Posted by: David Offutt | April 30, 2018

Earth Day 2018: The Buffalo National River – An Update on Its Current Threat


David Offutt with a 1978 B-210 Datsun Hatchback and Old Town canoe (June 1995) : After 350,000 miles taking me to 48 states and 2 annual floats on the Buffalo, I finally had to retire this Datsun and replace it with a black Nissan pickup.

USA Today recently did a poll whereby participants could vote on-line for their favorite tourist sites in each of our fifty states. In my home state of Arkansas, the clear winner was the Buffalo National River, beating out such worthy options as Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, Hot Springs National Park, and others.

The Buffalo flows freely 135 miles eastward from its headwaters near Ponca, Ark., until it flows into the much-larger and colder White River. People who live near the river often call it a creek or a stream. After the spring rains subside, the upper 20-30 miles is too low to float. By mid-summer, even the middle third can be iffy. That’s my favorite part of the river – from the Mount Hershey canoe put-in and take-out to Gilbert, Ark. On one occasion my companion and I had to portage five times along that stretch. The lower thirty miles is floatable year round.

Tommy Doyle, 15, (July 1970) on the stretch of the Buffalo river between Gilbert and the state park.

I began floating the Buffalo in the summer of 1970 after I learned that there was an effort to build a dam on the river to provide electric power and to create a placid lake. Since it was one of the last free-flowing rivers in the lower 48 states, I wanted to float it while there was still time. That summer I was in my third of five years as a volunteer baseball coach at the El Dorado Boys Club.  When I learned that my 15-year-old third baseman, Tommy Doyle, was an experienced camping enthusiast, I invited him to join me.

The experience was somewhat addictive. We made a pretty good team on three separate floats: July 1970 from Gilbert to the state park; August 1970 from the state park to the White River; and July 1971 from Pruitt to Mount Hershey. In 1972, the Buffalo National River was created, the National Park Service took over its management, and the proposed dam was forgotten.

I continued taking about two annual canoe trips on that river until only a few years ago. My 15-foot aluminum canoe got so many holes in it that I finally sold it for scrap and replaced it with a 17-foot Old Town canoe that just glides over the rocks. It’s now on a rack in my back yard, longing to get back in the water. My tricky and sometimes painful right shoulder and right hip, unfortunately, make the chances of that to be remote.

Tommy Doyle, 15, (August 1970) on the lower stretch of the Buffalo between the state park and the White River.

Tommy Doyle was also influenced by the Buff, as he calls it, and continued to float it and many other rivers as well. He got his Eagle badge in scouting and started a high school Explorers Club for whitewater adventures.  He also taught the canoeing course at a Boy Scout summer camp for a couple of years. He got his bachelor’s degree in biology and did graduate school work in forestry and ecology. He’s worked at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service near New Orleans and is now the deputy director of the National Wetlands Research Center in Lafayette, Louisiana. Tom Doyle, Ph.D., has been busy living a life he enjoys and one that matters.

And the Buffalo National River matters! Its current crisis began in 2012 when the C&H Hog Farms received a Regulation 6 general permit (Pollution Discharge and Elimination System Permit) to establish a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) – a factory farm to raise 6500 swine six miles upstream from the Buffalo. Mike Masterson of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and syndicated columnist Richard Mason, a geologist who has studied the Buffalo River region, write columns regularly that address the crisis. They describe the area as having a karst-riddled subsurface, highly fractured, cavernous, and filled with voids that allow groundwater to travel far and fast. Since the CAFO would be spraying hog waste onto fields that lie next to a tributary of the Buffalo, how did this permit ever get issued?

Bryan Rogers, 16 or 17, April 1972:  Bryan was my utility outfielder (1970), catcher (1971), and first baseman (1972) on my boys club baseball team. After Congress established the Buffalo a national river, I invited Bryan to canoe with me from Pruitt to Woolum during his school year’s Easter vacation.

Why do governments exist? Two of the reasons that “We the people” established our government were “to promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Sometimes these two things come into conflict. The owners of C&H own land, and they want the freedom to make a profit on that land by raising and selling hogs / other people want to canoe, swim, or fish in the fresh water; most of the locals earn their living from tourism; the fish, elk, deer, and other wildlife depend on the clean water; and what happens to the Buffalo also happens to the White River.

According to Hammurabi, the Babylonian ruler who is attributed the first law code, the duty of government is to protect the powerless from the powerful. It is government that should resolve the disputes. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) approved the permit for the hog farm because it did not do its job. The Agricultural Waste Management Field Handbook, issued by the USDA, contains technical federal environmental requirements pertaining to CAFOs. The requirements were either never consulted or were ignored.  Even though ADEQ had staff geologists who could done the proper inspection of the karst and groundwater surroundings of C&G, no such inspection was ordered.

Bryan Rogers at one of our two campsites on the three-day float: While the daytime temperatures were nice, the April nights were quite brisk. Bryan said he had trouble sleeping because my teeth were chattering so loudly. Bryan continued canoeing the Buffalo regularly. He even completed the full 135 miles on one of his floats.

Government exists to require people, or their creations (farms, industries, businesses), to do what they ought to do without anyone requiring them to do it. However, whenever personal/private profit conflicts with the good of the public, private greed will almost always win out unless the people’s government does its job. It’s human nature. The state of Arkansas’s ADEQ blew it, clear and simple. But pressure from environmental groups and concerned individuals has made a difference.

Happily, the general permit that had been issued in 2012 expired in 2017, and the extremely embarrassed ADEQ – on this second chance – did NOT renew it. That Regulation 6 permit has been permanently discontinued and is no longer available for anyone.

Sadly, C&H has appealed the ADEQ’s non-renewal, so the factory farm is still operational and is still spraying its waste. The Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission is ADEQ’s appellate body, but it is not scheduled to hold the hearings until August. Meanwhile, the Buffalo National River continues to be in danger.

Not to be outdone by the original incompetence, irresponsibility, and maliciousness of the ADEQ back in 2012, the Republican-controlled Arkansas state legislature passed a bill this March to make it harder for the public to protest any future factory farms anywhere in the state. Sponsors of this undemocratic bill insist that it’s not an effort an effort to nullify the ADEQ’s recent rejection of renewing the C&H’s permit, but it certainly smells just as bad. The majority of the Arkansas legislature – loyal Trumpistas – is telling the public that if you want to live in or visit a “natural state” that truly cares about the quality of its air and water, you should look elsewhere.


  1. You bought an Old Town Canoe? I looked over Old Town when I was canoe shopping in 1976, but in the end decided to play it safe and stuck with the tried and true Grumman.
    Up here, I would be better off with a kayak. Perhaps I’ll get a kayak when I retire, though the rivers are so crowded in the summer that I have a hard time getting interested in floating. It’s not like the old days when only a few people floated rivers and it was a good way to get away from the crowds.
    Locally, effluent from cattle feedlots is a serious problem for the Salmon River. It being a wild and scenic river, you’d think it would rate some protection, but noooooooo. Idaho politicians are in the pockets of the cattle barons. The local ranchers put their winter feedlots right on the banks of tributary streams, which run brown with cow poop.
    Realistically, regulating private land use is a losing battle because wealthy landowners can afford to buy politicians, and the need to inspect private facilities and enforce regulations is never ending. I suggest that in the long run it would be better, and more politically practical, to simply buy out landowners who occupy critical habitat. In today’s political environment that seems like wishful thinking, but Uncle Sam has done it before, and if necessary eminent domain could be used.
    I’ll try to remember to take photos of some local feedlots next winter. On my trip to Cottonwood I pass through a narrow, steep canyon that is a tributary of the Salmon. It’s lined with winter feedlots, and every time I drive though it makes me sad. Sad for the environment, and sad for the cows that stand around in their own poop. Requiring feedlots to be set back from the creek 100 yards or so would help, but not eliminate the problem. The canyon is so steep that the cow poop is bound to end up in the creek sooner or later. If it were up to me I’d buy out the entire canyon and turn it into a national park that the public could use for hiking, hunting, and camping.

  2. I didn’t buy the Old Town canoe. It was given to me in 1995 by my oldest friend – we’ve known each other since my high school years. He and his wife lived in Austin, and they joined me on five floats between 1982 and 1989. They rented a second canoe on the first two floats and then bought the Old Town for the rest of the floats. He used Consumer Reports to make his selection for whick brand of canoe to buy. For personal reasons, which I didn’t understand at the time, they decided against any more canoe trips and offered me their canoe. I drove to Austin from El Dorado, where I was living with my elderly father, to pick it up. I lost my father in 2001, but I still have the canoe. I guess it’s possible, but I can’t imagine any canoe being better than it.

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