A group of volunteers give their time and money for a place that holds a piece of their hearts.
For Marti Olesen, the Buffalo River is more than flowing water slicing through emerald-green trees and limestone, and more than the United State’s first national river. It’s the reason she met the love of her life.
In the spring of 1988, Olesen came to the Buffalo for a float trip with a group of friends, only to lose her dog along the way. At the sight of her grief, her now-husband, then acquaintance, promised to find her furry friend.
“I thought yeah, right, buddy,” Olesen said. Little did she know that he was determined to see her again. He found her dog about a week later, and the rest is history.
Now, Olesen is one of seven volunteer board members of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, a group that aims to “Save the Buffalo River… Again,” according to their website and bumper stickers. They all love the river for their individual reasons and experiences.
The BRWA perceives the C&H Hog Farm as the main threat to the river. The concentrated animal feeding operation sits in close proximity to Big Creek, which is a Buffalo River tributary. In January, C&H applied for a new permit to continue their operations, which was denied by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Equality. The BRWA submitted 100 pages of comment against the permit before the ADEQ made its decision. The group is now an intervener on the side of the ADEQ in C&H’s appeal. If C&H wins the case, the BRWA will appeal that decision.
“We will take it all the way to the Supreme Court if we have to,” said Gordon Watkins, the president of the board of directors of the BRWA.
The Arkansas Farm Bureau, a supporter of C&H Farms, thinks that agriculture and the support of a healthy environment can coexist in the Buffalo River watershed, according to spokesperson Steve Eddington. “The Farm Bureau believes these farmers, and all farmers, should be able to use their land in compliance with the law,” Eddington said. “This farm has been studied and monitored more closely than any farm in the state, and no environmental violations have been found. None.”
The BRWA has a mass of supporters that helps them pay legal fees for lawyers and experts, write letters to decision makers like the governor and legislators and even travel to Little Rock to explain their concern to legislators.
“We’re only working for the Buffalo because the Buffalo couldn’t come lobby for itself,” said Lin Welford, a supporter of the BRWA. Welford has also been instrumental in planning multiple events for the group.
Despite the support of over 2,000 individuals, Watkins has been told time and time again that there is no chance of shutting the C&H Hog Farm down. To him, the long and grueling process is worth the sacrifice of time and money.
“Anybody whose been on the Buffalo, especially the upper section of the Buffalo, is awestruck,” Watkins said. “It only takes one mistake to ruin a special place.”
To Watkins, the river certainly is special. He moved to the Little Buffalo River with his wife in 1977; he decided it was the next best thing to the national park. A couple of years before then, he bought the land and began building his house himself. He farmed and raised two sons on the land. His family developed a summer ritual of spending one week on the Buffalo.
“My sons would spend more time in the water than they did in the boat; they practically swam the length of the Buffalo River,” Watkins said. “It’s in our blood. It’s very special to us and we certainly don’t take it for granted.”
Ginny Masullo, another member of the board of directors, went to the river for refreshment, to get lost in the moment, during her time as a hospice nurse.
“There was a lot of sorrow in my profession. It was a weight that I carried with me,” she said. As soon as she was on the river, she blissfully lost track of time. She became interested in the C&H Hog Farm issue in 2013 and became a member of the board of BRWA in 2015.
“I’m very honored. It’s an amazing group of very dedicated, brilliant people,” Masullo said. The feeling is mutual between Watkins, Olesen and her. Masullo’s main role is organizing events and doing public relations, but the efforts of the BRWA are totally shared by all seven members of the board. Watkins presides over meetings, signs off on documents, and acts as the main spokesperson. Olesen, with a background as a teacher and librarian, plays a large role in education outreach. The board of directors as a whole drafts press releases, letters, and agrees on decisions as a consensus.
“I always knew I loved the river for emotional reasons, but there are so many rational reasons to protect it that feed the emotional ones,” she said. According to Watkins, the river is one of the main attractions to Northwest Arkansas and a huge source of income.
“If the water gets ruined, it hurts everybody,” said Olesen.
For reasons of the heart and of the mind, this group is determined to continue their fight. These are pivotal times for the BRWA with legal proceedings underway, and the organization looks to the future prepared to continue sacrificing their time and money to conserve the waters that mean so much to them.