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People power vs. power industry 

click to enlarge Natural beauty, national symbol, at Eureka parade.
  • Natural beauty, national symbol, at Eureka parade.

Eureka Springs, where my spouse and I have a second home, loves a parade. Most any holiday becomes an excuse for Eureka Springs to put its joyful quirkiness on display with a march down Spring Street to the Basin Park.

Just over a year ago, those parades began to get a decidedly orange tinge. Activists carrying orange signs and wearing orange T-shirts with a slashed-out "SWEPCO" began to become visible in each parade to display their opposition to a proposal by the region's power supplier to construct a mammoth 345 kV transmission line across Benton and Carroll counties. Rather than petering out, the number of Save the Ozarks activists in parades has become larger and, this being Eureka Springs, the displays more creative. At this year's Fourth of July parade, the highlight was the protestors' impressive man-made eagle with one person inside and two others flapping its wings. It served as a double entendre, simultaneously denoting the national symbol and the natural beauty of the Ozarks.

Parade visibility is only one sign of Save the Ozarks' vibrancy across time. All over Carroll County, orange signs that went up in yards and on roadsides remain omnipresent.

More importantly, any community meeting on the subject becomes standing room only. Last summer saw hundreds testify at multiple days of public hearings on the subject (with all but one in opposition). In a community where conflict abounds, such unanimity is unheard of.

All told, 6,000 verbal and written comments in opposition to the project were submitted. Most recently, a meeting with the area's two legislators — Sen. Bryan King and Rep. Bob Ballinger, who have been slow to voice their opposition to the project — drew over 200 residents. Somewhat stunningly, Ballinger admitted his error in not being more emphatically opposed to the project earlier, tweeting: "I'm not as involved as I should have been. I'm against it 100 percent."

In addition to the success in moving legislators to their side, the movement, with the assistance of good legal work, has had success in the place that matters most: the Arkansas Public Service Commission, the entity that must approve any project. In January, a PSC administrative law judge approved a route for the 345 kV transmission line from the Shipe Road station in Centerton up into Missouri, then south to the proposed 345 kV Kings River station in Berryville.

While disappointing to activists who opposed approval of any route, there were two victories for Save the Ozarks in this ruling: First, in a fairly unprecedented move, the PSC explicitly considered the "aesthetic impact" of the project in rejecting a cheaper, shorter route that would have come straight through several small towns and near Eureka Springs, marring sight lines of the natural beauty of the area. Second, the routing into Missouri created predictable backlash and new administrative hurdles in a state where SWEPCO does not provide service. In response to appeals from both sides, the PSC then took a bigger step to vacate the original PSC decision and to mandate a rehearing to further consider both whether the project is needed at all and its environmental impact.

A couple of years ago, a report I produced for the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel noted Arkansas's tradition of pragmatic progressivism. The report also concluded, however, that Arkansans' distrust of the value of working together on community causes — what social scientist Robert Putnam would term a social capital deficit — created significant roadblocks to the full flourishing of that progressive tradition. Locales with higher levels of social capital (evidenced by civic engagement, norms of social trust and work in voluntary associations) are more likely to be more thoroughly progressive in public policy outcomes.

The combination of traditionalism and anarchism that provided the cultural basis for Arkansas's political development were a one-two cultural punch against the development of a healthy civic culture. In a recent analysis, Arkansas is ranked 39th in "civic culture" (i.e. social capital) among the states.

No matter the final outcome of the battle over the transmission line, the Save the Ozarks movement is proof of the power of grassroots organizing as a force in shaping policy outcomes. The odds have been stacked against the activists from the beginning, but sustained collective action is creating a fair fight with a powerful interest. There's an important lesson to be learned here as Arkansas politics moves forward.

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