BY JAMIE HAMMACK
Mining is not a word heard much in these parts for quite some time, but if Barber Mining Company and the U.S. Forest Service have their way, quartz mining in the Ouachita National Forest will take place on a 21 acre tract north of Mount Ida. Some may ask “Why is this important?” To a group called Friends of the Ouachita Trail (FoOT for short) it is very important. And it should be for you and I as well. The Ouachita National Recreation Trail runs for 223 miles, beginning at Talimena State Park in Oklahoma, passing through Queen Wilhelmina State Park and ending at Pinnacle Mountain State Park, near Little Rock. What, there’s a hiking trail nearby you say? Yes. The Ouachita Trail is the premier hiking trail in this part of the United States. Many people use the Ouachita Trail as a warm up to hiking the much longer Appalachian Trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine. Look it up on YouTube. Videos posted by hikers of their adventures on the Ouachita Trail are many and give us a glimpse of the beauty that a walk through the woods can offer. The Friends of the Ouachita Trail are volunteers who maintain the trail by clearing brush, building shelters, providing assistance through maps on their website and listing water sources so that hikers can have a safe journey. What has them upset is the proposed quartz mine is slated to be in the Ouachita National Forest and at a point will sit right along the Ouachita Trail. The mine isn’t the usual type of mine we envision, the below ground mine with miners in hard hats with carbide lights. This is a proposed open pit mine that would require removal of all vegetation. Meaning trees, bushes, shrubs and anything else above the quartz deposit has to go. That includes wildlife. Also to take in to consideration is this question. Will this be the only permit for open pit mining? That’s highly unlikely given the resources in our area. If one 21 acre tract is great for the mining company, then why not more? I’ve worked half my life in the Oil and Gas industry. One lone permit it will not likely be. Once an area of National Forest is opened up it makes it much easier for another permit to be given that will reap more profits for the mining company, and I’m all about profits, but at the expense of the forest itself? Which is at the possible expense of tourism to our area? No thank you. That could mean fewer tourism dollars that Mena and the people of the Ouachita Mountains depend upon to make a living.
Bo Lea, President of FoOT, took the time to speak to me by phone while he was on vacation. Mr. Lea said he and FoOT members have a great relationship with the U.S. Forest Service, especially at the local level. But the proposed mining operation will have an adverse affect on the National Forest and the trail. It could also have an effect tourism that comes through our area because the open pit mine will sit at one point just 150 feet from the Ouachita Trail, and who wants to walk on a trail where the view is interrupted by what one would assume to be bulldozers and dirt haulers removing the topsoil and rocks to get to the quartz below. Mr. Lea said it doesn’t paint a serene picture and is not good for wildlife in the National Forest. What seems amazing is that in the Forest Service own environmental assessment for the Barber Quartz Prospecting Permit, there is no mention of the Ouachita Trail. No mention of the impact an open pit mine would have on a National Recreation Trail, that at one point, is a mere 150 feet away. In fact, from reading the EA online you might not know there is a trail at all. When I spoke to Mr. Lea he was assuring in that FoOT is not opposed to using the resources in the National Forest, but because of the effects this will have on vegetation, wildlife, the trail and the National Forest itself, he and FoOT are adamantly opposed to the mine.
Also not garnering much mention in the Environmental Assessment is the mining company itself. Barber Mining of Cottonwood, California has a LinkdedIn page, but there isn’t much else on the web about the company or its history. Just that there is a Bob Barber listed as the owner. With so little information it is difficult to say this is even the correct Barber Mining associated with the proposed mining in the Ouachita National Forest. And with the comment period ending on January 25th, there is very little time remaining for the public to be heard. Hopefully the U. S. Forest Service will delay these plans to allow an open pit mine in the Ouachita National Forest until more voices and concerns can be heard.
Jamie Hammack is the editor and publisher of The Polk County Pulse.