By Tom McClure, OS Conservation Co-chair

      We have all inherited 2.6 million acres of national forest land here in Arkansas. That’s 7.6% of the land area of the entire state, which is 34 million acres.  These lands are a treasure, impacting our lives in so many positive ways.  For a good portion of us, these wonderful places are firmly tied to our sense of well-being, and our hopes and dreams for the future.  We want the “The Natural State” to live up to its motto over the long term.   We know and appreciate what the Ouachita and Ozark National Forests have meant to us in our lifetimes, and we want them to be here, in good shape, for generations to come.  

       These lands house much of the state’s biological diversity.  Our native plants and animals dwell here, in a variety of habitats.  Some of these species are rare and need special attention from us to help assure their survival into the future.  These forests maintain elaborate ecosystems that we are still trying to understand.  They provide a place to learn about nature and a place to learn about our relationship with nature. 

        National forests protect our water.  These forests act as huge filters to keep our water clean, drinkable, and swimmable, and also act to slow down the water flow into creeks and rivers.  This circuitous water flow occurs as raindrops hit leaves on the branches of trees, and then meander through the detritus on the forest floor, replenishing groundwater and filling surface tributaries, in an age-old process that leads to a relatively steady flow of clean, life-giving water into our streams.  These forests help enable this process of clean water production, while at the same time reducing flooding and erosion.   

     These forests are a favorite destination for outdoor recreation of all kinds.  They provide a wild component, and feature a landscape size, providing a setting that is appealing to a large segment of the population.  The water here is often clear and clean, and the air is usually very clean too.  The woods extend for miles and miles, offering pleasing scenic views.  People from Arkansas and surrounding states enjoy spending time here, and many plan recreational outings here.  Some plan their vacations here, and often come back again and again.

     So, what can we do as citizens, and as an organization, to be a positive force for these remarkable public forests?  One way is to personally get involved.  Participate in the opportunities that the Forest Services now offers, under laws that have been passed by Congress over the past several decades.  These laws are specifically designed to provide for the participation of ordinary citizens in the planning and management of these lands owned by all of us.  You can do this by calling the Ouachita and Ozark National Forest offices in Hot Springs (501-321-5202) and Russellville (479-964-7200) and ask to be put on the email list to receive SOPA (Schedule of Proposed Actions).  This will allow you to keep up with projects and send in comments at appropriate times.  

       It is especially important to send in comments during the “Scoping Period” for a given project, and then to continue to comment at the various stages of the project after scoping.  This allows for your opinions to be considered early in the game, so they can be considered when the decisions are still being formulated, and when your requests can more easily be incorporated in the project plan. 

 You can also participate and make a difference by responding to requests by Brian Thompson and other Ozark Society leaders, to send in comments on important issues.          

     These selective email “blasts” that go to the entire Ozark Society membership, or sometimes just to a particular chapter’s membership, are usually for high priority situations when your involvement is extremely important and timely.

     Thank you for your usual strong responses to these special requests.  Your thoughtful input to state and federal agencies, as well as to elected officials, has proved to be a powerful and effective force in determining outcomes on important issues. 

    During the past two or three years, several of us from the Ozark Society have held meetings with staff members of the Ouachita and Ozark National Forests.   These meetings have helped us learn more about issues facing Forest Service employees, and hear their concerns about current and future forest management.  The meetings have also provided an opportunity for us to share our concerns and suggestions, and to search for win-win situations where the Ozark Society and the Forest Service can work together to achieve common goals. 

      These meetings and other communications allow us to hear about and weigh in on Forest Service projects early in the planning process.  Once again, our efforts are more productive when we are involved in the early planning stages of a given project.  It reminds me of a quote I saw on a friend’s office wall one time, “If you’re not making dust, you’re eating dust.”

      In the course of our meetings with Forest Service personnel, we have met some talented and dedicated people, who are willing to listen to and consider the ideas and concerns of the Ozark Society, while of course also listening to other groups as well, who represent a wide range of perspectives about how the forests should be managed.  As representatives of the Ozark Society, we acknowledge the need for many different uses of the national forests.  

      However, we are there to be a strong and consistent voice for wilderness, wild and scenic rivers, special interest areas, scenic areas, botanical areas, zoological areas, and research natural areas.  We advocate for creeks and rivers, including keeping them clean and protecting the native aquatic life found there.  We ask for the protection of rare and endangered species and their habitats, and support a sustainable future for all native plants and animals.  We encourage the Forest Service to consider and plan for the protection of wildlife corridors, seasonal migration routes, and wild places, so that bears, bobcats, bats, different species of migrating birds, and other wide-ranging types of wildlife will be able to maintain healthy, genetically diverse populations. 

       There is a brown, wooden Forest Service sign on Highway 270 about 5 miles west of Mount Ida that reads, “If Not You, Who?”.  And there’s another Forest Service sign just down the road a few miles farther west that reads, “A Forest’s Future is in Your Hands”.  I don’t know who put the messages on these signs, but I am going to assume that they are talking to me, and to other members of the Ozark Society.

       There are a sizeable number of people in the Forest Service, and in other federal and state agencies, who welcome and appreciate the input and participation of the Ozark Society.  They depend on us to be there to speak up, and use our voice to be advocates.  Please join in to help where you can to make our voice stronger and our efforts more meaningful and effective.