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Undisputed jewel

Buffalo's worth

My affection and concern for the welfare of our Buffalo National River, the first so designated in the country back in 1972, is redundantly apparent to readers.

We have what no other state does in this natural treasure, which with benefits brings serious responsibility for its care. Other than the majesty of its towering bluffs and clear flow through the scenic mountains, the Buffalo brings so much value to our state and an otherwise economically deprived region.

A National Park Service report released in April shows revealed we hosted 1.78 million visitors to Buffalo National River in 2016 who spent nearly $77.6 million in communities around the park. That supported 1,200 jobs in the area while generating a cumulative benefit to the local economy of $90.2 million

The recreation and escape this God-given natural wonder provides so many Arkansans and Americans are irreplaceable should this river become fouled with raw waste from the 6,500-swine factory our state's Department of Environmental Quality (wheeze) permitted into the sacred watershed just six miles upstream and along a major tributary.

With that in mind, I found the latest local economic impact information collected by the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance especially relevant. The analytical project is part of an examination of tourism industry in Newton County where the hog factory is located.

Gordon Watkins, chairman of the alliance, told me, based on information from the Tourism Trust Fund managed by Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, that during calendar year 2016 tourism-related businesses in the county paid $130,120 toward the state's 2 percent Tourism Tax.

"This equates to a remarkable amount of gross revenues generated by these Newton County tourism businesses in one of the poorest counties in Arkansas," said Watkins. "This is a significant sum, especially considering the multiplier effect, as this income is spent with and amongst other local, non-tourism businesses, such as gas stations, hardware stores, restaurants, cleaning services, carpenters, etc."

Watkins said the primary tourist attraction in Newton County is, of course, the Buffalo National River. "So by comparison how much does one hog operation with a handful of employees contribute to Newton County?" he wonders.

Well, the alliance website says only about a dozen jobs mostly paying at or near minimum wages are created by the factory while property values within a few miles tend to decline by an average of 6 percent. And who knows what the impact to a resource such as the Buffalo that accounts for about $38 million in revenue to Arkansas would be should the river become fouled from hog waste?

So, my friends, you can continue to count me among the many thousands across our state who remain deeply troubled, even angry, that this wholly preventable and unnecessary state of jeopardy to our special river even exists and is even being nurtured rather than discouraged by the state.

Drownings abound

When it comes to Arkansas' waterbodies in the summertime, there's been very little time between columns before reading of yet another person drowning.

The spate began in March when a man died 50 feet from Beaver Lake's shore while trying to retrieve his boat that had slipped its moorings. The next month, a 17-year-old swimming with friends in a lake at Village Creek State Park suddenly panicked and drowned.

In June, these tragedies began piling up beyond reason. A 22-year-old Centerton man visiting an Oklahoma lake was returning to shore from a buoy when he drowned. Then there was the teenager fishing along the Arkansas River near Barling who drowned while trying to save three distressed children thrashing in the river near him. Then a teenager from Benton drowned in a swimming hole near Bauxite, and a 32-year-old man drowned while swimming in a group at a Northeast Arkansas lake.

July started almost as badly with a 54-year-old Bentonville woman drowning near her home in Bella Vista's Loch Lomond about the same time a 7-year-old girl died in the swift Mulberry River during a group outing. That same week, a 13-year-old girl drowned while swimming in War Eagle Creek after her mother watched her head drift beneath the surface and dived in to try and save her. The mother was unsuccessful and had to be rescued herself, only to die from her heroic efforts.

In almost every instance, the news accounts say these terrible events unfolded much the same way. Those in the water just quietly sank, never to resurface. We're left to wonder: Was it cramps? Exhaustion? Panic? Bits of all those?

I'm surely not one to lecture. It generally proves futile and wears me out. So I'll just leave by saying we still have much of July, then August and September remaining in a summer that will only be getting hotter. We all know where they sell reasonably priced life vests and belts, all proven effective at saving one's life in the lakes and rivers where we go to cool off expecting pleasure and relief, but never so much risk and tragedy.

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Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Editorial on 07/16/2017

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