An upper portion of the Buffalo River with Big Bluff in the background. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)
A state panel on Tuesday rejected a proposal to create a recreation master plan for the Buffalo National River in favor of a project that aims to improve water quality through community engagement.
The Buffalo River Conservation Committee approved the disbursement of its remaining funds, $69,676, to support H2Ozarks’ proposal to hold landowner workshops and implement water quality monitoring in the Mill Creek sub-watershed.
H2Ozarks’ proposal was one of two water quality projects the panel asked submitters to refine after its September meeting. The second project came from the United States Geological Survey, which proposed a one-year seepage study of a Buffalo River tributary.
The committee also considered a new proposal Tuesday from the Office of Outdoor Recreation, a division of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. Office of Outdoor Recreation Director Katherine Andrews proposed granting the funds to communities surrounding the Buffalo National River corridor to hire a third-party firm to develop a recreation master plan of existing trail connectivity.
Andrews said the project would be community-led so community members would select the firm. Her office could help facilitate discussions and implement the finalized master plan, but Andrews said any trail connections recommended through the master plan would be completed by the communities themselves. Andrews noted there are several grant programs available that could help communities to fund trail connections.
The proposal prompted a number of questions, including one about how feasible it would be for communities to connect to existing trails in the federal land of the Buffalo National River, which is surrounded by a lot of private land.
Approximately 60% of the land within the Buffalo River Watershed is privately owned, according to the committee’s 2022 annual report. Federal ownership accounts for about 37% and 3% of the watershed is owned by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
One audience member said he was concerned that “if a master plan is developed, then the state will use that master plan against us in the future.” Another man said the proposal would “not be received as well as you think it will” due to ongoing controversy around a proposal to re-designate the federal lands along the Buffalo National River as a national park preserve.
A national river designation preserves free-flowing streams, protects the waterway from industrial uses, and allows for hiking, canoeing and hunting. A national park preserve loosens those restrictions, opens the door for potential mineral extraction and allows management to be transferred to local or state control.
The history of the Buffalo River Conservation Committee dates back to 2016 when then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson created the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee, which developed a voluntary watershed management plan. Hutchinson replaced the group three years later by establishing the Buffalo River Conservation Committee through executive order.
Following legislative approval in 2019, $1 million from the governor’s discretionary fund was transferred to an Arkansas Department of Agriculture account to support grants and projects within the Buffalo River Watershed. Private donors pledged an additional $1 million in support of the Buffalo River Watershed Enhancement Project.
In 2021, the Arkansas General Assembly passed Act 785 to codify the Buffalo River Conservation Committee into law. The legislation retained the secretaries of the Departments of Agriculture; Health; Energy and Environment; and Parks, Heritage and Tourism as committee members, and added two new ones — the county judges from Newton and Searcy counties.
Over the years, the committee has funded a variety of projects, including a city of Jasper wastewater treatment facility improvements, a U.S. Geological Survey water survey and feral hog eradication efforts.
Tuesday’s meeting included discussions about the need for continued funding to support projects like the three proposals presented to the committee.
Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, said she plans to file an appropriations bill in next year’s fiscal session, and hopes she’ll get support.
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