor spending effects report, by the way, estimated that 1.2 million visitors spent $54.9 million while visiting Buffalo National River last year.
A similar report found that 1.3 million visitors to Ozark National Scenic Riverways — Missouri's protected rivers managed by the National Park Service — had a net boost to the local economy of $60 million.
The message from latest Battle for the Buffalo is clear: Ozark residents want their rivers protected.
Lawmakers throughout both states would be wise to heed those lessons.