Forty minutes and six seconds into my phone conversation with Gordon Watkins, president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, his abiding reticence finally gave way. The low, steady baritone pitch of his voice lifted by a fraction, and an audible hint of a smile spread across his face. I’d asked him to name his favorite spot on the Buffalo River.
Watkins had plenty of spots to choose from; he’s floated all the Buffalo you can float — in its entirety and in smaller stretches — hundreds of times. “In fact,” he said, “if you include the Little Buffalo where I live,” the number probably swells into quadruple digits. “We call it ‘livin’ behind the river.’ We have to cross the river daily by a low water bridge, and it’s frequent that it’s too high to cross.” Watkins’ kids are grown now, but when they were young, he’d canoe them across that low water bridge to catch the school bus.
Watkins, who hails from Greenville, Miss., developed an eye for the Ozarks as a teenager, when the banality of his native “flatland, as far as the eye can see” left him wanting to explore topography with a little more flair. “It was about 1968 when I first found the Buffalo and first started floating it,” Watkins recalled. “At that point, I was beginning to think about living in the woods, living in the country, building a house.” Initially thinking he’d use his psychology degree (and his experience counseling troubled youth with Outward Bound) to pilot an intensive outdoor therapy program, Watkins and his wife, Susan, bought a patch of land in Newton County near Parthenon in 1973. That outdoor therapy program took a back seat, though, when the couple decided to start a family of their own — and when their garden outgrew its hobby parameters.
“We had one of the oldest certified organic farms in the state,” he said, delivering blueberries twice a week to a then-small scale operation called Whole Foods. The Arkansas Farm Bureau named the Watkinses’ Rivendell Farms as one of its Arkansas Farm Families of the Year in 1987. “We’ve grown vegetables, hogs, turkeys, the whole gamut,” Watkins said. A few decades later, they’ve cut back the farming operation considerably, and opened up a rental cabin on the property for Buffalo-bound visitors. “I cut a little bit of hay,” he said, “and I tell people kind of tongue-in-cheek I’m farming tourists these days.”
Jokes aside, Watkins’ longstanding connection to the soil of Newton County makes it difficult to paint him the way he and his fellow Buffalo River Watershed Alliance board members were painted so falsely by former gubernatorial candidate/right-wing rabble rouser/gun range owner Jan Morgan in a Feb. 1 Facebook video: as “elitist environmentalists from out of state,” presumably ignorant of the ways in which farmers’ hard work keeps the grocery shelves stocked. That video taps into a white-hot Newton County controversy over a national river and an adjacent hog farm, one that’s sparked emotionally charged public hearings, cost loads in legal fees and divided once tight-knit rural communities.
It started in May 2012, when a construction permit was obtained for an operation to raise 6,500 hogs on Buffalo River tributary Big Creek in Mount Judea, about 6 miles from where Big Creek meets the Buffalo. The permit, Watkins said, was the first mistake. The National Park Service — responsible for protecting the Buffalo since 1972, when it was designated as the first national river — “had a gentlemen’s agreement, if you will, with the state Department of Environmental Quality” that no swine facilities would be allowed in the watershed. “So they probably weren’t paying as close attention as they should have. I know as an individual I wasn’t paying enough attention to what the ADEQ was doing at that time. They were off my radar.”
When the construction of the Buffalo-adjacent Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation did come to the attention of the National Park Service later that year, the NPS wrote a scathing letter to the Farm Services Agency, the organization guaranteeing a loan for C&H’s construction and operation. A copy of that letter made its way to Watkins and alliance co-founder/Vice President Jack Stewart in early 2013.
“I remember it very clearly,” Watkins said. “We sat down at the Low Gap Cafe and discussed ‘what the heck is going on here, and how did this happen? And what can we do about it?’ ” They got their paperwork in order, and the alliance was formed in the spring of that year. As a nod to the conservation efforts by Neil Compton and others at the Ozark Society who’d saved the river from being dammed in the 1960s, a slogan was born: “Save the Buffalo River — Again.” Seven board members, all of whom are unpaid, have been working since 2013 to do just that. Part of their work involves employing lawyers, a substantial expense for the BRWA, despite the fact that the alliance’s attorneys are working “at about a third of their normal rates.” Another part of the mission, Watkins said, involves educating people about the Buffalo River — what it is, why it’s important, why the tourist dollars it generates are so vital to the local economy. “We don’t think it’s fair to risk the crown jewel of Arkansas,” Watkins said. It’s not only the chief economic engine in a poor county, he said, but “an icon. You look at every piece of tourism that the Department of Tourism puts out and most of them feature Hawksbill Crag or Roark Bluff at Steel Creek or other parts of the Buffalo.”
The alliance also advocates for the relocation of C&H and seeks to make permanent the existing temporary moratorium on new CAFOs in the watershed. “Of all the places in Arkansas, why would the state decide to put this here?” Watkins asked. “We’re not anti-farming. We’re not even anti-CAFO. We’re opposed to this one facility in this one particular location. That’s what it boils down to.”
The Regulation 6 program that allowed the ADEQ to first issue a permit C&H Hog Farm has expired. C&H subsequently applied for a Regulation 5 permit — the permit under which other Arkansas-based CAFOs operate — and was denied by ADEQ. That denial is on appeal. With an upcoming legislative session just around the corner, it’s doubtful a tidy, swift resolution is in sight.
Perhaps worse, the two sides of the issue are being painted with the broad brush of political tribalism: as a battle between farmers vs. conservationists. But at the helm of the alliance is a man who’s both.
Watkins doesn’t blame the owners of C&H, but the slipshod government oversight that he says misled them. He does, however, express deep disappointment in the Arkansas Farm Bureau, the same organization that awarded him that Farm Family of the Year title in 1987. “They’ve taken this thing and couched it in terms of property rights and a right-to-farm issue, which it’s not,” Watkins said. “It’s a unique, one-of-a-kind situation that has to do with its location, both next to the Buffalo National River and sitting on top of karst [porous limestone]. … They’re telling farmers all over the state that if they can shut this one facility down, you’re next. No permit is safe. And we think that’s probably disingenuous and misrepresents the issue, and does a disservice to farmers across the state.”
“People need to understand,” Watkins said, “that the Buffalo National River as a national park is not like Yosemite or Yellowstone or Glacier, which encompass tens of thousands of acres of land. The Buffalo comprises 11 percent of the watershed. It’s like this thin blue ribbon that meanders through the bottom of the valley. Eighty-nine percent of the watershed that feeds it does not enjoy those same protections. So that makes it especially vulnerable to impacts from activities on those surrounding lands.” And, when those “impacts” make up the largest source of nutrients and bacteria in the entire watershed — pardon the pun — shit can go downhill fast.
“We’ve got 6,500 hogs that produce an amount of waste equivalent to the town of Harrison,” Watkins said. “It’s untreated waste, and it’s sprayed on fields alongside this little creek that flows directly into the Buffalo River a few miles downstream. And we’re now seeing — in spite of alarm bells being rung that whole time — we’re seeing degradation of the river. We’re seeing algae blooms, we’re seeing low dissolved oxygen, we’re seeing nutrient levels that were not there before, all of which are indicators of contamination of the water.”
After our conversation, Watkins said, he’d go down and clean his rental cabin for that night’s round of guests. And, with the first killing frost in the forecast that night, he’d be doing a little winterizing and getting firewood to his tenants to enjoy.
And as for that favorite part of the Buffalo? The upper part, from Ponca to Steel Creek, down to Kyles. “The trails along that stretch are really spectacular,” he said. “You’ve got those big overlooks over Roark Bluff,” and “the open vistas that are kind of covered up by the foliage during the growing season are now open. … It can be really beautiful in the wintertime. For 40 years, I’ve been canoeing the Buffalo year-round and sometimes those winter floats are the ones that stand out.”
Find out more about the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance and donate at buffaloriveralliance.org.