Environmentalists concerned by Missouri proposal

Friday, November 28, 2014

A proposal that calls for the prescribed burning of more than 17,500 acres in the Mark Twain National Forest in southwest Missouri has caught the attention of local environmental activists.

The U.S. Forest Service's Ava/Cassville/Willow Springs Ranger District (ACWRD) on Nov. 18 published a legal notice in the Springfield News-Leader seeking public comments regarding what it describes as the "Butler Hollow Project."

The project's goals, as described in a summary released by the ACWRD, include improving the health of the forest's ecosystem and providing recreational opportunities.

Another goal listed in the summary is to "use timber management, where appropriate, to restore or enhance degraded natural communities, sustain healthy and productive forests and reduce hazardous fuels. Provide timber and wood products to help support sustainable local industry and economic interests."

To accomplish those goals, the ACWRD proposes a variety of actions, including "a combination of commercial harvest, non-commercial treatments, prescribed fire and herbicide treatment of stumps."

The proposal calls for prescribed burning on approximately 17,517 acres, including 1,760 acres of private land.

"Prescribed burning is essential to the maintenance of glade and open woodland communities," the summary states.

Although all of the land affected by the proposal is located in Missouri, the summary acknowledges that project area land is drained by tributaries of the White River that are part of the Beaver Reservoir Watershed, which includes Beaver Lake in Arkansas as well as Table Rock Lake in Missouri.

Beaver Lake, which is located in Benton, Carroll and Washington counties, is the source of drinking water for more than 400,000 Arkansans.

Pat Costner of Eureka Springs, director of the Save The Ozarks organization, said she has several concerns about the proposal.

Costner stressed, however, that Save The Ozarks does not have the resources to take a lead role in opposing the project. STO was formed in opposition to Southwest Electric Power Company's proposal to run a high-voltage power line through Carroll County, and Costner said STO's resources are devoted to that ongoing battle.

Still, Costner said the Butler Hollow proposal is cause for concern.

"They didn't notify anyone in Arkansas," she said. "Everything they're doing affects the Beaver Lake Watershed. They're asking for comments by Dec. 18, and they do not have an environmental assessment or even an environmental impact study. In my mind, that makes it impossible to make cogent, coherent comments."

Allen Weathersbee, National Environmental Policy Act coordinator for ACWRD, said the Springfield newspaper is the ranger district's "newspaper of record" for the required publication of legal notices. He also said the district acquired the names of adjacent landowners from the Benton County assessor's office and notified more than 200 landowners of the proposal by mail.

"We've done everything that we normally do and everything that we are legally required to do," he said.

Weathersbee sought to ease concerns about the proposed project's impact on the Beaver watershed.

"Beaver Lake at that portion of the watershed is upstream from the project area," he said.

Weathersbee said it was not unusual for the ACWRD to seek public comment on the proposal before releasing an environmental assessment or environmental impact study.

"It's very typical," he said. "We haven't gotten to that stage yet."

According to Weathersbee, federal law allows residents to state their objections to a proposal before a decision on the proposal is made.

In this case, the decision will be made by District Ranger Joe Koloski.

Weathersbee said that individuals who submit comments regarding the proposed project will have an additional 30 to 45 days to object to the project analysis and a draft decision. He said the draft decision won't be released for several months.

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