LITTLE ROCK — While lawmakers and a statewide coalition of groups struggle with a federal proposal to protect the Neosho Mucket and Rabbitsfoot mussels, officials in Polk County are embroiled in a battle over the habitat of another threatened marine creature.
For more than two years, they have fought a California environmental group over the Arkansas fatmucket, an endangered species that lives downstream from Wolf Pen Gap Trail Complex, one of the county’s biggest economic engines.
The Center for Biological Diversity contends the ATV trail system causes sediment in Board Camp Creek, which flows into the Ouachita River, and is destroying the fatmucket’s natural habitat. The group has threatened a lawsuit that could shut down a tourist destination that brings in tens of millions of dollars annually to the western Arkansas county.
Polk County Judge Brandon Ellison said the county is trying to make the trail system more environmentally friendly. If the Wolf Pen Gap Trail complex is forced to close, it would be a critical blow to the county’s economy, he said.
A 2010 economic study of the Wolf Pen Gap Trail complex found that it generates about $58.6 million annually in tourist spending, and if it closed state and local tax revenues would decline by about $6.4 million annually.
Ellison said nearly 60 businesses in the county are directly or indirectly supported by the complex, which has about 40 miles of trails in the Ouachita National Forest.
“We have got to find a way to coexist with these things,” Ellison said. “We need regulation and we need environmental things, and I’m all for that, but I just think some of these (groups) are just overzealous, that they’re trying to destroy rural America’s culture, and this is a prime example right here.”
Jeff Sikes, legislative director for the Association of Arkansas Counties, said the Wolf Pen Gap trail system is used by about 17,000 riders a year.
“It’s a huge business in that area … and it all dove tails in with the (Endangered Species Act) issue” that was discussed during a legislative meeting last week, Sikes said.
During that meeting, lawmakers heard proposal that would designate nearly 800 river miles in Arkansas, including 10 rivers and tributaries — including the Black, Illinois, Ouachita, Saline, Red, Spring and White Rivers — as critical habitat for the Neosho Mucket and the Rabbitsfoot mussels.
The Neosho Mucket, an endangered species, is found in the Illinois River in Northwest Arkansas, and in rivers and streams in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. The Rabbitsfoot is a threatened species found in rivers and streams in Arkansas and 14 other states.
Four legislative committees met jointly and heard more than four hours of testimony from supporters and opponents of the proposal, then voted to ask Attorney General Dustin McDaniel for guidance in countering the federal designation.
During the meeting, Sikes told lawmakers that the critical habitat was the result of lawsuit settlement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California-based Center for Biological Diversity in 2011.
That agreement required the agency to make initial or final decisions on whether to add hundreds of species of plants and animals to the endangered species list. In the southeastern United States, the agency must consider 346 species, of which 46 are in Arkansas.
Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, spoke against the critical habitat proposal and said told colleagues about Polk County’s long fight with the group over the Arkansas fatmucket.
“I, for one, am going to vigorously fight back every time I see more federal government habitat designations because I’ve lived Wolf Pen Gap,” he told the committee. “I’m living it. We’ve raised over $500,000 locally in trying to win the the Wolf Pen Gap and we’re still losing.”
Timothy J. Ream, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said a lawsuit is being considered in an effort keep sediment from getting into Board Camp Creek and disturbing the mussel’s habitat several miles downstream.
He said his group is reviewing a draft environmental impact assessment released earlier this month by the Ouachita National Forest managers.
“They have known for some time that they have a big problem out there,” Ream said. “They’ve got a problem because the Arkansas fatmucket is being affected by the (ATV) riding out there and they have never engaged in consultation under the Endangered Species Act to determine whether what they are doing is causing jeopardy to the continued existence of that native Arkansas mussel.”
Ream said his cursory review of the assessment made him think it falls short of what is needed to protect the mussel. He said his group would provide comments to the Ouachita National Forest managers.
“Based on a closer review and how the agency behaves between now and then, we’ll have to decide whether we actually end up filing (a lawsuit),” he said.
Ellison said the county has worked with the U.S. Forest Service in the last two years to make environmental improvements to the 40 miles of trails in the system, including catchment basins, culverts, gravel and other maintenance in an effort to reduce the amount of sediment that flows into the creek.
“They’ve even bought some specialized mini-trail equipment to work on these things, keep them maintained,” he said, adding that the county paved the road that leads to the trail heads the last two years.
“So, we’ve got plans way ahead to do things and it just seems crazy to us that a group like that Center for Biological Diversity would come in and start making demands and bring a suit,” he said.
Ellison said he and a coalition of groups across the state, including the Association of Arkansas Counties, the Arkansas Farm Bureau and the Nature Conservancy, also working to create the Arkansas Unpaved Roads Program, which will offer grants to counties that work to reduce environmental hazards along creeks.
“We want to be proactive on the sedimentation issue and we also want to inoculate ourselves in some way. If we are able to be proactive we might be able to bat back some of this potential litigation,” he said.
The county judge said the group is still recruiting members and is working to raise money.
“There are a lot of remote areas that a county judge … is just not going to spend a ton of money on because they’re in areas that don’t have a lot of traffic,” he said. “A lot of these hot spots, where the sedimentation is the biggest problem is in some of these pristine creeks. What we want to do is provide the county some of the funding so we can fix these hot spots and reduce some of the sedimentation.”
Ellison is scheduled to discuss the program at a Nov. 21 meeting of the Senate and House transportation committees in Texarkana.