At Water’s Edge – the End of an Era

Many people who have been to or visited Arkansas have likely heard mention of the Heber Springs area, or know where the Greers Ferry Lake is. Heber Springs is a small community resting at water’s edge, just south of the Greers Ferry Lake and the Little Red River. Because of its location on the beautiful lake, which is a reservoir of water between 30,000 and 40,000 acres with around 340 miles of combined shoreline, Heber Springs has become a popular spot for tourism as well as a prime location for relocation for retirees. Heber Springs has more then 7,000 residents as of the 2010 census. Nestled in a valley with landmarks such as Sugarloaf Mountain and Spring Park, Heber Springs has a relatively low crime rate and lower taxes, which, combined with the natural beauty, make it a wonderful vacation spot and peaceful place to live. But that peace may soon come to an end, as many recent developments threaten the livelihood of Heber Springs, as well as many other communities which have thrived on Greers Ferry Lake.

Heber Springs, Arkansas and cities just like it in the area may be wonderful vacation and retirement spots, but due to the poor economy in recent years, I am pained to admit they haven’t got a whole lot going for them other then the booming economy produced by the Greers Ferry Lake and Little Red River and the natural beauty of their surrounding areas. But why does the economy of some small little nothing town in Arkansas really matter? Maybe to most it doesn’t. But the Greers Ferry Lake supplies the drinking water not just for Heber Springs, but many other local communities. As more and more water sources get used up or contaminated, even relatively smaller sources of clean drinking water become important resources. And the Little Red River, where the world-record brown trout was caught in 1992 (a record which was held for nearly 17 years), provides not only beautiful scenery, but is also a huge boom to the entire state’s fishing industry. With the recent closings of most of the major factories in Heber Springs, including the recent closing of the glove factory, Heber Springs and its surrounding areas have become increasingly dependent on the income produced by tourism. People flock from all over to spend time out on the beautiful lake, whether they are camping and swimming at Dam Site Recreational Park, fishing on the Little Red River, or coasting through the waters on their personal watercraft and boats. The need for lodging and recreational actives spawned from the booming tourism industry has created many small business opportunities in the small central Arkansas town and other surrounding areas such as Greers Ferry and Fairfield Bay. And yet, if things continue as they are going, the town of Heber Springs may lose its last remaining source of income, an economic downfall which will have local and national effects.

To understand the small town’s impact, one first would want to look at the histories involved. Heber Springs was incorporated in October of 1882. It would seem that Heber Springs was fated to be dependent upon tourism from the beginning, as it was made popular for its natural mineral springs. The seven springs are located in Spring Park in the center of Heber Springs, just down the street from the Court Square. This was only the beginning of tourism in Heber. Government officials purchased the lands which are now Greers Ferry Lake so that they could be allowed to flood, beginning the formation of the lake. In essence, the local and federal governments essentially made the town of Heber Springs, which saw an increase in population during and after the construction of the Greers Ferry Dam. With the construction of the dam, which completed in December 1962 before being dedicated in October of 1963 by John F. Kennedy (one of his last major public appearances before his assassination on November 22nd), the Greers Ferry Lake was formed. Four small communities including the town of Higden, which was moved up on a hill where it exists today, were submerged in the formation of the lake, a fact which many protested. The story of the original Higden is in of itself an interesting little tale – many local residents of the Heber Springs and Higden areas maintain that several homes still remain underwater, like an eerie watery graveyard underneath the lake. The Greers Ferry Dam was intended to be used for flood control, as the Little Red River caused yearly flooding downstream. But the dam also serves the purpose of generating hydroelectric power and the reservoir of water created by its construction supplies drinking water to many communities. Just below the dam is the Little Red River and fish hatchery, which supplies a large supply of trout to the river each year. In fact, it is this fish hatchery which I consider to be the source of the first final nail in Heber Spring’s coffin.

As many are aware, the subject of the United States National Budget, as well as its increasingly tremendous deficit, is a subject of much debate. In fact, earlier this year, the United States barely avoided a government shut down due to many disagreements over the federal budgets. And to some, factors inside the proposed budgets that pertain to national fish hatcheries may not seem like a big deal. But to me, someone who was born and raised in the seemingly insignificant town of Heber Springs, items pertaining to the national fish hatcheries are in fact a big deal. If the proposed budget cuts go through as planned, funding will be cut out for nine national fish hatcheries, two of which are located in Arkansas. The fish hatcheries affected include the hatchery in Norfolk and the hatchery on the Greers Ferry Lake. I don’t know a lot about the Norfolk hatchery, but living in Heber Springs all my life, I’m well aware of the Greers Ferry Lake hatchery, and what it means to not just the city of Heber Springs, but the entire state of Arkansas. If the budget cuts go through as planned, funding will be cut for the operations of the hatcheries in question. The Greers Ferry Lake National Fish Hatchery raises and releases enormous amounts of trout into the Little Red River each year. The cold water of the river keeps tropical fish from thriving. But with the assistance of the Fish Hatchery, rainbow trout and brown trout are able to thrive in the area, making the Little Red River a prime location for anglers all over the country. And these anglers who are out to catch the next world-record trout have a need for food, lodging, bait, fishing equipment, boating equipment, and a whole host of other items related to the marine and fishing industries. And it is that need that has caused cities such as Heber Springs to thrive, providing so many small business opportunities.

The fish hatchery itself provided around 750 job opportunities in 2010. It is estimated that for every $1.00 that the Greers Ferry Lake National Fish Hatchery receives in funding, $113.00 in economic benefit is generated from its operations. Those benefits are not only seen locally, but nationally as well, as those revenues generate tax revenue for the State and Federal Governments. Now forgive me, as I am certainly no financial analyst, but it seems to me that working to decrease the national debt by cutting programs which earn a return of such significance seems to me a fool’s errand. If federal funding is cut, and no alternative source of funding is established, it is very likely that the national fish hatcheries effected will be forced to close. And that essentially means one thing at least for the Little Red River; no trout. The Little Red River is said to not be able to sustain the amounts of trout it has now without assistance from the hatchery’s operations. With no trout, there will be no anglers flocking to spend their money in the area. With no anglers spending money, local businesses will be forced into closure. And for Heber Springs, an area where there are really no longer any factories or industries to provide job opportunities that aren’t derived from tourism, the town may very well just dry up. Although the impact of the lose of Heber Spring’s source of income probably won’t be felt by most, it would still have a very sound impact on many people, as well as the state and local governments. We all know what happens when businesses close; people are forced out of their jobs. With little other local job opportunities, that will mean more people will be on unemployment, which will put a further drain on the local and national economies. With businesses closed, the suppliers of those local businesses will see a decrease in their own sales, putting strain on their bottom lines. Even the smallest of things, like the closing of a fish hatchery in a small little town that so few have heard of, can have a substantial trickle-down effect.

The strains felt will be both financial and emotional. I wasn’t really blessed with a good memory, so in all honesty I have few stories to tell about my childhood. But I remember visiting the fish hatchery when I was just a very young child. My family didn’t have much money, and the fish hatchery was somewhere you could go for free. I remember the outdoor trenches full of raging water and brown trout, jumping over each other. I remember reaching down into the trenches where the fish, some nearly as big as me, were just out of reach, and wondering if the fish kept swimming hard enough if they could make it out of the trenches. I remember hoping they didn’t manage to jump out, even though they seemed so eager to make it out of their little miniature rivers, because even then when I was so young, I understood fishies couldn’t live out of water. I didn’t understand then how important those little fishies were, nor did I understand the importance or responsibilities of the facility where they were raised. But I certainly do now. Living on the lake and working in the marine industry, I understand the importance of all those fishers and all those boaters and all those people buying life vests and tubes and water toys who come to live and vacation in Heber Springs. Without them, and the resources they supply, Heber Springs would not have a local economy to speak of. I would not have a job, and the people that I work for would not have the great business that they have worked years to establish. And so many others would be either out of a job, or see the end of their businesses which have, for some, been in their family for years.

I had a childhood friend growing up who’s family owns Lindsey’s Rainbow Resort, a well known vacation spot on the Little Red. Lindsey’s Rainbow Resort rests on the banks of the Little Red River, where you can rent a cabin for your stay in Heber Springs, and rent a boat to go out on the river to fish or just to sight-see. It began as the dream of Bill Lindsey – a man who was affectionately called “Pop” by any of those who knew him – and his wife Mavis – who everyone called “Nana.” And though Bill Lindsey has passed away, his children still continue to run the resort and the Pot of Gold Restaurant. The resort is out a ways from the town, allowing for a little of that isolated-but-not-out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere feel. The natural scenery surrounding the area is just gorgeous. I have so many fond memories spending time at the Resort with my friends while I was growing up. We would often all happily camp ourselves out in a cabin where we had so much fun. I have such fond memories, like staying up all night to sit out in the cold to watch a meteor shower. Or getting up the next morning to help carry one of our friends who did actually fall asleep outside, where we managed to duct tape her, blankets and all to a picnic table without her so much as stirring. A cabin party out at the resort is also where I learned that Pepsi and Apple-Jacks just do not mix. These memories, and so many others, were possible because businesses like the Lindsey’s Rainbow Resort are able to exist and thrive on the Little Red River thanks to the amazing trout fishing. So without the assistance of the Greers Ferry Lake Fish Hatchery, places like the resort won’t stand a chance once trout fishing is no longer possible.

So many other local families have been able to establish a thriving business for themselves thanks to the benefits of the Little Red, the Greers Ferry Lake, and the fish hatchery. And yet, these wonderful memories could all be forgotten if the funding we need to continue to thrive is cut off. I know that the lives and families affected don’t mean much to the federal government and its mounting debt, as their job is to support the nation as a whole. But I am a businesswoman, and I know what is important to them, and that’s keeping tax dollars flowing. And as a businesswoman, I can easily understand that if we can turn one dollar into one-hundred and thirteen dollars, of which the local and federal governments can take their cut to support other operations that need the tax dollars, then from the monetary stand-point alone, projects like the nine national fish hatcheries which face potential closings should be allowed to continue.

However, my story does not end here. Everything that I’ve mentioned above may in fact be meaningless if the second final coffin nail I mentioned comes to pass. Heber Springs and its surrounding areas may face another, possibly more devastating blow. Public property in Heber Springs is supposedly being leased out to a gas and oil company for potential drilling for gas. Gas companies also have been given approval to conduct seismic surveys under the Greers Ferry Lake itself, further jeopardizing the Heber Springs area. The point of the surveys is supposedly to complete seismic maps of the area, but the surveys also will be useful in pin-pointing areas which may have potential for gas drilling in the future. Two of the three scheduled surveys have already been conducted. Although the companies involved claim that no negative impacts to the environment will occur, anyone who is familiar with the history of the oil and gas industries knows full well that such claims are usually little more then fairy tales. You just can’t control mother-nature, and even with all the planning in the world, you never know what may happen.

There are a whole host of potential hazards that could befall Heber Springs, Greers Ferry Lake, and its surrounding areas if gas drilling – or more specifically the fracturing, or “fracking” which is involved in the drilling of gas – is allowed to be conducted in the area. For starters, the chemicals which are produced by gas fracturing could contaminate the Greers Ferry Lake and Little Red River, both of which could effect other bodies of water which they feed into. And lets face it, if the water is contaminated, we don’t even need to worry about whether the hatcheries will be forced to close, because no one wants to fish in potentially contaminated waters. Just the belief that the waters could end up being contaminated by the gas drilling will likely put a significant dent in the local fishing industry. And don’t forget, I did say that the Greers Ferry Lake supplies the drinking water for several local communities. I believe the likelihood that our local water supply could end up being contaminated due to gas and oil company’s efforts in the area is already very apparent. On May 20th, 20 barrels, the labels of which indicated that they could contain fracking chemicals, were found at Choctaw Creek near Clinton Arkansas, which is upstream from the Greers Ferry Lake. And although as of May 23rd, officials are saying that the barrels were in fact empty, I believe this to be a sign that contamination can very easily occur if it hasn’Ëœt already.

Aside from the obvious contamination risks, an even more obvious threat is that drilling holes into the ground can cause instability. The city of Guy, which is relatively close to the city of Heber Springs, has seen an increase in seismic activity in the form of earthquakes. Although the reasons for the increased activity could always remain unknown, I’m certain there are many that attribute the increase in earthquakes to nearby drilling efforts. If gas drilling were allowed in Heber Springs or under the Greers Ferry Lake, it stands to reason that increased earthquake activity could very well happen here. Although I am certain all measures will be taken to prevent seismic activity from occurring, taking items out of the ground and putting something else back in can very easily cause instabilities that are unforeseen. As many local residents will tell you, Heber Springs, an area which is not prone to earthquakes, would be put at great risk if earthquake activity increased. I don’Ëœt know much about whether or not the dam could withstand much seismic activity, but I know I’Ëœm not alone in feeling that we should do all we can to make sure we never have to find out. And if the Greers Ferry Dam were to become damaged or break, frankly we won’t be worried about the town “drying up” but rather “floating away.” No one could really be certain of the impact to the city itself, and I’m sure none of us ever want to find out. But I believe that if the dam broke, the areas along the Little Red River – like my childhood playground the Lindsey’s Resort – could very well be totally wiped out, although that is just my own fears and speculation. I believe that the risk to this small town, and others just like it, is not worth whatever returns we might be able to produce from the discovery and use of oil or gas. Because it is certainly true that the drilling efforts, as well as the revenue earned from the spending of gas and oil employees now filling the areas, could prove to be a help to the local economy rather then a hindrance. But it is my personal belief that the risks are far too great.

I don’t believe I am alone in my protest of the goings on in the Heber Springs area. I have hope that this message reaches people who may not have heard of Greers Ferry Lake or Heber Springs, but will agree that the risk to our homes and to our environment are too great. I put this information out there – which is all my own personal speculations and can not be considered fact – in case something dire does befall Heber Springs. I mean no offence, and am certainly not denying the potential for revenue creation some of the proposed changes can make. I am merely making my opinion known that the risks far outweigh the rewards. And I want others to be aware that some of us did fight against it, if only in our own small ways. I guess it’s the pessimist in me. But I wanted to put this little rant together in case my sleepy little Heber Springs does dry up or get washed away, if only to prove that we were here once, and we did thrive at water’s edge. Perhaps its fate. The government made this town when the Greers Ferry Dam was created. Maybe its fate that it’s a government decision that could put an end to the town they created. Or maybe its just uselessly random stupidity. Because although we don’t make a huge impact on the nation as a whole, those of us at water’s edge do play our part. A part that it should be our choice whether or not to continue to play, and no one else’s.

(I have no involvement with the creation of the pages below, and am not responsible for their content.) The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture Cotter, Arkansas Tourism Foundation Blog
(This link provides several other useful links for finding information about protesting the upcoming changes that are threatening Heber Springs and its surrounding areas) Heber Springs Area Chamber of Commerce Greers Ferry Lake’s,_Arkansas Wikipedia’s Heber Springs Arkansas Page