Rich hunters, poor town clash over power plant

A duck causes ripples on the surface of Grassy Lake as it gains altitude at Hempstead County Hunting Club near Fulton, Ark.
A duck causes ripples on the surface of Grassy Lake as it gains altitude at Hempstead County Hunting Club near Fulton, Ark.Danny Johnston / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The barbed-wire fence surrounding the Hempstead County Hunting Club divides more than property lines. It separates rich from poor.

On one side: wealthy duck hunters who have preserved a private forested paradise largely untouched by chain saws. On the other: the people of this struggling Arkansas town where jobs are scarce and families live in run-down trailers.

The hunters are now waging a bitter legal battle over construction of a coal-fired power plant, and the dispute has laid bare the class tensions that have long beset this rural area.

Townspeople welcome the new facility because it will bring jobs and valuable tax revenue. But club members fear the plant will spew pollutants that cause acid rain, threatening the pristine hunting grounds they have protected for more than a century.

"If it was my land, I'd argue too, especially if it was virgin cypress," said David Foster, a professor of biology and environmental sciences at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. "That's pretty special."

Legend has it that the hunting club started in the late 1800s, when a timber baron stumbled upon trees so beautiful he couldn't bear to cut them down. He bought up nearly seven square miles and wrote a charter to preserve it forever.

The club is a wonderland of cypress groves, winding paths and a lake so thick with plants that unsuspecting dogs still think they are walking on land, not water.

Yet poverty and blight are never far away. Car parts, propane tanks and washing machines are abandoned on dry grass between trailers. Some people throw their trash on the side of the road. Others burn garbage in their backyards, fouling the air with acrid smoke and the unmistakable smell of waste.

On the other side of the fence, litter is unknown.

"This is ours," club member Yancey Reynolds said. "It doesn't belong to everybody else. And the reason you don't see people all over and trash all over is because it's privately owned."

John Pettit, a former sheriff's deputy who now helps to build the power plant, sees the hunters not as stewards of the environment but as wealthy elites trying to save their weekend homes.

"That's all it is," he said. "It's the rich guys trying to keep us poor people down."

The hunting preserve is a rarity in the Arkansas timberlands southwest of Little Rock, where logging crews routinely clear tracts of forest, then plant cheap replacement trees in neat little rows.

That's why hunters and others treasure the club's land, which has stood uncut since before Europeans arrived in North America.

"There's no other place like it," said Kelly Irwin, a herpetologist with the state's Game and Fish Commission. "It's the whole ecosystem there."

One researcher called it a biologist's paradise.

It's not hard to see why. The sky comes alive with birds most children only see in schoolbooks. At Grassy Lake, plants with names like pennywort and duckweed coat the water. Bushes of bay leaves perfume the air.

Access to these natural marvels does not come cheap. Hunters who want to use the club have to buy shares of it.

Reynolds paid less than $10,000 for his share around 1970. At the time, he was a newlywed earning $1.60 an hour at a concrete plant. One of the club's 50 shares — if any were available — would cost six figures today, he said.

"I'm not rich," said Reynolds, who now makes his living selling land to timber companies. Neither, he says, are the other hunters — a high school math teacher, a gynecologist, a few attorneys.

Reynolds, 67, used to spends weekends at the club. Now, he and his wife live there year-round in a cabin. It's the sort of setting where a young couple might dream of growing old.

On the lake, he cruises around on a boat, inches above alligators and snakes lurking below. Ducks' wings wrinkle the water like stones skipped from the shore. He points to a bald eagle's nest.

"We don't want to disturb her a whole lot," he says, steering the boat in the opposite direction.

Back inside the cabin, Reynolds retrieves a photo from a shelf guarded by a rolling library ladder. He and former Gov. Mike Huckabee are dressed in camouflage.

"He and I are hunting-friends," Reynolds said.

Then his face turns serious as he describes the fight over the power plant: "Say that someone just came in and poisoned your dog. Would you like that? Would it be something that would make you unhappy? Or would you fight against it?"

Scientists aren't certain how the power plant will affect the forest.

The hunters' claims are "probably overblowing it a little bit," said Foster, citing smoke-scrubbing equipment at modern coal plants that helps prevent acid rain.

But Michael Slattery, who directs the Institute for Environmental Studies at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, says all coal plants emit some pollutants, even those equipped with the latest green technology.

"You can put this technology in, but you're still going to produce sulfur," Slattery said. "You're still going to produce nitrogen oxide."

Proponents of the power plant estimate a marble-sized amount of mercury will affect the local communities — including Grassy Lake — over the plant's lifetime. The hunters say the actual amount is hundreds of pounds per year.

A few miles from the lake, the skeleton of the half-built power plant rises out of an old pine tree farm. The sharp clank of metal striking metal can be heard across the countryside. Men in fluorescent vests and hard hats push wheelbarrows of steaming tar.

This is what economic development looks like. The project has created more than 1,600 construction jobs and will offer 110 permanent positions once the power plant begins producing electricity.

Since starting his construction job, Pettit has been able to buy a car, a truck and a boat. He used to make $23,000 a year as a sheriff's deputy. Now he makes $37,000, fetching tools for other workers and sometimes running the elevator at night.

"We hope they'll build another one," Pettit said. "Let's build three or four. I don't care. Let's keep it going."

When it's finished, the plant will produce 600 megawatts, enough to power about 450,000 homes. But more important to people here, the $1.7 billion facility will bring a tax base that could revive local schools.

Heavy investment
The utility behind the project, Southwestern Electric Power Company, has invested heavily in the area, donating tens of thousands of dollars for community activities and facilities and another $1 million to a community college to train people for job openings.

"I ain't seen them hunting clubs donate nothing yet," Pettit said. "They need to grow up and go back home where they come from and let the people that actually live here finally have something here."

Support for the plant is evident throughout the towns of Fulton and McNab, about 125 miles southwest of Little Rock. They have a combined population of less than 300 people.

A sign on one boarded-up building reads: "City of McNab Welcomes The SWEPCO team."

Three judges could decide in the coming weeks whether to halt construction of the plant. In the meantime, both sides wait, hoping the other will give up. The hunters want the electric company to abandon the plant. The people in town want the hunters to abandon their lawsuits.

Pettit, 44, once went fishing on Grassy Lake, before the hunters closed their land a few decades ago. These days, an electric gate and a password guard the entrance.

"Nowadays, they'll throw you into jail if you try to go in there," he said.

When Pettit goes home after his shift ends at 3 a.m., the power plant glows orange in the distance. Down the road and behind the fence, an inky blackness cloaks the hunting grounds.

"You come out here at night and take a light and shine around, you just see red eyes everywhere," Reynolds says. "That's the alligators. Like tail lights on a car."