The Dangers of Progress in the Ozarks

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Encroaching industrialization threatens the natural beauty of the Ozarks.

Until we subscribed to MOTHER–and started reading articles like Sharon Kruse’s “Up on the Farm” (MOTHER NOS. 29 and 42), Mary Jo Frolick’s “Report From the Ozarks” (MOTHER NO. 30), and Paul Durand’s “More on Ozarks Living” (MOTHER NO. 33), among others–my husband and I had no idea how popular our Arkansas Ozarks were among back-to-the-landers. (And we’ve lived in these mountains, on 160 acres south of the city of Fayetteville, since 1968! )

After residing here for several years, we can understand why the region has become so popular: It’s as beautiful and serene a piece of the country as anyone could hope to find. We want to alert MOTHER’s readers, however, to the presence of a snake in our Ozarks “Garden of Eden”. The name of the serpent is Progress . . . and the foul plans being perpetrated in its name stand a good chance of spoiling these mountains for all who live here, unless something is done soon.

Here are just a few of the ways in which Progress has recently reared its ugly head in this area:

[1] The Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO)–despite the efforts of organized grass root and professional opposition–is going ahead with the construction of a coal-powered electric generating plant in rural Benton County, in the northwest corner of the state. (The plant will burn high-sulfur coal that’s been strip mined in Wyoming and hauled in by train.) The Good Guys had the important facts on their side–holes in SWEPCO’s environmental impact statement, data on emissions from the burning of low-grade coal, etc. –but the bulldozers are running just the same

[2] The “feasibility” of a regional jetport has recently been studied again. This land-eating, ear shattering 1,500-acre behemoth has already been voted down by rural residents twice. Next time around, though–probably in 1977–there won’t be any two-county referendum. Instead, because the cities of Fayetteville and Springdale will own the “regional” airport, only city residents (spurred on by Chamber of Commerce and Frontier Airline public relations campaigns) will get the chance to vote.

As for “feasibility”: At least one researcher for the consulting firm in charge of the latest study was forbidden from coming up with any results that might contradict the development’s feasibility.

[3] Last fall, Federal Soil Conservation Service scientists released findings on the suitability of Ozarks soil for septic system drainage . . . findings which indicated that–because of the underlying Swiss-cheese-like limestone deposits in this area–only a few local soil types could be used in conjunction with septic systems without causing contamination of the ground water.

Obviously, industrialization of the area (which is already underway) will attract more people, who–in turn–will build more septic tanks. And the cities are running out of places in which to dump their wastes. Where will new landfills be put? That’s right: In the farmers’ and homesteaders’ backyards. And their ponds, wells, and streams will get the semi-treated or untreated runoff water (such as has already happened near the town of Rogers, in Benton County, where the water supply is now contaminated).

[4] Farmers and homesteaders–both native and transplanted–are coming out on the short end of the “eminent domain” stick every day in the Ozarks. In Carroll and Madison Counties, for instance, Carroll Electric Cooperative (an REA company) has bulldozed survey lanes over eleven farms without even as much as a court order! The landowners involved have joined together to fight (in three courts) the construction of a new high-voltage powerline on their properties (a line which the farmers contend is being built on a speculative basis in anticipation of real estate development along Beaver Lake).

Interestingly, when the Public Service Commission met last July it ruled that Carroll Electric could not build the proposed 26-mile-long powerline without PSC approval. And according to the PSC, “the potential for serious environmental damage and private injury to property owners [posed by this project] is great”. This may well be the first time an Arkansas utility ever got its hands slapped.

[5] The Chamber of Commerce of Eureka Springs, Arkansas (a reborn Victorian town and the home of many MOTHER readers) has been trying covertly to drive all long-haired residents–including local businesspeople, craftsmen, and homesteaders–out of the area. One of the city fathers’ more blatant techniques the use of police harassment-came to light in the first issue of MountainViews, the organ of the Eureka Improvement Association. The Association’s attorney– under the state Freedom of Information Act obtained copies of self-incriminating letters from police and Chamber of Commerce files, and published them in the EIA paper. (MountainViews also published indignant letters from tourists who’d been arrested on a variety of spurious charges,)

[6] The highly poisonous herbicide 2,4,5-T is still being sprayed on the Ozark National Forest (see Doug Richards’ letter in MOTHER NO. 36, page 130), and is also being used by electric companies and railroads. This is a particularly hot issue right now since so many farmsteads are crossed by utility lines and border on (or are surrounded by) the Ozark National Forest. Some Madison County residents have circulated a petition in an attempt to put the spraying question to a referendum in November. If passed, however (and that’s a big IF), the ban on spraying would apply only to Madison County.

[7] The Chambers of Commerce of four northwestern Arkansas counties (the same folks who thought up the regional jetport) have banded together to promote what they call “development” of the Ozarks. And they’ve decided that the first step in this proposed development should be a four-lane expressway–built to Interstate specifications–running from the Missouri state line on the north, down through 80 miles of fragile Ozarks to Interstate 40 near Fort Smith.

My husband and I–along with a good number of other people who live along the proposed route–have been fighting this superhighway since February 1973. To date, every attempt to build the expressway either as a state project with federal assistance, as an Interstate with 90% federal financing, or as a toll road has been successfully blocked. Now the freeway’s promoters have come up with a last-ditch plan: namely, to build the highway in short sections . . . each of which will be touted as absolutely necessary to ease local traffic congestion. (This stratagem is illegal, according to the provisions of the National Environmental Protection Act. Calling this violation to the Environmental Protection Agency’s attention, however, is a time- and money-consuming process. And if the super road’s opponents have one thing in common, it’s lack of money.)

It’s practically impossible to publicize opposition to the expressway in the local media. Donrey Media Group (a regional chair) owns most area newspapers, as well as many radio and TV stations . . . and since a Donrey vice president heads the Chamber of Commerce’s four-county go-go committee, there’s no such thing as a free or responsive press in which to air the issue here. (Which is one reason I’m writing to MOTHER.)

What all this Progress will do to the population, taxes, land values, crime rate, and general quality of life in this area goes without saying. So if you live in the Ozarks–or dream of living here one day–and you care about what’s happening to one of the last places in this country where an ordinary person can still get back to the land on a limited bankroll, by all means write to Governor David Pryor, State Capitol, Little Rock, Ark. 72201. Let him know your feelings on the above issues. (Or if you just want to stay informed on these goings-on–contact the Citizens’ Expressway Coalition, Inc., P.O. Box 201, Greenland, Ark. 72737. And please enclose a little something–a dollar or two–for postage and expenses.)

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to discourage folks from coming to the Ozarks to farm, work, and live in harmony with the environment. Come, by all means. But come prepared to fight. . . for the battle lines are drawn.