I first floated northern Arkansas’s Buffalo River in July 1970. The Arkansas Gazette, the late, great newspaper, had recently run an enticing story on the river and the efforts to save it. The Corps of Engineers had ongoing plans to dam the river and turn it into a placid lake. Fortunately, there were also Arkansans who wanted to turn the river into a national park so as to permanently preserve its pristine quality: Sen. William Fulbright, Gov. Orval Faubus, Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt, Kenneth L. Smith (author of Buffalo River Country, published by the Ozark Society), and many others.
While its designation in 1972 as our first national river prevented the Buffalo’s immediate destruction, there is now a new threat to the future of the river. The Farm Service Agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved the loan guarantee for a factory farm near Big Creek, a major tributary to the Buffalo National River. The C&H Hog Farm will house 6500 swine and plans to spread their manure on a field next to Big Creek! Shockingly, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality also approved the project and issued a permit for the 630-acre installation.
The National Park Service, incredibly, was not consulted beforehand and has responded with 40 reservations to the Farm Service Agency’s environmental “study.” The Arkansas Department of Health has issued concerns that pathogens from the manure runoff will pollute the Buffalo River and threaten the health of swimmers. Mike Masterson, a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a paper not known for supporting environmental issues, has been on top of this story and has frequently written on what a bad idea this is.
There is still hope for the river. The Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, the Ozark Society, and the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) have joined forces to oppose the polluting project in court. They will be represented by Earthjustice and Earthrise, which have notified the USDA of their intent to sue. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a contributing member of Earthjustice and the NPCA.
This industrial waste threat to “my” river has brought back a flood of memories. Back in 1970, there weren’t nearly as many concessionaires near the river as there are now. So it wasn’t that easy to rent canoes and arrange car shuttles. I was determined to float the river while there was still time. I planned ahead by visiting Pruitt in the upper Buffalo region and Gilbert in the middle region. At Pruitt, I met Joe Harp, who had canoed the river with painter Thomas Hart Benton and lived in a small, rental cabin on a bluff above the river. He shuttled my car many a time. The Park Service eventually removed the cabins on the bluff, and I lost track of him. I met Harold Bing in the famous Gilbert General Store, and he agreed to help me out. The last time he shuttled for me was July 1990.
From 1968 to 1972, I coached the Lions Club’s AA baseball team (14 to 17 year-olds) at the El Dorado Boys Club in Arkansas. My third baseman, Tommy Doyle, went with me to the Buffalo my first three times in ’70 and ‘71. My catcher, Bryan Rogers, went with me during Easter vacation in April ’72. I was eager to celebrate the March 1 act of Congress that created the Buffalo National River. Bryan has returned to the river often and eventually floated the entire 150 miles of the river on one trip – something I’ve never done, having only floated 2-4 day stretches at a time, averaging 30 miles each.
On two other trips in ’71 and ’72, I took two of my team’s opponents: Tim Wright and Steve Risinger of the Lion Oilers team (Steve’s younger brother, Jack, came along as my bow man with me at the stern). Steve recently passed away, and I met Jack again at Young’s Funeral Home. Jack introduced me by saying, “This man had us sleeping on gravel bars!” He said that he and Steve had often talked about those adventures on the Buffalo. Steve told me a few years ago that those trips were the most memorable experiences of his life.
From 1970 to 1974, I began my teaching career in Helena-West Helena, AR, when it was a thriving city. Some of my high school American history students joined me on the Buffalo in ’73 and ’74 before the Park Service had a chance to get organized. Steve Mangum had seen Deliverance and accepted my invitation before I could get it out of my mouth. Little did he anticipate that the wild ride from Ponca to Pruitt in April would result in one of only two trips that my canoe overturned. Steve’s girlfriend, Betsy Brandon, accused me of trying to get him killed. The next year in April, Tom Conner went with me over the same route without mishap. Dan Lynch and I went in May ’74 on a trip from Mt. Hersey to Gilbert.
Since those early days, I’ve been back countless times. Most trips have been relaxing, therapeutic floats, but sometimes things can still go wrong. My oldest brother, Don, and his family joined me a couple of times. The second time, I rounded a bend in fast water and hit a fallen tree. My canoe stayed submerged all night. The next morning, I crawled out on the tree and sawed off the part that held the canoe. My brother picked it up down river. In July 1990, Ed Holicky, one of my students from Austin, TX, went with me from Mt. Hersey to Gilbert. Unfortunately, much of the water had gone into an underground spring between Woolum and White Bluff. We had to portage five times – from 10 to 40 yards each time!
On the river’s 25th anniversary, I was putting into the river at Mt. Hersey when two park employees drove up to collect the trash. One of them gave me a mesh trash bag commorating the occasion. I told them that I had been cleaning up this river for 27 years, but this was the first time anyone had given me anything to do it with. The other guy handed me a second bag. I still use those bags.
I always take a map of whichever stretch of the river I’m floating and tape it on top of the ice chest in front of me. I simply make photocopies of the excellent maps in Kenneth Smith’s book. I also make sure that anyone with me has a map so as to appreciate the river a little more. On one of my solo trips, I was again putting in at Mt. Hersey when I realized that I hadn’t brought my map. At that moment another solo canoeist paddled in from upriver. It turned out to be Fogle C. Clark, who had created the Buffalo National River Guide, a detailed, folded map of the river. He had an extra copy with him and gave it to me. How lucky can a guy get?
Future generations should expect to continue to enjoy the naturalness of this beautiful north Arkansas stream. But here we go again. Other than tourism, there is not much money to be had in that region, so it’s almost understandable why a local farmer would opt into a factory farm. He and his partners certainly do not plan to pollute the Buffalo River, but that will surely be the unintended consequence.
When it comes down to money or the environment, money will win out every time unless something is done. BP did not plan to pollute the Gulf of Mexico; Exxon-Mobil didn’t plan for its pipeline to rupture in Mayflower, AR. Financial gain is perceived as more important than the inevitable environmental disaster. It shouldn’t be necessary, but we are going to have to fight to save the Buffalo River – again!
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published in late May 2013 in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.