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Members of the governor's Buffalo River Conservation Committee voted Thursday to approve funding for improvements to two unpaved roads in the watershed.

Approximately 3,493 feet of the Cane Branch Road in Searcy County and 2 miles of the Cave Mountain Road to Hawksbill Crag in Newton County are scheduled for improvements under the proposal.

Officials on the committee estimated the total cost to the state at $570,979, with an additional $110,263 supplied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's nonpoint source management program.

Unpaved roads can degrade water quality because of erosion and sedimentary runoff.

The Buffalo River Conservation Committee was created by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in September 2019 to protect and enhance the quality of the watershed, a popular tourist draw in northern Arkansas that is home to the country's first national river.

The genesis of the committee followed years of controversy over C&H Hog Farms, an industrial hog farm located in the watershed. It finally closed in January under a deal with the state.

The work on Cave Mountain Road is intended to widen the road, create culverts and drainage, put in packed clay and gravel, and apply the surface treatment known as chipseal, according to Tony Ramick, Agriculture Department division manager for nonpoint source management and unpaved road programs.

Guardrails also will be placed at some of the curves on the road, Ramick said.

Ramick said the U.S. National Park Service had agreed to do the assessment work for the road improvements, "contingent on a commitment of funding" from the Buffalo River Conservation Committee. The assessments are estimated to take nine months to a year, he said.

The funding decisions of the committee, including the money allocated for road improvements, are expected to be presented Wednesday at a joint meeting of the Arkansas House and Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committees.

Other sites under consideration for road improvements included Lone Beach Church Road and County Road 6450, both in Newton County, along with Richland Road in Searcy County, according to Ramick.

Arkansas Department of Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward, chair of the Buffalo River Conservation Committee, referred to the the list of potential unpaved road sites and encouraged members to keep "identifying the need, [and] documenting the need" even if funding is not available at the moment.

That work will be especially helpful as the committee prepares to create an annual report at the end of the year to submit to Hutchinson and the Legislature, Ward said.

The report will allow members to "show what we've done with the funding that we have, but also demonstrate and show what we've identified that additional funding could be used for," Ward said during the meeting.

Broader conservation goals for the Buffalo River experienced a setback recently when the Arkansas Legislature in June voted down a proposal from state environmental regulators to permanently ban medium and large hog farms from operating in the watershed.

The governor, along with conservation groups like the Ozark Society and the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, had supported the proposed permanent moratorium. Arkansas Farm Bureau opposed the measure.

At the time, legislators expressed concerns about the potential impact on agriculture around the state.

Although Thursday's meeting held via teleconference was the first full meeting of the Buffalo River Conservation Committee since the proposed hog-farm ban died in the Legislature, members did not address the issue.

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