BY LEANN DILBECK –
Local state and county leadership are in a battle, once again, to protect the tourist, timber and agricultural industries, against a potentially harmful federal proposal, passed this time, by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in an effort to protect the Neosho Mucket and the Rabbitsfoot mussels, two fresh-water endangered species. They, along with many others in the county and state delegations, are demanding immediate assistance from Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel.
Fighting on multiple fronts, they are also, again, having to battle against another threat to the Wolf Pen Gap Trail Complex, as a two-year long battle with a California environmental group, Center for Biological Diversity, over the Arkansas Fatmucket mussel now appears to be moving closer to a lawsuit.
Gar Eisele, Chair of the Mena/Polk County Chamber of Commerce’s Tourism Committee, said, “It’s disappointing that now that the US Forest Service has released their Preferred Alternative Plan, that we feel our riders can live with, we now have this come up. On the positive side, we feel confident that once CBD reviews the progress made with the USFS and The Nature Conservancy, they too, will realize that it is possible to have recreation AND maintain environmental sustainability. We’ve proven it’s possible.”
State Representative Nate Bell is prepared to defend the local economy and the industries that drive it against any entities that threaten them, and in doing so, realizes he will be fighting on multiple fronts. While the Critical Habitat Designation does not directly impact Wolf Pen at this time, the potential of what it could in the future, and how it will affect agriculture and timber, concerns him greatly.
On one front, there is a current federal proposal, which seeks a Critical Habitat Designation that would impact nearly 800 river miles in Arkansas, including 10 rivers and tributaries, including the Black, Buffalo, Illinois, Ouachita, Saline, Red, Spring and White rivers, in order to protect the Neosho Mucket and the Rabbitsfoot mussels.
The Neosho Muckett, an endangered species, is found in the Illinois River in northwest Arkansas, and in rivers and streams in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. The Rabbitsfoot is a threatened species found in rivers and streams in Arkansas and 14 other states.
“The scope of this legislation is stunning,” said State Representative Nate Bell. “They [Fish and Wildlife Service] have made a unilateral decision that goes way beyond protecting the recreational opportunities afforded through Wolf Pen Gap to encompassing and potentially destroying the timber industry, negatively impacting farming and agricultural practices, not to mention, affecting how we repair county roads.”
He attended a meeting of four legislative committees last week to hear testimony regarding this proposal in which the ultimate vote concluded to seek guidance from McDaniel in countering it. Also providing testimony were Judge Black from Montgomery County and Pete Day from Camp Ozark, who both share the same concerns of economic impact for their area.
They are joined by the Arkansas Association of Counties and members of Farm Bureau who recognize the threat this proposal could have on an already struggling economy. “The outflow of this proposal could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and will cost the economy into the billions.”
Bell explained that all these associations responded during the required public comment period, which initially ended in May, but Pryor pushed for an extension which ended October 28, citing that the legislation is potentially harmful to the state’s economy and is too far reaching.
During last week’s meeting, Chris Davidson, an endangered species coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service said his department does not anticipate that the designation will add additional restrictions on top of those already existing, referring to the Endangered Species Act. But the Association of Arkansas Counties is reporting that the proposal will include 15 Arkansas counties, 40 percent of the state.
The defense, according to Bell, is that the Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to reasonably establish the benefit vs. the economic cost. Bell explained that the federal economic impact study only considered the implementation costs and not the trickle-down cost to local communities. Their impact study reported a $4.4 million over a 20-year period as opposed to the same study conducted by the Arkansas Association of Arkansas Counties that estimated $19 million for the same time period.
The complete Arkansas delegation released statements last week against the proposal.
“Most Arkansans agree we should protect and preserve our environment; but we must do so sensibly, in a way that also protects taxpayers and jobs. This designation needlessly hinders our economic growth and hurts Arkansas families,” said Representative Tom Cotton.
Sen. Mark Pryor: “After hearing from Arkansans, I pressed the Fish and Wildlife Service for answers about their proposed critical habitat rule for two mussels. I wanted to ensure that Arkansans were able to weigh in on the negative economic impact this rule will have on our state’s landowners, counties, and agriculture. The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to gather all the facts in order to fully understand the adverse economic impact, including the devastating effect it will have on landowners’ ability to use their land. While I’m pleased Fish and Wildlife granted my request for an extension, the fight’s not over yet. I’ll continue to push to ensure Arkansas landowners have the freedom they deserve.”
Sen. John Boozman: “Arkansas is facing this crisis because the Administration pursued a closed-door settlement agreement with activist organizations that want hundreds of new species listed. Now the agency is resisting transparency requests from Congress. Objections and concerns to the scope of this ‘critical habitat’ designation raised in public comments are serious and substantive, and they deserve the careful and prompt attention of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I will work with the Arkansas Congressional delegation and use my position as the Ranking Member on the Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife to hold the Service’s feet-to-the-fire on this issue. Arkansans deserve to be treated fairly by federal government agencies. Openness and transparency are a must.”
On the second front, is potential litigation from the Center for Biological Diversity, a California environmental group, seeking to protect the Arkansas Fatmucket, an endangered species who resides downstream from Wolf Pen Gap. The group is threatening a lawsuit that could shut-down a tourist-destination that is responsible for generating $58.6 million annually, according to an independent 2010 study conducted by UALR.
Their argument is that the trail system causes sediment-flow into the Board Camp Creek, which flows into the Ouachita River.
Ellison said the community has shown their support in keeping the trail system open, citing collaborative efforts made by volunteers over the last two years with the U.S. Forest Service, that has improved 40 miles of trails in the system, including catchment basins, culverts, gravel and other maintenance to specifically address the sedimentation concerns. He added that through donations and grants, mini-trail equipment has been purchased and the county has paved one road that leads to the East trailhead.
Ellison said it was perplexing to him why, after the partnerships and progress made, a group like Center for Biological Diversity would come in and start making demands and threatening a suit.
“Besides working with the Association of Arkansas Counties, the Arkansas Farm Bureau, and the Nature Conservancy, we are also working to create the Arkansas Unpaved Roads Program, which will offer grants to counties that work to reduce environmental hazards along creeks,” said Ellison.
Ellison is scheduled to testify before the Senate and House Transportation Committees on Thursday in Texarkana on this same issue.
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