Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Buffalo River and Ninestone Land Trust and water-quality rules: Joe Neal today

When those two words: louisiana AND waterthrush come up, what lights up are rushing streams, boulders, pawpaw trees, and forested slopes, pleasures over the years of hiking, camping, bird watching, fun times in clean cool water with my daughter Ariel and her friends.

In technical jargon, Louisiana Waterthrushes are long-distance, forest-interior, neotropical migrants. They occur in quite a few places along streams in northwest Arkansas, but I always enjoy them especially during trips over to the upper Buffalo. I was thinking about that while reading an email from Judith Griffith at Ninestone Land Trust in Carroll County. March has not even turned to April and she has already seen 9 Louisiana Waterthrushes banded during the course of Leesia Marshall's research there! Ninestone is another special place, period, and especially if you have waterthrushes on the mind.

As pollution problems have become more complex, there has been a growing interest in how water quality is impacted by human land use and especially how some species might serve as biological indicators. Leesia's PhD is entitled, "Territories, territoriality, and conservation of the Louisiana Waterthrush and its habitat, the watershed of the Upper Buffalo National River."

What Leesia found was that as water in Buffalo tributaries became more polluted, nesting territories for waterthrushes became longer; some disappeared. Some of this problem has to do with the impact of pollution on aquatic insect communities. So waterthrushes may be good indicators of biological integrity. As for a host of other neotropical migratory songbirds – how about Kentucky Warbler here -- it is reasonable to infer negative impacts for other native avian insectivores if pollution levels increase in the Buffalo and its tributaries.

Protection of the Buffalo and such places should be a slam dunk, but in fact only 40% of the Buffalo watershed is part of the national river or under other state and Federal ownership. That leaves 60% of the watershed where land clearing and confined animal feeding operations (CAFO; like the hog factory under construction at Mt Judea in Newton County) increase incompatible negative impacts, even when state environmental rules are followed.

That's always the rub: millions visit the Buffalo who don't live there but do pay local, state, and Federal taxes and therefore have a legitimate stake in the park and its biological integrity. Local folks who live in the watershed have to have a way to make a living and not all of them can make it off the recreation industry. In terms of conflict and drama, it's a made-for-Hollywood script ready for prime time. 

And it is always the same, whether it involves attempts to protect tropical forests from illegal logging or save elephants from ivory hunters -- or in our case, protect this beautiful, native bird-rich, free-flowing river in the far away Ozarks of Arkansas.

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