What Price Elk?

The U. S. Forest Service is busy redesigning God’s work in the Ozarks.

In 1981 the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (G&FC), introduced 112 Rocky Mountain Elk into an area near the Buffalo River. It seemed like a good idea in the beginning, but the large critters—not native to Arkansas—have since become a serious problem.

The Western elk—much bigger than the long-extinct elk that happily lived in our forests until 1840—need large pastures and pathways to get from one area to another. The herd has grown to 500 in number and the elk are a nuisance, pestering farmers and adjoining landowners. The Newton and Searcy County Quorum Courts oppose enlargement of the herd without proper environmental review and widespread local support.

Alas, the ever-inventive Forest Service bureaucrats proceed apace. Their latest plan, Bearcat Hollow Phase II, uses taxpayer dollars to enlarge the elk habitat into a 62-square-mile area adjoining the Richland Creek Wilderness just west of Witts Spring. They are using the growing elk herd to justify what they really love to do: clear-cut the forest, use herbicides, build roads, and burn, burn, burn.

This obsession to “keep busy” raises two questions. The first is tricky because sleepy politicians have ceded immense power to the bureaucrats: Can they do this? The answer is probably “Yes.” The second question is simple: Should they do this? “No.”

What began as small feeding zones have given way to extra-large clearings (1047 acres of clearing are planned), which of course creates a “need” for access roads so that the pastures can be maintained and nourished. This means bulldozers, herbicides, and runoff into federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers. Couple all this with their plan to burn 13,792 acres and soon our once-natural forest will look like a dog with a bad case of mange.
To see a small sample of the damage they have done so far check out the before and after photos at: http://posting.arktimes.com/images/blogimages/2012/07/14/1342266250-bearcathollow.pdf

The Bearcat Hollow Project must be stopped. It is wrongheaded—particularly in The Natural State—to befoul our forests, a diminishing natural resource, for the questionable purpose of enlarging a herd of elk that is unnatural to our state.

Can you imagine what Arkansas would be like without the Buffalo River National Park? The U. S. Corps of Engineers wanted to dam up the river back in the 1960’s. They were close to pulling it off but the people rose up to stop the project and today the beautiful river is a national treasure.

Imagine Arkansas without the 96,000 acres of wilderness that was set aside and protected forever by the Arkansas Wilderness Act, an initiative that became law in 1984. The U. S. Forest Service fought the wilderness designation with all its might. I know; I was the originating sponsor of the legislation in the U. S. House of Representatives.

Imagine the free-flowing Cadron Creek in Cleburne and Faulkner Counties blocked by a series of earthen dams. If the Soil Conservation Service had had its way, the pristine creek would have been history in 1979. I was a brand-new member of Congress that year but I had the people behind me and together we stopped the project.

There is a lesson in all of this. In the case of the Buffalo River, the Arkansas Wilderness, and Cadron Creek the people proved they can and will fight to protect the natural order. In each instance, our “caretakers” were going to substitute their vision for God’s and they would have gotten away with it if the people had not vigorously opposed them. George Fisher, Arkansas’s beloved cartoonist, is gone but we can draw strength from his legacy. He loved to satirize the bureaucrats by depicting them in the midst of a clear-cutting operation or a river channelization project wearing big “Keep Busy” buttons. One of my favorite collections of his work, published in 1983, is entitled, “God would have done it if he’d had the money.”

The Forest Service and the G&FC will spin what they are doing at Bearcat Hollow as a good thing. It is not. Once again, we encounter the most-feared words in modern America: “We’re from the government and we’re here to help.”

Ed Bethune was a Member of Congress from the Second District of Arkansas from 1979-1985. He and his wife, Lana, live in Little Rock.
This article was first published on the Voices Page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on August 11, 2012.